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6 March 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:16am

Nicola Sturgeon has leverage over Theresa May on Brexit – and she’s threatening to use it

The Scottish Parliament’s relationship with the London mothership has always been testy. Now it is nearing constitutional crisis mode.

By Chris Deerin

From the beginning, the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster has been based on antagonism. The Cabinet Committee set up by Tony Blair to deliver devolution was itself a hostile environment – inevitably so, given its chair, Derry Irvine, had previously run off with the wife of the Scottish Secretary and future first minister, Donald Dewar.

“They hadn’t spoken for 20 years,” New Labour veteran Jack Straw recalled in an interview with Holyrood magazine in 2013. “Derry was almost paralysed from being an active chair.

“Aside from the personal pain which both must have felt, this had a serious political effect too. It was… much harder for the committee to resist Donald’s increasing appetite to shift as much power as he could north of the border.”

Dewar’s significant victory, and one which has dictated Holyrood’s mindset ever since, was to ensure the Scotland Bill defined in detail those issues which would be reserved to Westminster, rather than listing those that would be transferred to Scotland. If it wasn’t listed, it belonged to Holyrood.

Tony Blair admitted that while devolution was “inevitable”, the whole thing, from the English end at least, was done through gritted teeth. As he wrote in his autobiography: “I was never a passionate devolutionist… you can never be sure where nationalist sentiment ends and separatist sentiment begins.”

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In its two decades of existence, the Scottish Parliament has only ever enjoyed a testy relationship with the London mothership, regardless of who has been in power in either institution. Labour’s Jack McConnell clashed with Tony Blair’s Cabinet as he tried to show Scots their new gizmo had genuine muscle. Westminster ministers saw McConnell as a cocky upstart and Holyrood as an irritating necessity. When the Scottish National Party took over, those tensions naturally worsened.

This isn’t a bad thing – it’s vital that the nations and regions of the UK stand up to those stuck in the alluring and distorting hall of mirrors that is Westminster. It’s also a natural state of affairs, as can be seen from the growing bolshiness of the new metro mayors towards the centre.

The independence referendum aside, Brexit is proving to be the greatest challenge so far to the UK’s diversifying constitution and the relationships between its discrete parts. Bad faith and mistrust seems to dictate the discussions, and nowhere more so than on the issue of what happens to the powers that will soon be repatriated from the EU to the UK.

For the Scottish Government, run by an independence-supporting party, this provides a number of opportunities: first, to pick a fight with the Tories; second, to make it look like a Westminster power-grab is underway; third, to gain sweeping new powers for Holyrood, and to be seen to have fought for them, and won. Those are the politics, but it’s also true that the Nats – and many Scots, Nat or otherwise – have been consistent on Brexit and Scotland’s interests from the beginning. Not everything is cynical.

The row has intensified this week into something of a stand-off. Nicola Sturgeon is demanding that all 111 powers and responsibilities coming back from Brussels should go to Holyrood. “There is an issue of principle at stake that we won’t compromise on because if we did, we would allow Westminster to exercise a power-grab on the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and I don’t think any First Minister worth their salt should agree to that,” she told Peston on Sunday.

Theresa May’s administration is standing firm, however. It has agreed that 86 powers and responsibilities should go straight to Edinburgh, but wants to hold on to a further 25 until UK-wide frameworks can be agreed. Its concern is that without such binding agreements, the SNP might introduce changes in key areas such as agriculture and fisheries, undermining Britain’s internal market.

It’s possible to see both sides of the argument, of course. But at present Westminster is promising only to “consult” on the frameworks, rather than seek “agreement” with Holyrood. Sturgeon and her ministers, already stung by Scotland being taken out of the EU despite voting overwhelming to remain, worry they will be bullied into a corner, and that May will find ways to keep the new powers in London permanently.

Talks between ministers from the two administrations resume on Thursday. Next week the Joint Ministerial Council meets, which May and Sturgeon both attend. The First Minister has leverage over the Prime Minister – May wants MSPs to give consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill. With the Greens onside, Sturgeon has a majority to withhold consent if she feels Scotland has been ill-treated. This would create something akin to a constitutional crisis.

In the end, my guess is that a deal will be struck and the Bill will be grudgingly approved – Sturgeon, in the end, has usually opted for the responsible position. Before then, however, it suits the SNP that Westminster is seen to be ignoring Scotland’s wishes and disrespecting its devolved government, so gnawing away at the fraying relationship between north and south.

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