Tory Ministers don’t understand devolution, far less respect it

Yesterday’s report from a House of Commons committee is a devastating indictment of the Tory government’s often contemptuous attitude towards devolution.

Before she became Prime Minister Theresa May spoke about a future UK in which Scotland would flourish as an equal partner.


Those words ring very hollow yesterday amid the unfolding disaster of Brexit.


Right from the start the fact that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain, with majorities for continued EU membership in every local authority area of the country, has simply been ignored.


Instead the Tories made it clear they were determined to drive though a hard Brexit and are now even talking up the prospect of a catastrophic No Deal.


Despite the strong remain vote in Scotland we have spent an enormous amount of time and effort seeking to find a way forward that will minimise the damage of Brexit.


At the end of 2016, we put forward a plan to keep Scotland and the whole of the UK in the Single Market and Customs Union but that was casually dismissed.


If that plan had been taken seriously by the UK government, and acted upon, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in yesterday.


We have also worked closely with the Welsh Government. On a number of occasions our two governments, despite our political differences, have written to UK ministers setting out the need for proper, meaningful engagement.


I have sat through many frustrating meetings where despite warm words it has become clear that Tory ministers simply don’t understand devolution and too often act as if the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly of Wales don’t exist.


Yesterday’s report from a cross-party group of MPs makes a similar point when it concludes: “It is clear from the evidence to this inquiry that Whitehall still operates extensively on the basis of a structure and culture which take little account of the realities of devolution in the UK.”


Astonishingly 20 years after the establishment of devolution the committee says Whitehall officials still need training so they can “understand” how the devolution settlement works.


It is tempting to wonder what the Scotland Office has been doing during this time, something that the committee has also clearly been considering as it even suggests that both that office, and the post of Secretary of State for Scotland, could be abolished.


Yesterday’s report also exposes as nonsense Tory claims that the Scottish Government has been the agitators in our disagreements with the UK government. It makes clear where the blame lies.


The issues here are not just structural, but political.


The Scottish Parliament has voted overwhelmingly not to give consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill. MSPs have also passed an EU Continuity Bill to prepare Scotland’s laws for Brexit in a way that protects devolution.


The proper response of the UK government should have been to amend the EU Withdrawal Bill and respect the vote of the Scottish Parliament.


Instead the Tories decided to press ahead with a power grab on the Parliament and to take the Scottish Government to court. Significantly, in that court case, the senior law officers from Wales and Northern Ireland backed the Scottish Government position.


Despite all this we are determined to do everything we can to protect devolution and to stand up for Scotland’s interests.


Before the Scottish Parliament’s recess I set out proposals that would help to do that and we are committed to working together on this vital matter with other parties.


I will also continue to talk to the UK government and in particular to impress upon them the urgent need to rule out No Deal which would be calamitous for all parts of the UK.


Let’s hope yesterday’s report is a wake-up call for the UK government and that at last it will bring about proper respect for the Scottish Parliament and the views of the people who live here.

Michael Russell is Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations. This article previously appeared in the Scotsman.