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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 30, 2023


Protecting Devolution and the Scottish Parliament

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-08885, in the name of Keith Brown, on protecting devolution and the Scottish Parliament. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament expresses alarm at what it sees as the UK Government’s escalating disrespect for the devolved settlement; highlights the report of the Parliament’s Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee, The Impact of Brexit on Devolution, which identified “increased tension within the devolution settlement” since the UK’s departure from the EU; believes that the Sewel Convention is now regularly breached by the UK Government; underlines that legislative consent was withheld by the Scottish Parliament in relation to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, the Environment Act 2021, the Subsidy Control Act 2022, the Elections Act 2022, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Act 2023; considers that the Procurement Bill, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, and the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill are all proceeding without heed to the devolved legislatures; expresses profound disappointment in the use of an order under section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 to, it considers, veto devolved legislation; expresses alarm at what it sees as the Secretary of State for Scotland’s apparent unilateral rewriting of the agreed rules regarding requests for exemptions from the market access principles contained in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020; considers all of these actions to be part of a pattern of undemocratic behaviour of attacks on the devolution settlement and the Scottish Parliament, and believes that these actions demonstrate the vulnerability of the Scottish Parliament while constituencies like Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, and Scotland as a whole, are under what it sees as UK Government control.


Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

I offer many thanks to those members who have supported the motion and allowed me to bring this important issue to the chamber, and to those members who have stayed behind to listen to the debate.

To be frank, it is a disgrace that we even have to debate this issue, but debate it we must, because this chamber and this institution—this Parliament of ours—are under attack. Sadly, there are those within these walls who are complicit in that attack—some explicitly and others by their silence, or even by their absence.

There is a phrase that is often trotted out about the Scottish Parliament and that predates its existence; it was part of the argument that was made during the referendum campaign that brought the Scottish Parliament into being. It is that devolution and the Scottish Parliament are “the settled will of the Scottish people”. For me, that is a bit

“thus far ... and no further”.

Like Parnell, I am more inclined to insist that

“No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation”.

Indeed, all the parties in the chamber signed up to the Smith commission, which said that nothing should prevent the Parliament from moving on to become independent if that was what the people of Scotland voted for. There was certainly a very broad consensus in 1999 that a wide range of issues were best dealt with here in Scotland’s Parliament rather than down the road in Westminster, and I do not see any sign of a shrinking back from that view among the people of Scotland. On the contrary, support for extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament has grown substantially, and support for independence is regularly the majority option in frequent opinion polls—as recently as last week, in fact.

However, what I also see is hard-line unionists—those who were not part of the 1999 consensus and have resented the very existence of this place ever since—emboldened perhaps by their experience with Brexit and fuelled by dewy-eyed reminiscences of an empire on which the sun never set and a golden age that never existed, trying to claw back powers to Westminster and to Whitehall.

The long list of legislation that is detailed in the motion shows that this is not a one-off issue. Those people are working to a template and with scant regard for democracy. We could easily add to that list the blocking of an independence referendum and the refusal to recognise the overwhelming opposition in Scotland to Brexit and being dragged out of the European Union.

We also see the phenomenon of the craven Conservatives who will never defend anything that might represent the interests of the people of Scotland if it conflicts with what the Government in London is doing. One example of that was the Liz Truss fiasco, which cost Scotland perhaps £6 billion, with not a word of criticism from the Conservatives.

Let us be clear: this is not just the view of the “bolshie Jock grievance-mongers”, as people such as Jacob Rees-Mogg might describe us. For example, the former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish—who would, I think, be appalled at the absences on the Labour benches tonight—has branded Tory moves to curtail Scottish ministerial engagement abroad as an attack on devolution and has highlighted “the contempt, the disrespect” and the “political control and coercion” of the United Kingdom Government. He highlighted the Scottish Government’s “absolute democratic right” to pursue international engagement, and he warned that

“This Tory government does not recognise the spirit of devolution”.

Looking at the UK Government’s intention to use a section 35 order for the first time to stop the Scottish Parliament implementing a piece of devolved legislation—one with cross-party support, and majority support from MSPs of all parties—the current Labour First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, who, again, is more concerned about devolution than some members in this chamber, said that the move to block the law sets a “very dangerous” precedent, and that that could be

“a very slippery slope indeed”.

