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13 June 2018

The SNP’s Commons walkout was the wrong protest on the right issue

Devolution is among the most difficult – and often ignored – Brexit challenges for the government. The SNP’s protest risks letting them off the hook.

By Patrick Maguire

The SNP’s decision to vacate the Commons chamber en masse in the middle of Prime Minister’s Questions has not been met with universal admiration. For some, a welcome rebuke to an aloof Conservative government and a reminder of the party’s strength. For others, a self-defeating publicity stunt. But one indisputable consequence of the protest is that people are now paying attention to part of the Brexit debate often treated as peripheral: devolution. 

Had the party’s Commons leader Ian Blackford not been ejected from the chamber, and had his colleagues not followed him, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which their grievance – that there was less than half an hour for debate on devolution in yesterday’s marathon EU Withdrawal Bill session – would be getting anywhere near as much attention now. That it took such dramatic scenes to force the issue onto the agenda is a mark of the vacuity of the Westminster conversation over Brexit: lots of Tory psychodrama, not much focus on the knotty, backroom issues giving ministers headaches.

Devolution is one such challenge. There is much debate over what will happen to powers in 24 devolved areas that are currently held by Brussels once the UK leaves the EU: the government wants control for up to seven years after Brexit, which Welsh and Scottish ministers have criticised as a “power grab” that undermines the devolution settlement. Unlike most of her MPs and much of the London media, Theresa May has at least acknowledged the debate’s importance: her most trusted ministerial lieutenants, Damian Green and latterly David Lidington, have been assigned responsibility for making sure devolution and Brexit work together. 

Nor should there be any doubt that the nationalists have a right to feel aggrieved. The Scottish Parliament did not give its consent to the Withdrawal Bill, and in passing amendments that overrode that decision last night, the government has demolished 20 years of constitutional convention in a rather ungraceful way (though given that the convention that Westminster does not legislate on devolved matters being just that, a convention, it could legally do so).

That it happened without any opportunity for parliamentary debate was understandably galling for the SNP. An issue that all sides acknowledge isn’t marginal was marginalised. Discussion of both the potential impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, and the region’s continuing democratic vacuum, is too, despite the fact that those who work on these issues within government know that they have the potential to gum up an already congested legislative timetable and frustrate the Brexit process. 

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Outside of Whitehall, Holyrood, and Cardiff Bay, however, these problems pique little interest. Ministers can get away with finding solutions that leave devolved administrations and Scottish and Welsh MPs unhappy, because there is next to no political price to pay. It’s no surprise the SNP took the course of action that they did, as they have little alternative recourse to force Westminster to take notice.

It’s a shame, then, that Blackford’s response was such an unserious one. The insistence that the walkout wasn’t a stunt makes no sense and smacks of disingenuousness, especially when doing so meant they effectively turned down a debate on the devolution aspects of the Withdrawal Bill. The parties of the Celtic fringe have a hard enough time being taken seriously in Westminster-wide debates as it is. For the SNP, that changed in the 2015 parliament, when its 56 MPs and their leader, Angus Robertson, were a disciplined and disruptive third force in the Commons. That status was short-lived and those days feel increasingly remote.

Reduced to 35 MPs at last June’s election, they are diminished both in numbers and authority. Where Robertson was feared, Blackford is dismissed. His MPs no longer give the government, themselves now insulated by a sizeable Scottish continent, much cause for anxiety. The calculation is that a few dozen blowhards and beatboxing neophytes are nothing to worry about. The SNP did nothing to dispel it this afternoon and in fact made themselves easier to ignore. They may have 1,000 new members, but their Westminster returns look set to keep on diminishing.