An almighty fight is brewing between Nicola Sturgeon and the UK Government. So what’s new, you might ask. Seldom does the SNP leader break into the national news unless it’s to decry a UK Prime Minister (from all sides, she is an equal-opportunity dissenter). Despite her differentiation strategy – and taking repeated and pointed sideswipes at the UK government from the podium of her daily news conferences — the Scottish First Minister has been at pains to admonish anyone suggesting she’s using Covid as a means to promote independence. However, the next dispute is likely to be a far more open assault.
This fight is about the shape of post-Brexit Britain. Tomorrow, the UK Government will introduce a Bill into the Commons to legally underpin a UK internal market and ensure that the UK as a whole — rather than the devolved administrations — controls state aid.
So far, so technical. But it’s simple: at the moment the EU ensures minimum standards for goods across its member states, free trade between them, and it stops governments in one EU country helping companies with money in order to undercut companies based elsewhere, thus ensuring a level playing field. What the UK Government is seeking to do is ensure these outcomes across the UK. So something manufactured in Brent can be sold without issue in Bangor or Belfast, and that no politician anywhere can help a company or sector in one part of the UK in a way that damages companies elsewhere on these islands.
The SNP has already called this a “power grab” and is cranking up the grievance machine. Expect to see a number of flushed and furious SNP talking heads on politics programmes in the coming days, echoing their leader who has called it “a blatant move to erode the powers of the Scottish Parliament in key areas”. It’s quite the charge. Especially regarding a Bill designed to make sure no one part of the country has an unfair advantage over another. And, as much as the SNP enjoy guerrilla politics — finding traps and ambushes with which to snipe away at Westminster — I fear they’re on less than firm footing.
Nicola Sturgeon is at pains to admonish anyone who is suggesting she’s using Covid to promote independence
Whether Sturgeon or I like it or not (we both campaigned for Remain), the UK has left the EU and the subsequent transitional arrangements are due to come to an end on December 31. Powers that were once held at Brussels have to be held somewhere, either at a Westminster level, by the devolved administrations or — as is proposed — a combination of the two. Sturgeon’s argument about “eroding” the powers of the Scottish Parliament is a strange one. It suggests that someone is taking powers away from Holyrood. But the Scottish Parliament was only reconvened in 1999, so it has never held these powers. In fact, under the UK’s plans, Holyrood will be given responsibility for over a hundred new powers it has never previously held.
And for those powers the SNP chief is furious will be administered by Westminster? Well, Sturgeon believes in the EU and that there should be a level playing field between states. She also believes that if the Scottish people were ever to vote for independence, Scotland would immediately seek to re-enter the EU and hand all of these powers back to Brussels. So her argument that a level playing field across the EU is great, but across the UK is an outrage, is specious.
Lord knows I’ve had my disagreements with Boris Johnson down the years — not least over Brexit during the referendum campaign. But in sorting out all the technical difficulties over what Brexit looks like, the idea that ensuring one part of the UK can’t give unfair help to a sector or company which will damage businesses elsewhere is a rational — indeed, sensible — one.
Getting the rules right on ensuring free and fair trade across the whole of the UK has never mattered more. This week, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that Covid could cause the biggest slump in the UK economy for 300 years. Not only that, the global pandemic has hammered international trade too. If we are to climb back out of this black hole, it will take the entire country pulling together, not adding internal red tape or trying to undercut one another.
I know that there are people out there who naturally side with any centre-Left politician taking a pop at a Tory government. Especially if it is a Remainer picking a fight over a Brexit issue. But when Sturgeon is shouting the odds on TV over the next few days, remember that she’s shouting down measures that ensure people making and selling goods get a fair deal — whether that’s in London or Lanarkshire.
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