When the unelected Tory peer Lord Frost, who served as Boris Johnson’s failed Brexit negotiator, argued that “no more powers” should be given to the Scottish Parliament and that some powers should be snatched back by Westminster, there were Tory members, such as Murdo Fraser, Stephen Kerr and Donald Cameron, who is in the chamber tonight, who rightly condemned the column and sought to distance themselves from the proposals. I promised Donald Cameron that I would mention the fact that his relative Michael Ancram was one of those members who spoke up in the House of Commons against the clause that became section 35. Where is that strain of Tory these days?

The Tories now avidly support Westminster’s section 35 veto, and they frequently call on their Westminster bosses to ignore the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament. Just this weekend, it emerged that the UK Government is blocking the deposit return scheme, which was approved by the Scottish Parliament, because glass is included in it. The Welsh Government has also included glass in its scheme, and it will no doubt be told “No”, as well. The odd thing is that, as we know, the Tories here supported the inclusion of glass in the scheme. I am looking at Maurice Golden—or I would be looking at him if he was in the chamber—who, as long ago as 2019, tweeted:

“Scotland’s new deposit returns system should include glass. It’s just common sense”.

The move to block the scheme can only be a macho exercise in flexing constitutional muscle on the part of Westminster.

Britain is financially broke and constitutionally broken, but even with the limited powers of devolution, the Scottish Parliament has been able to make a difference. We have been building a fairer Scotland with the Scottish child payment, which is the most ambitious anti-poverty measure anywhere in the UK and which increased by 150 per cent in 2022. We have been creating a healthier Scotland, with record high staff levels in our national health service—over 28,800 more staff under the Scottish National Party. We are forging forward with a greener Scotland; our climate targets, for a 75 per cent reduction by 2030 and net zero by 2045, are among the most ambitious in the world. We are supporting a smarter Scotland, with, for example, £1 billion for the Scottish attainment challenge to support our most disadvantaged children and young people. We are promoting a wealthier Scotland, with a progressive income tax system to ensure that the majority—52 per cent—of Scottish taxpayers pay less than is paid elsewhere in the UK, while delivering extra support for our public services.

That is only scratching the surface of the benefits that devolved government—and, in particular, the SNP’s policies, in my view—has brought to Scotland. I could go on and list many more, or I could highlight the ways in which Scotland is outperforming the rest of UK—for example, on teachers’ pay, police officers’ pay and crime reduction. I do not have time to list all the benefits—the list is long and impressive—but perhaps other members will pick up that baton when they speak.

The Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and the Scottish people need more powers, not fewer powers. The attacks by the Tories on devolution and the failure of Labour and the Liberal Democrats—I see no Lib Dem members at all in the chamber tonight—to oppose them will not be unnoticed, forgiven or forgotten by the people of Scotland.

The former Tory member of Parliament and minister Enoch Powell—not somebody whom I have ever quoted with relish—said that power devolved is power retained. The UK Government wants to go further and see Westminster’s power regained. It wants to take back control. We will not let it do that. I end with a call to members on all sides of the chamber, at least to those who are here tonight, and certainly to all those who have believed in devolution from the start and still do, to unite and repatriate the power that has been stolen from this Parliament and from the people of Scotland.


Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

It is commonplace in a members’ business debate to congratulate the relevant back bencher on securing chamber time for the debate. Such debates are often on issues that are pertinent to back benchers’ constituencies, health campaigns, or something similar. On this occasion, however, I struggle to do so. A motion that has been signed only by SNP members and by one Green MSP tells us everything.

I have only four minutes, so I will be concise. Following all the hyperbole that we have just heard, I will address three specific issues that are mentioned in the motion.

First, section 35 is intrinsic to the Scotland Act 1998—it is part and parcel of the devolution settlement. Members cannot complain that devolution is under threat when the section at issue was explicitly included by Donald Dewar and the founders of devolution in the Scotland Act 1998 itself.

The use of section 35 in January was justified. Whatever members’ views on the substance of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, there is a powerful argument that the bill poses adverse consequences for UK-wide equalities policy. The SNP Government was warned about that fact during the passage of the bill. However, instead of working with the UK Government to resolve that issue amicably, the Scottish Government is heading for the courts.

