The UK Tories want a veto over Scottish democracy. We must resist.
Last week the UK Government published a White Paper on proposals to maintain the “UK Internal Market”. It’s now clear however that this dry, technical sounding initiative is cover for sweeping new laws that would undermine environmental and social protections across the UK and fundamentally change the devolution settlement, putting the Scottish Parliament in a straitjacket by giving the UK Government a veto on everything it does.
There will always be areas where there’s a need to cooperate and work together; many of those areas were previously dealt with at EU level, so the UK’s Brexit project is the main reason this has come up now. But cooperation would still be needed on many issues even if we were independent, and devolution has shown how it can be achieved when there is mutual respect.
But instead of working with the devolved parliaments to agree common legislation that is supported by all four countries, the Tory Government’s plan is to press ahead without support and impose the new laws on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by relying on English MPs in Westminster to vote the legislation through.
This is a dangerous, anti-environment and undemocratic law that must be resisted, which is why I’m writing today to the UK Government asking them to withdraw these proposals now.
The Scottish Parliament is there to allow us to take our own path, but now all divergence will be treated as suspect.
The fundamental purpose of the Scottish Parliament is to allow Scotland to take its own decisions based on the Scottish public’s needs and desires, and to respond to our unique economic and social circumstances. Yet the White Paper is based on a central principle that is in direct conflict with this: that divergence between the UK countries is a risk that impedes business growth, creates confusion and undermines our economy. To avoid this and ensure a “frictionless internal market” is in place, Boris Johnson’s government proposes sweeping new laws that would, in effect, allow Westminster to set standards across all devolved policy areas and require that law made in the devolved Parliaments adheres to this. Anything done by Holyrood or the Scottish Government that could be perceived as directly or indirectly discriminatory towards business could be challenged and struck down. Even measures taken for clear reasons of public health or environmental protection would be at risk. Effectively, London will have a veto on the Scottish Parliament, Stormont and the Senedd.
Whereas the EU set minimum standards, UK standards will act as a limit to progress
When we were in the EU common standards would be agreed between Member States, including the UK. These would apply to a wide range of issues such as food, environmental and labour standards. Bur critically, they acted as minimum standards, allowing countries to go further should they wish. Conversely, the UK Government’s proposals would mean that Westminster sets standards that the devolved nations cannot go beyond. If they say nuclear energy companies must be permitted to bid to build new power stations, or that building standards cannot require high levels of insulation, or that the most polluting vehicles must continue to be permitted everywhere, the Scottish Parliament will have to accept it.
Climate action and environmental protection will be undermined
In fact, the White Paper puts forward building standards as a specific example. The Scottish Government plans to introduce new and more demanding energy efficiency standards for buildings in 2024. It’s worth noting that these are modest plans – some European countries already require that new-builds be zero carbon. Yet under the proposed new rules, this small attempt to reduce emissions could be construed as discriminatory to English constructions firms, as the divergence means “it would become significantly more difficult for construction firms to design and plan projects”. The UK could therefore veto these plans, forcing Scotland to continue to build inefficient, low quality housing.
Recycling is also cited as an area of devolved policy where divergence must be prevented. The Scottish Government are introducing a deposit return system for recyclable bottles, which the White Paper worried “could result [in] additional costs for businesses with operations across different parts of the UK”. Another policy that could make Scotland a better place that could be vetoed at the whim of Whitehall.
As a final example, the Scottish Greens have long campaigned for free public transport to tackle rising emissions from transport, and we successfully pushed the SNP Government to make bus travel free to all under-19s from next year. Yet this could count as a subsidy to the Scottish bus industry, and the White Paper proposes that subsidy control be a reserved power because “a uniform approach is key to our ability to remain a competitive economy”. Essentially any attempt to protect the environment or improve services in Scotland beyond what is done in England could be prevented and even reversed, including Scotland’s effective bans on fracking and new nuclear power, which could easily be construed as discriminatory towards businesses in England that specialise in these technologies.
Privatisation can be forced through and bail-outs prevented
In recent years the Scottish Government has taken a number of strategically important businesses into public ownership, including BiFab, the renewable energy manufacturer, and Ferguson Marine, the ferry manufacturer. The Greens have supported this and we want to see the Scottish Government going much further by, for example, bringing more public transport companies into public ownership and creating a new zero-carbon national energy company. Scotland has also resisted following the English government in gradually privatising the NHS and turning higher education into a market commodity. However, the White Paper suggests this divergent pathway could no longer be an option for Scotland. With subsidies reserved and zero tolerance of “discrimination” it’s hard to see how the Scottish Government could continue to invest in Scottish companies, and a route would open to allow challenges to the retention of NHS Scotland and other services in public hands where they have been privatised in England.
The market comes first, no exceptions
The proposals are so sweeping that the only exception proposed is to address a “public, plant or animal health emergency”. Even World Trade Organisation rules on discrimination contain broad exceptions to allow environmental protection and the protection of human health, for example. The fact is, there is no progress we could make using devolved powers in Scotland that could not be labelled as divergence and a threat to the internal market.
A power surge that will destroy the Scottish Parliament as we know it
On publishing the White Paper, the UK Government sought to divert attention in Scotland claiming there would be a “power surge” to Holyrood as powers previously exercised at EU level would be handed over. But the reality is that these proposals undermine the very concept of a devolved power and are an existential threat to the devolution settlement. Currently Scotland is free to take its own path in devolved areas. Free to keep the NHS in public hands, to prohibit fracking, to provide public transport for free… but these proposals would end that. Of course, the UK Government will insist that whilst the would have the power to strike these policies down they won’t. But they expect us to take their word for it whilst voting against laws that would, for example, explicitly protect the NHS from privatisation. It’s a very clear attempt to turn devolution into a mechanism to just manage things according to the UK’s rules, instead of a democratically legitimate seat of government in Scotland.
A way forward
These proposals have been written by the UK Government to impose their will on the devolved nations without their consent. They are a reminder that the UK is broken and we in Scotland must redouble our efforts to gain independence and re-enter the EU, where common policies are agreed by countries as equals and in a democratic process. But in the meantime this White Paper must be binned and the UK Government needs to start again, and begin to respect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as equals.
The only democratic way of re-writing the relationship between the UK Government and the four nations is to reach a genuine agreement and allow each of the nation’s parliaments to decide if they will approve it, or send the governments back to think again.