The UK Government has decided to block the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, despite the legislation falling under devolved competence. A move which Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said will almost certainly end up in court. As we have been predicting, this is a worrying intensification of Westminster’s efforts to undermine devolution and reduce Scotland’s political autonomy.
Make no mistake: this is a political crisis for the UK and it’s one of Westminster’s own making because no Westminster party has ever truly been committed to making devolution work. Of course, they defined devolution working as stopping the inevitable rise in support for Scottish independence and in those terms, it has been an abject failure for the Union. Devolution has been immensely popular with voters and where devolution has worked is in the Scottish Government’s acting to mitigate some of the worst impacts of Westminster austerity, spending more of its budget on social care and Scotland’s NHS (roughly £100 per head) and the abolition of student fees. Where it has been a failure for Scotland is the fact that devolution within the UK comes with the continued failed economic mantra of Laissez–faire capitalism, the recent watering down of anti-casino-banking rules, political corruption and of course, being able to do nothing about the unmitigated disaster that Brexit represents.
Devolution may have opened the door for the SNP to prove that they are able to run a country differently and with more soul and care for the people. Now that they are supported by the Greens in a majority Scottish Government, they have an unanswerable mandate for change and that is infuriating Wesminsters failing self appointed elites. In 2017, when giving evidence to the Westminster trade Committee, I (GMK) explained that ‘Devolution was incompatible with Brexit’. I have been proven right many times over and now as both the Tories and Labour have lurched to the right to fight over the xenophobic Brexit vote the Union has become incompatible with Scotland, incompatible with democracy and incompatible with the values of the ordinary Scottish people.
Whether you like it or not, a majority Scottish Government has the mandated right to call an independence referendum; whether you like it or not, it has a mandated right to pass its Gender Recognition Reform legislation. Blocking these moves amounts to nothing more than an assault on democratic principles.
Westminster enacted Section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998, a previously unused mechanic which has been described by political commentators as the ‘nuclear option’. Section 35 allows the Scottish Secretary of the UK Government to intervene with the passing of a devolved bill if it is believed to adversely affect the operation of reserved matters, that is, areas outside the remit of the devolved government. Despite having years to make amendments and consult with the Scottish Government, the current Conservative Scottish Secretary Alister Jack instead used Section 35 to block the GRR Bill. Translated – essentially, the UK Government is blocking this bill because they don’t like it, which sets a dangerously antidemocratic precedent.
This ruling comes hard on the heels of the UK Supreme Court’s recent move to block a second Scottish independence referendum, as well as an extension to challenges to devolved legislation such as the Rights of the Child Convention. Today the UK Government will push ahead with its regressive Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill which will remove all the mostly eminently sensible EU-derived legislation from the statute book by the end of the year. It’s almost as if they thought Brexit isn’t going as well as it should because there were still too many protections for exporters and that the food and drink industry needed a harder Brexit.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the first use of Section 35 is to limit a bill which had caused division in both the pro-independence camps. It is a clear divide and rule tactic with Westminster hoping for a muted response due to the nature of the policy involved. Regardless, the bill was approved by two-thirds of MSPs gaining votes from five different political parties. This included the current leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Anas Sarwar and former leader Richard Leonard, as well as the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Jackson Carlaw.
This move sets a worrying precedent for how Westminster responds to bills passed by Holyrood in the future. We have to ask what else a UK Government which is politically opposed, hostile even, to the majority elected current Scottish Government might also move to restrict. This does not just undermine devolution but also threatens the tenets of Scottish democracy.
Finally, regardless of anyone’s opinion of the GRR Bill, it is important to ask: will the UK Government really stop here? What happens if Wesminster blocks legislation on devolved healthcare? On education? On the environment? This ruling exposes a fundamental flaw of devolution as an expression of self-determination – one where it can be overridden when the central government feels like it, especially when they diverge from the devolved government.
Until Scotland is fully independent, its political autonomy will always be under threat. New Labour are back: Starmer has moved the UK party to the right of Thatcher and is big into Brexit and refuses to defend the blocking of a bill that was supported by 18 out of his party’s 22 elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament. He offers no alternative even for voters of Labour in Scotland. Independence is normal and completely compatible with democracy and the clear desire of the Scottish people to rejoin the EU.