Secondly, on levelling up, I have made this point previously, but I will reiterate it. At no point during the decades in which we were a member of the EU did the SNP ever complain about the EU injecting funds into local communities. However, now that the UK Government is doing the same, it is appalled. The SNP knows fine well that the devolution settlement allows direct investment from the UK Government in devolved policy areas. That is replicated in federal or quasi-federal systems across the world. Look at Australia, Canada and Germany. Far from undermining devolution, that strengthens it.

Thirdly, I have no doubt that the Sewel convention is under strain and needs rethinking, but is it on the point of collapse? We regularly pass legislative consent motions in the Parliament without a division; we did so only last week or the week before. The Scottish Government has consented to a raft of post-Brexit legislation—on fisheries and animal welfare, for example—that the UK Government has passed.

Do we still pass legislation on Scotland-only matters week after week and year after year? Of course we do, but let none of that get in the way of the predictable SNP hysteria about a constitutional crisis and loose talk about a full-frontal attack and a scorched earth policy when it comes to devolution. That is all that the SNP has left. The sound that we can hear is the noise of empty rhetoric and the resounding gong and clanging cymbal of nationalist grievance.

Does any of that help the people of Scotland? Does any of it help the person who is waiting at the pier on Mull for a ferry that does not arrive? Does it help the teenager who has waited for months on end for a mental health appointment that does not happen? Not one bit.

If SNP members want to use members’ business debate time to drag up old grievances or to put a spin on new ones, they can do so, but the voters are watching and wondering. They know that this is a tired and directionless Government that has no new ideas, even with a new First Minister. They know that the SNP, which was first elected in 2007 with so much promise and hope, has let them down in the past 16 years. They know that this Government, which controls the most powerful devolved legislature in the world, is not making full use of the powers that it already has. They know that, if the SNP concentrated on what matters to people in their everyday lives just for once, much could improve and much could be achieved. As a result, they know that, when the question about why devolution is failing is asked, the answer is to be found sitting on the benches to my right.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I first want to say to Mr Cameron that it is fair to say that the Scottish Government has not consented to every LCM.

This members’ debate is timely and I thank Keith Brown for securing it, but I encourage the Scottish Government to use some of its time for a full debate on this critical issue. As Keith Brown touched on, there are no Liberal Democrats in the chamber—apart from yourself Presiding Officer, although you are clearly not speaking today.

To correct the record, I am not a Liberal Democrat; I am the Presiding Officer, Mr McMillan.

Stuart McMillan

Okay. There are certainly no Lib Dems sitting in the chamber and that is the party that claims to defend devolution.

Every party in the Parliament has its own position on the constitution and I doubt that those positions will change any time soon. I have been an independence supporter for as long as I can remember and that will never change. It will come as no surprise that I want the Parliament to have the full range of powers of independence so that we can make a positive difference to the lives of present and future generations. Other members will disagree with my position, and that is their right, but, while we have a Parliament with limited devolved responsibilities, there should be respect for it from all quarters. However, the respect agenda that Douglas Ross previously talked about has been shredded.

More than 30 years ago, John Major used the word “subsidiarity” to help him to secure Tory support for the Maastricht treaty. Ultimately, he helped to secure enough anti-European supporters in his party by selling the message of UK decision making within the EU. Over the years, it became clear that Maastricht was never going to be enough and the internal divisions over Europe raged in the Tory party until the Brexit referendum in 2016. Since 2016, Scotland and Wales have witnessed the erosion of the already limited powers of devolution.

The Tories made many arguments against remaining in the EU, including that it was costly, centralising, undemocratic and removed decision making from the UK Parliament. They now seem to have forgotten those arguments and are effectively gaslighting the people of Scotland when we dare to make the same arguments against this failed union.

The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 was always a ruse to get the Tories back into a position of control over Scotland—we could have our devolved powers as long as they agree with them.

In November 2020, at the Policy Exchange, Douglas Ross pitched his thoughts to save his union. Here are just a few of his quotes from that day:

“The UK is a partnership of nations just like the European Union”,


“Scotland has two governments and in contrast to international comparisons, there is no rigid hierarchy between the different tiers of government. They both have areas of responsibility and management. They both have a role.”

