Thursday, May 31, 2018

This barefaced hypocrisy from Ruth Davidson cannot be allowed to stand. Not this time.

I've always thought that equal marriage and abortion law in Northern Ireland are the ultimate tests of how committed you really are to devolution.  You may think you believe that any Westminster interference in devolved matters is abhorrent, but if you find yourself saying "well, obviously abortion in Northern Ireland is different", then no, actually, you don't.  In Northern Ireland, abortion law and the ban on same-sex marriage are devolved matters, just like any other devolved matter.  That doesn't mean you can't have a view on whether there should be a change in the law, but it does mean that the focus for any agitation should be the Northern Ireland Assembly, not Westminster.  Changing the minds of the DUP may seem a hopeless task, but they have a mandate just as the SNP do in Scotland, and the Tories do in England.  If you believe in devolution, winning the argument in the Assembly is the only game in town, and appealing to Westminster for an overrule isn't an option.

(The current suspension of the Assembly doesn't change that calculation for the time being, because as of yet direct rule hasn't been reimposed and Northern Ireland is being run by its own civil service in the theoretical expectation that the Assembly will soon be sitting again.)

That being the case, it would - in normal circumstances - be impossible to fault Ruth Davidson's logic in these comments to the FT...

"If I was a politician in NI I would absolutely 100 % vote to change the law. But as someone who operates in a devolved administration I know how angry I would be if the House of Commons legislated on a domestic Scottish issue over the head of Holyrood"

The snag, of course, is that Westminster is currently in the process, for the first time in the nineteen-year history of devolution, of legislating on multiple devolved Scottish issues in defiance of a specific decision by the Scottish Parliament to withhold consent (or "going over the head of Holyrood" to put it more snappily).  It is doing so with Ruth Davidson's full-blooded support.  I can only say it is staggering that the FT didn't instantly notice this barefaced hypocrisy and challenge her on it.  The fact that they didn't betrays the mindset of the entire London establishment.  It's somehow instinctively understood that the constitutional conventions that make devolution work are optional (and really rather tiresome) when the SNP insist they must be upheld, but magically become set in stone if the subject in dispute is important to the DUP.

Ruth Davidson can't be forced to abandon her opposition to the current devolution settlement and to the Sewel Convention.  But what she can and must be forced to do is choose.  If she believes that Westminster has the right to disregard the Sewel Convention and overrule the Scottish Parliament on the huge range of devolved matters affected by the EU Withdrawal Bill, she must by definition also believe it has the right to overrule the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly on abortion law and marriage equality.  So which is it to be, Ruth?  And is there any chance of our hopeless media getting its act together and actually asking her that question?

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You won't be surprised to hear that I agree with Paul Kavanagh's verdict in The National that Nicola Sturgeon should make clear that "now is not the time" is simply not an acceptable answer, and that the Scottish Government will proceed with seeking a mandate for independence even if a Section 30 order is refused.  However, I do take issue with him on a couple of things.  Firstly, the point of seeking a Section 30 order is not to make a referendum "legally binding".  The 2014 referendum was actually not legally binding - a Yes vote would not have automatically triggered independence.  A better way of putting it is that the Section 30 order made the 2014 vote "politically binding" - it would have been unthinkable for Westminster not to legislate for independence in the event of a Yes vote.

Because of that, Paul believes the likely absence of a Section 30 order means an outright mandate for independence should be sought at the next Holyrood election, and not by means of a consultative referendum.  He thinks that any referendum held without a Section 30 order will be boycotted by the unionist side and would therefore be pointless, because it would be impossible to achieve a high enough turnout to make any Yes victory credible.  I'm not so sure about that.  If, for example, any Referendum Bill survives a legal challenge in the Supreme Court, it will very publicly become recognised as the law of the land, making a boycott that bit harder to justify.  I also feel that a Yes victory in a boycotted vote would be a lot more use to us than is widely understood at the moment.  It would mean that the anti-independence mandate of September 2014 is no longer definitive or unchallenged.  By all means, if the Supreme Court strikes down a Referendum Bill we should then use the next Holyrood election to seek an outright independence mandate, but I struggle to see the harm in pursuing a consultative referendum first.

Apart from anything else, it would give the UK government the dilemma of whether to mount a legal challenge.  It wouldn't have dared to do that in 2012 or 2013.  But it may well do in 2019, because it has come to believe there is never a price to be paid for playing to the British nationalist gallery and trampling on Scotland's democratic rights.  There's going to come a point where there will be a heavy price, and this could well be that moment.

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A pub quiz question for you - which part of Denmark is geographically much closer to Scotland than it is to any other part of Denmark?  Here's a video from the brilliant Phantom Power while you're thinking about that one...