In an article for the Herald, Iain Macwhirter wonders aloud whether Nicola Sturgeon's new warnings about the Tories removing powers from the Scottish Parliament may be a sign that the SNP have 'blinked' on the holding of an early independence referendum. I must say my own reading is that the opposite is true - it seemed to me that Ms Sturgeon was simply adding one more casus belli for an indyref to a long and familiar list, and thereby making the case even more watertight. However, I don't base that assessment on any special knowledge of the SNP leadership's private thinking, so we'll just have to wait and see.
On one point Iain is undoubtedly wrong, though. He claims to be setting people straight on their "misunderstanding" that powers over agriculture and fisheries will be automatically transferred to Holyrood after Brexit. He reckons that, instead, the nature of devolution is that Holyrood will in future be constrained on these policy areas by UK law in much the same way that it is currently constrained by EU law. But the reality is that it's Iain who fundamentally misunderstands how the current devolved settlement works. As things stand, Holyrood can only be constrained on devolved matters by EU law. Practically the definition of a devolved power is that it's something UK law cannot constrain - because Holyrood can simply repeal any law of the UK parliament that gets in the way.
Now it's quite likely that Iain is correct in the sense that this will all soon change and that London is determined to re-establish overlordship on agriculture and fisheries - but the point he's missing is for that to happen, the devolved settlement as we know it will essentially have to die. A coach and horses will have to be driven through the Sewel Convention, and powers over agriculture and fisheries will have to be transferred from Edinburgh to London without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. That's not a small matter, so the SNP's anger about it should not be misinterpreted as being synthetic or tactical. Even if we weren't leaving the European Union, I'd suggest the end of the Sewel Convention would in itself be sufficient grounds for holding a second independence referendum.
The extent of Iain's misunderstanding is betrayed when he charges John Swinney with having struggled to come up with examples of powers that are going to be taken away from Holyrood, bearing in mind that the UK government have already said that no power currently held by Holyrood will be removed. But that misses the point that the UK government are (deliberately) talking at cross-purposes with the SNP. When London talk about 'current powers', they're only talking about powers that are in practice currently held in Scotland, and are excluding other powers that are automatically held as of legal right by Scotland unless EU law is there to constrain them. Quite understandably, the SNP do not make that distinction. Agriculture is a devolved matter, not a reserved matter. Unless the Sewel Convention is breached and the devolved settlement ripped up, powers over Scottish agriculture cannot be 'repatriated' from Brussels to London - only from Brussels to Edinburgh. Those powers may not be exercised by us at present, but they already belong to us.
Here's an analogy. You're paying rent to two absentee landlords - one in London, one in Brussels. You're forced to give up the flat owned by the Brussels landlord - but then the London landlord announces that he'll be immediately increasing the rent on his own flat by exactly the amount you were previously paying to Brussels. "You won't really notice the difference, will you?" he says. "You'll be no worse off than you were. In fact, you'll be slightly better off, because after I've hiked the rent, I'll consider giving you a 50p discount. Possibly. If I'm in a good mood."
That's not a natural progression - it's a cynical, opportunistic rip-off.
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