Power grab puts the Tories on the wrong side of history – again

More than 20 years ago, the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly for a national parliament.

The result of the 1997 referendum was resoundingly in favour of devolution, and Holyrood is now firmly established at the heart of our national life.

At the time, the only mainstream party to campaign against self-government for Scotland were the Conservatives.

Two decades on, and it is that self-same Tory party which now finds itself on the wrong side of debate when it comes to defending the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

The finer points of detail around Brexit are often complex, but the underlying principles are clear.

The Scottish Government and the SNP do not back Brexit – in line with the majority of Scottish opinion, we do not want to turn our back on our friends and neighbours across Europe.

But if we are leaving the EU then we have to make sure that we take sensible steps to ensure any transition is as seamless as possible and that, crucially, no gaps in the law emerge as a result.

That’s where the UK Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill – and our own Scottish Continuity Bill – come into play.

We have made clear that we cannot agree to the Tories’ Withdrawal Bill because as currently drafted it represents a power grab over Holyrood.

It would mean that in significant areas of the parliament’s devolved powers, including areas like farming, fishing and environmental protection, Westminster would hold a veto.

UK ministers say they need this power because they want to ensure common UK-wide frameworks in certain areas, and so that Scotland will not be able to stand in the way of future trade deals by applying different standards.

To be clear, we are not against common frameworks where they make common sense – in areas like food labelling, for example.

But those frameworks must only come about through a process of mutual consent and agreement – they cannot be imposed in the way the Conservatives are currently suggesting.

That would ride roughshod over the devolved settlement people voted for in 1997.

But, as with so much else where Brexit is concerned, the Tories seem determined to press ahead regardless of the consequences.

We are supported in our opposition to the power grab by the Welsh Government, and together we met with some of our UK Government counterparts in London yesterday.

It was another attempt to make progress, and while we remain willing to do a deal there was no breakthrough in yesterday’s talks.

If Holyrood were to vote against the EU Withdrawal Bill it would not stop Brexit, but for the Tories to then impose their version of Brexit on Scotland would be an utterly unprecedented move.

Overall, the Conservatives’ approach to the biggest peacetime challenge in living memory has been woeful.

Brexit and how it is handled matters hugely for people the length and breadth of Scotland, but we still don’t know what Brexit will mean for our farmers, crofters and fishermen.

That latter group were once, infamously, described as “expendable” in European negotiations by the Tories, and nothing that has happened in recent days gives any comfort that things have changed.

The Scottish Government’s Continuity Bill – which we need if the EU Withdrawal Bill is not agreed by MSPs – passed its first stage at Holyrood this week.

And, contrary to desperate Tory spin, it was not “rammed through” by the SNP, rather it was passed with the support of all parties except the Conservatives.

Let’s not forget – every single one of Scotland’s 32 local council areas voted to remain in Europe. The Tories ignore that stark democratic reality at their peril.

Just like two decades ago, when they arrogantly thought that they knew better than everyone else when it came to devolution, now they think they can do whatever they want to Scotland and get away with it.

We are absolutely determined not to let them, and the Scottish Government will defend Scotland’s vital national interests at every turn.

When it comes to protecting Holyrood’s powers, the Tories are on the wrong side of the argument, the wrong side of reason and will ultimately find themselves – just as they did in 1997 – on the wrong side of history.

Michael Russell MSP is Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe. This article originally appeared in the Press and Journal