There is a question about whether the Scottish government can hold a referendum without Westminster’s consent.
London: The Scottish Parliament Building by architect Enric Miralles takes a while to take in, such is its complexity, a miscellany of windows, geometry, shapes and materials. That Miralles was a Catalan might have been symbolic in his selection, the size and chicanery of the structure won many accolades and awards, it is also famous for its cost of £400million. The site at the base of expired volcano King Arthur’s Seat is an imaginative masterpiece and the seat of the Scottish Parliament known as Holyrood, elected members are the lawmaking body for devolved matters. Broadly Holyrood is responsible for health and social care, education and training, local government and housing, justice and policing, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the environment and planning, tourism, sport and heritage, economic development and internal transport. The Scottish Parliament has the power to pass primary legislation, but cannot legislate on reserved matters, such as the Constitution, energy, defence and trade.
This reporter recently had the privilege of observing a session of First Minister’s Questions, a weekly session of 45 minutes where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon answers questions from MSPs and leaders of the opposition. This was a surprisingly flat experience as it lacked spontaneity. The questions from Scottish Members of Parliament are read from a previously approved text and the FM’s reply is equally read from a script. This is symbolic of the control exercised by the Scottish National Party (SNP) over the whole of parliament. The SNP holds a significant majority with 64 seats, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party hold 31, Labour Party hold 22, and the rest are Greens, Liberal Democrats and an independent. Issues that arose during FMQs were the danger of the north-east A9 road, the NHS wait lists, the exorbitant cost of living, support needed for Ukrainian refugees and support for victims of the floods in Pakistan.
Now that Scotland has achieved a devolved assembly, Nicola Sturgeon has transformed the SNP into a one-trick pony, independence. Having promised the world to Scottish nationalists, over 15 years the SNP has failed to deliver unilateral change; the Scottish NHS is in crisis, doctors are underpaid, undervalued and exhausted, and Scotland is still Europe’s drug death capital. Railway strikes and soaring bus prices are causing dissatisfaction, broadband in the highlands and wild areas is yet to catch up with urban areas. Recently Sturgeon has been accused of fraud and corruption over a ferry contract that was switched from Remontowa, a Polish shipbuilder, to Ferguson Marine in Glasgow, which at the time was owned by a Scottish Government adviser and independence supporter. Costs have gone from £97million to a likely £300million without a ferry in sight.
Sturgeon’s plaintive cry is usually “if we had the levers of power”, but as the UK’s most powerful devolved government it is likely she holds the levers but they are not used effectively; detractors say her administration is bloated with ministers who have little experience and no efficacy.
To disguise these failures Sturgeon along with the Greens, who also support independence from UK, have revived the call for an independence referendum “indyref2” which touches the heart of every nationalist. Boris Johnson refused Sturgeon’s initial request for July this year, now the SNP plan is for a second referendum on 19 October 2023, before the end of their current term of parliament. But there is a question about whether the Scottish government can hold a referendum without Westminster’s consent, the case on a referendum on Scottish Independence contained in the proposed referendum Bill relates to reserved matters in the Scotland Act, which underpins devolution, has been referred to the Supreme Court using the Lord Advocate’s statutory power to refer devolution issues. The Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain’s case sets out both sides of the arguments and will represent the Scottish Government’s interests, the UK’s Advocate General, Lord Stewart of Dirleton QC, will represent the UK government, the UK Supreme Court will hear oral submissions this week on 11-12 October.
Despite the enthusiasm for another referendum, there are a number of reasons why Scottish independence is not considered viable. Scotland would remain dependent on the Bank of England for fiscal control. How would Scotland afford their share of the national debt, and who would give Scotland favourable terms to finance their debt? As it is every Scot received about £2,000 more from the UK taxpayer than folks in the rest of UK, thanks to the “Union Dividend”. Scotland would like to rejoin the EU but 62% of Scottish trade is with the UK and EU membership would introduce a hard border. Scotland would like to join NATO but the SNP want to reject the nuclear submarines from the Clyde. Would a Scottish nationalist army of 5000 draw equipment from UK armed forces?
On the other side of the energy crisis, driven by large increases in oil and gas prices, Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland receipts from offshore North Sea oil and gas increased by £2.7 billion in 2021-22 to reach £3.2 billion, their highest level since 2013-14, these revenues are sometimes used as an economic boost for independence. North Sea oil and gas extraction are not devolved and are licensed by the UK, as Scotland is planning on a green agenda there is some conflict in this area. UK’s North Sea oil and gas revenues rose from £400m in 2020/21 to £3.1 billion in 2021/22. The OBR have forecast that they will rise to £7.8 billion in 2022/23.
Today it thought some 45-48% possibly want independence, will the Supreme Court countenance a second vote, or will they be accused of stifling democracy, as a couple of constitutional experts have suggested? Liz Truss has said Scotland is part of the UK family and “I’m very clear that in 2014, when there was a referendum, we said it was once in a generation. I’m very clear there shouldn’t be another referendum before that generation is up.”