European Union (Withdrawal) Bill [04/12/2017]


Ronnie Cowan MP

Thank you, Dame Rosie. I shall attempt to keep my remarks within the time limit handed down by the Chair, at least 20 minutes ago.

As a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I have been in the privileged position of being able to talk, both formally and informally, with constitutional and political experts about many things, including clause 11. As part of the process of formulating our latest report, the Committee’s Chair, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), and I travelled to Edinburgh and took evidence from panels of experts over two days. It was an enlightening and informative experience.

Under clause 11, a potential 111 powers that could be devolved to Scotland will be held at Westminster until such time as the UK Parliament sees fit to devolve them. The UK Government’s stance is, “Trust us; we’ll do the right thing.” And trust them we have over the years: we trusted them to deliver the Calman report but they did not; we trusted them to deliver on the Smith commission but they did not; we looked to the Sewel convention and we saw right through it; and we listened to, and were influenced by, a vow that was not a vow.

In September 2014, the then Prime Minster David Cameron told us that we were a “family of nations”. We were told that Scotland could lead, not that the Government would attempt to put a lead on Scotland, but every amendment requested by SNP MPs, who were democratically elected to represent the citizens of Scotland, was voted down. When we voted to stay in the EU, our views were ignored. When we asked to sit at the table during the negotiations, we were snubbed. I can assure the Minister that the words “the cheque is in the post” and the promise that you will respect me in the morning will not work any more.

I am well aware of the cold, hard fact that the UK Government do not have to do anything, but Scotland is not a faithful hunting dog standing at its master’s heel, waiting on its orders. Scotland in the Union is a concept rooted in the past. The ties that bind us come from, in part, a shared history—a history of conflict and conquest—but the sun set on the empire a long time ago. It might come as a surprise to some, but 59 colonies have walked away from the empire and, as a new dawn rises, so does Scotland. We want a different future from the one set out for us, but Scotland cannot choose its own future when we have to seek permission to do so.

Clause 11 does not set out a timetable for transition. Professors Richard Rawlings and Alan Page have both raised concerns that clause 11 is described as a transition agreement, but that there is no provision for that in the Bill. Despite that, we are currently designing our Scotland. Civic Scotland, combined with academia and business, is already coming together to design the country we want to live in. Discussions in think-tanks and at public meetings about the Scotland we want to be are common occurrences. There is a growing awareness that Scotland, with the right powers, can reform our energy business, banking sector, and agriculture and fishing industries.

We could even negotiate our own trade deals, like Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands do. The Faroe Islands negotiate their own trade deals because the Danish Government respect and trust them. We could each define our own future and still be trading partners and valued neighbours, while continuing to help and support each other, but only if that is achieved through mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty. And there is the rub: clause 11 shows no respect or trust for Scotland or any of the devolved authorities. Dr Tobias Lock, a senior lecturer at Edinburgh Law School, has said:

“The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will result in a shift in balance between the powers Westminster has in practice and the powers Holyrood has in practice with Westminster’s powers being augmented and Holyrood’s staying the same.”

That concern is shared by Professor Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh. She identifies that clause 11 is fundamentally a problem of trust. The UK Government do not trust the devolved Governments to refrain from using repatriated powers to create policy and regulatory divergence that might harm the UK’s internal market and create problems in trade negotiations. This, she argues, overlooks the considerable constitutional authority that the UK Parliament already retains over market regulation, trade, and the making and implementation of international treaties. For their part, the Scottish and Welsh Governments do not trust the commitment of the UK Government to devolve repatriated powers after Brexit and/or to agree and govern UK common frameworks on a genuinely co-operative basis. Once the existing imbalance has been augmented, when will it be realigned?

Scotland, if given the right powers, could negotiate with the European economic area and European Free Trade Association to seek what is best for Scotland but not detrimental to the rest of the UK. However, we are hamstrung by a UK Government who are scared of their own shadow, constantly looking over their shoulder and wondering from where the next challenge or crisis will emerge. We have a UK Government propped up by bluster and buffoonery.

Individuals may be protected by personal wealth that generates self-confidence and self-assurance, and supports a “devil may care” attitude—one that nudges us forward, assuring us that it will be all right on the night—but the vast majority of people in the UK are less well protected from the economic turmoil that lies ahead. They have concerns about jobs, pensions and visas. They have rightly turned to the UK Government time and again for reassurance, but their concerns are not being addressed. All that has been offered is a sickly mix of jingoistic imperialism. The Scottish Government wish to bring clarity and seek the powers to govern responsibly, but clause 11 does not provide that authority or opportunity. It must be amended forthwith, and the powers due to the Scottish Parliament—powers that will be best used by the Scottish Government, in the best interests of the citizens of Scotland—must be repatriated to the Scottish Parliament immediately after the UK leaves the European Union.