He also said:

“We will not strengthen the Union by turning back the clock. We will only strengthen support for independence ... the UK Government needs to do more to involve the Devolved Administrations in delivering our new international role. They will have to implement trade deals so should have a role in producing their terms. And with the end of freedom of movement we will need to see more flexibility in our immigration system to account for the needs of different parts of our country, which the Devolved Administrations are well placed to represent ... Key to this working will be a restatement of the ‘respect agenda’ in engagement and communication.”

Despite all that from Mr Ross, Scotland is now seeing an erosion of the powers of this Parliament. The UK Government is trying to turn back the clock and remove, piece by piece, the limited powers of devolution. It is not even attempting to hide it anymore. It is brazen.

Scotland has a choice to make: are we happy to be subsumed back into the pre-devolution years, where the sole decision maker comes from the Westminster-based elite? The EU integrationism that the Tories fought against is now a UK integrationism approach to dismantle devolution. That will continue unless Scotland uses its voice to defend this Parliament and everyone who lives in Scotland.


Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

I am very grateful to Keith Brown for securing this important debate today.

This Parliament might be only 24 years old, but, in the years since 1999, Scotland has made many great strides, thanks to devolution. That includes free university tuition, building more social housing per capita than the UK Government, record high health funding, the creation of Social Security Scotland, free personal care and driving forward on fair work.

When Scotland voted for this Parliament, the Conservative Party was overwhelmingly against it. Some would argue that it has resented the existence of this Parliament ever since. I would like to think that my colleagues who have been lucky enough to be elected to this Parliament all support this institution and want—at the very least—to protect devolution. I would like to see devolution enhanced, and the clear majority of us in the chamber want to see Scotland become an independent country so that this Parliament is free from the threats of Westminster vetoes and interventions.

In recent months, we have seen a Tory Westminster Government, which has been rejected by the people of Scotland, use, for the first time ever, a section 35 order to veto legislation that was approved by more than two thirds of this Parliament. A couple of years ago, this Parliament unanimously voted to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, but the UK Government raised a court action to stop it.

The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 paved the way for a power grab on Scotland’s Parliament, and the Tories are now using it as a cover to veto another policy that was supported by a majority of MSPs: the deposit return scheme. Other countries can make such things work, even under devolution. The Tories might not like to hear that, but that is just the way it is. The state of South Australia has had a deposit return scheme for more than 45 years, although there will not be a nationwide scheme until 2030, and glass is included in the scheme there.

I should say that Labour Governments were not immune from vetoing the wishes of the Scottish people, or indeed those of their own representatives from Scotland. For example, they ignored the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland in the 1979 devolution referendum. Nowadays, we have Keir Starmer’s Labour joining the Tories as born-again Brexiteers, yet again ignoring the wishes of people in Scotland.

That pattern makes it pretty clear that, while Scotland tries to make progress within the UK, Westminster will intervene when it disagrees with policies, even though Scotland voted for the members of this Parliament and rejected the UK Government. Whether it is measures to help the environment, to make life that bit easier for minorities or even to protect the rights of our children, the UK Government has no shame and seems to veto things just because it can. That is not democracy. This Parliament is having its powers restricted.

If that is what a so-called union of equals looks like, more and more people will realise that the only way for us to ensure progress in building a fairer, greener and more prosperous country is for Scotland to become independent, so that we can chart a better path.


Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

When I saw Keith Brown’s motion, I thought that I could predict what the debate would be like and, thus far, it has lived up to my expectations. In my view, the debate has focused on the constitution rather than on delivering for the people of Scotland.

Scottish Labour is the party of devolution. We campaigned for it, we introduced the legislation that made it a reality and we used its powers to the max from day 1.

Two decades on, we need better government—I agree with previous speakers on that—but we also need stronger accountability in Scotland. I say to my SNP colleagues in the chamber and, indeed, to the Tories that—whether it relates to our NHS, access to mental health support, the two-tier dental system, failures in educational attainment, or the delays in using our social security powers, setting up a Scottish energy company or, most recently, the DRS—the people of Scotland are clear that they want both of Scotland’s Governments to work together. That is what grown-up Governments do in Europe, even when they have totally different politics. [Interruption.] I do not think so.

