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Extra Time: Brexit and Devolution

Liam Hainey

In the aftermath of the SNP’s dramatic walk-out during last week’s PMQs, it was easy to forget what sparked it: the lack of time for debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill’s impact on devolution.

Ian Blackford’s wish was, to an extent, granted last night as the Speaker convened an emergency debate on the Sewel Convention. Unsurprisingly, the debate didn’t produce anything like the theatre witnessed last week. That was inevitable. It was a 6pm sitting on Monday evening, rather than the marquee event of the Westminster week. The lack of substantive debate throughout should come as no surprise given the event’s relative obscurity,

It’s unlikely anyone outside the Westminster and Holyrood campuses was paying much attention (the subsequent lack of press coverage reinforces that belief) but emotions still ran high. There were more accusations of cowardice, treachery and betrayal than the third act of Macbeth. The fact MPs remained so animated on the issue, even when the eyes of the world were elsewhere, suggests the passion for the issue on both sides is undiminished.

The accusation from Douglas Ross, that the SNP didn’t really support devolution in ’97, was a hard one to make stick. But even though a check of the historical record would put the lie to that suggestion quite quickly, there is a truth beneath his error.

The SNP’s fundamental aim is to secure independence for Scotland. It is the party’s unifying purpose and permanent goal. Though its support for devolution is sincere, it would be wilfully naïve to think independence doesn’t factor into its Westminster machinations.

The core of the strategy is crisis. After the walk-out, Ian Blackford pledged to “frustrate what the government are doing as much as we possibly can”, adding ominously that this is not the end of the matter. In Holyrood today, Mike Russell told the Chamber “the bad old times” were back. He said the Scottish Government was planning for all eventualities and encouraged the Scottish Parliament to do the same. Stock up on tinned food, baton down the hatches and stay indoors he seemed to say. If Friday’s “Gathering Storm” Daily Record front page is a fair barometer the plan seems to be working.

The SNP’s dual status, in power in Scotland and opposition in Westminster, aids it enormously in a presentational sense. It is free to present itself as rabble rousing underdogs at the same time as taking a more authoritative, governmental, tone in Holyrood.

But this presentational advantage masks the reality that the SNP is on the back foot. Whether one wishes it to be the case or not, the UK Government has the stronger hand. Though David Mundell’s statement, that Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom and not a partner, may have played into the hands of the SNP it was factually accurate. The SNP knows this, and it informs its embattled rhetoric. The determination of both sides to dig in means this will be a long and protracted battle.

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