I will comment on the section of the motion with which I agree. I recognise that the Tories have put massive pressure on the devolution settlement, particularly following Brexit. Through its work, the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee explained that tension and made a powerful case for change. Scottish Labour is focused on rebuilding our relations with our European neighbours, and providing a replacement for the Erasmus scheme would definitely be a start. [Interruption.] No, thank you.

I, too, express disappointment about the section 35 order in relation to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, because such an order was supposed to be an enabling mechanism, not a blocking mechanism. That principle was agreed by all parties. It is interesting that, in 1998, the Tories moved an amendment to the Scotland Bill to require UK ministers to publish legal advice in such circumstances. However, the UK Government has so far refused to publish its legal advice. If it did so, that would make life a little more interesting.

Collette Stevenson mentioned the DRS. The UK and Scottish Governments should have been working together quietly to carry out the necessary work to secure an exemption for the DRS under the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Single-use plastics have been exempted, for example. However, it is clear even from the Scottish Government’s publications that months went by without the heavy lifting happening. Those months were wasted, and the chickens are now coming home to roost. That is not the case just for the SNP-Green Government; businesses are under massive pressure in planning ahead, and the situation is a huge disappointment for those of us who want a workable scheme. In her statement today, the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity took absolutely no responsibility for the Scottish Government’s action—or lack of it in some cases. In the past few weeks, I have met stakeholders who, despite repeated requests, have not been given the opportunity to meet the minister responsible for the scheme.

Therefore, we need to improve devolution and to have better-quality government in Scotland. Crucially, we need the UK and Scottish Governments to work together, even though they disagree with each other, for the betterment of Scotland. They should not just grab headlines by having a fight with each other. [Interruption.] No, thank you. I have less than a minute to go.

I totally agree with the point in the motion about the cliff edge that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill would have created. I am proud of the work of that our Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee did to make the case for change. Labour argued strongly for a U-turn from the Tory Government, which it eventually delivered, but it took not only a lot of campaigning from us but cross-party lobbying and lobbying by businesses and stakeholders.

We delivered devolution and we appear to be the only party that is still interested in transforming the settlement to make it work. As colleagues have said, we have been here for two decades and we need to transform the UK. On that point, I appreciate the opportunity of the debate.

We need to move power out of the centre to strengthen democracy in Westminster and Holyrood and to empower our local authorities and communities. That has not been mentioned, but it—not leaving our councils cash strapped for more than a decade without the resources to provide the basic services that our constituents need—is core to devolution. That is the transformative change that people throughout Scotland need.

We need Scotland’s Governments, whether or not they agree, to co-operate where it matters in the interest of Scotland’s people and businesses. We need to elect a UK Government to get on with that job and the constitutional transformation that we need, which will not be delivered by the Tories, the SNP or the Greens.


John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

With great pleasure, I thank my friend and colleague Keith Brown for bringing this important debate to the Parliament. It is timely, given the events of the weekend and the undermining of this Parliament’s legislative competence by the Secretary of State for Scotland’s actions over the deposit return scheme.

I find myself as the only member of this Parliament who legislated for its establishment, having been a member of the House of Commons from 1997 to 2001. I had the privilege of listening to every debate on the floor of the house during the passage of the Scotland Act 1998. I listened to the long, long, long contributions that Mr Cameron’s relative Michael Ancram made to that debate.

I also listened to contributions from the late Secretary of State for Scotland and our first First Minister, Donald Dewar, and to Henry McLeish, who did all the heavy lifting on the implementation of the act. I cannot let Sarah Boyack’s speech pass without saying that they would be horrified by what has now become the Labour Party’s opinion in Scotland.

I listened not only to their and Michael Ancram’s contributions but those of distinguished Liberals in the House of Commons, such as Jim Wallace, Ray Michie and Michael Moore, all of whom conveyed the importance of the concept of self-government being at the heart of the project for Scottish devolution. That attitude ran through their speeches. Even though I sat there as a Scottish nationalist, I could hear in all the contributions from those Labour and Liberal members—Mr Ancram did not take the same view—a commitment to the concept of self-government within Scotland. That is being shredded in front of our eyes.

The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the Subsidy Control Act 2022, to mention only two acts, are devastatingly damaging pieces of legislation. They do not try to confront the concept of the Scotland Act 1998 by the front door; they do it by the back door. They use the excuse of Brexit to undermine this Parliament’s legislative competence and we are now living with the consequences.

To everybody in Scotland I say that we had better wake up to what is happening to the Parliament for which we all voted in the 1997 referendum. I campaigned enthusiastically for a yes-yes vote in 1997 and that concept is being shredded in front of our eyes by a malicious United Kingdom Government. My colleagues in other parties know how seriously I take these questions. I say to them that we have to act collectively to try to resist it.

When I sat with Maggie Chapman on the Smith commission in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, we pleaded for the cementing of the Sewel convention so that we could go further than the concept that was put on the record by Lord Sewel that the UK Parliament would not normally legislate on devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. We got some token words in the Scotland Act 2016 that Westminster would not normally legislate over the head of the Scottish Parliament. However, I ask members to look at what has happened since: it has happened as frequently as any statutory instrument process that goes through this building. It is now commonplace for the United Kingdom Government to ignore this Parliament’s views.

That was not the settlement that was crafted in 1998 and if we do not wake up to the threat that is coming our way as a consequence of all of this, we will witness the dismantling of the effective competence of the Parliament.

I will close on one of the points that Donald Cameron made, although I apologise for mentioning him in my final minute because I should allow him the opportunity to intervene if he wishes, but he can do it some other time. Mr Cameron accused us of not making full use of the powers that are available to us. However, we did so on the deposit return scheme: the Parliament made use of the full powers that are available to us and our powers and our competence were shredded by a malicious United Kingdom Government. All parties in this Parliament need to resist that.


Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I congratulate Keith Brown on bringing the motion to debate this evening. I also echo the calls of my colleague, Stuart McMillan, that this should be the subject of a Government debate. We should be highlighting the issue to the Scottish people.

I draw members’ attention to the silver mace that lies in front of us. Without its presence in the chamber, the Parliament cannot lawfully sit, debate or pass any legislation. Carved into the silver are the words “There shall be a Scottish Parliament”. At the reopening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Scotland’s first First Minister called the mace:

“a symbol of the great democratic traditions from which we draw our inspiration and our strength”.

On the founding words of our Parliament, he said:

“Through long years ... those words were first a hope, then a belief, then a promise. Now they are a reality.”

That reality, which we call devolution, has delivered us free tuition, record high health funding, a new social security system delivering 13 benefits including the Scottish child payment, free prescriptions, free bus travel for the over-60s and under-22s, free school meals for all children in primary 1 to primary 5, public ownership of ScotRail, free eye tests, free NHS dental care for under-26s, free period products for all who need them, better gender balance on public boards and world-leading climate targets. Those are just a handful of the achievements of this Parliament.

That brings me to the very purpose of the debate today. Why, after more than two decades of devolution, are we having to debate protecting it? Four minutes is nowhere near enough time for me to catalogue the litany of threats that the UK Government has made to Scottish democracy, but it is important that we remind ourselves precisely why Scotland must be vigilant to the quickening creep of authoritarianism, the on-going dilution of Scotland’s powers and growing disrespect from the UK Government with regard to Scottish democracy.

We do not need to look far to find cause for great concern. Only a few weeks ago in the English council elections, local election observers claimed that more than 1 per cent of voters, half of whom appeared to be from minority ethnic backgrounds, were turned away from polling stations.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Does the member share my confusion that some parties in this Parliament—I am thinking of the Labour Party—seem not to be overly bothered by the issues that she raises, despite the fact that the last time this Parliament was subjected to vetoes to its legislation to this extent, Queen Anne was on the throne?

Karen Adam

I agree with my colleague that it is extremely concerning and I would have hoped that colleagues across all parties would have taken it a lot more seriously by showing up in the chamber today.

Not content with restricting voting rights, the UK Government has also set its sights on other tenets of our democracy, including the right to protest. Protests that are deemed by the UK Government to be too noisy can now be shut down as a result of Tory legislation.

What does all this point to? An overbearing governing party at Westminster seeking to circumvent the foundations of democracy. Deep down, the Tories know that they are losing their grip on power and the only way that they can cling on to even the remotest suspicion of electoral success is to remove the rights of voters and restrict the voices of those who oppose them.

Although those might be shocking revelations south of the border, in Scotland we have sadly come to know all too well the dictatorial tactics of those who simply cannot accept that the Scottish people have roundly rejected their vision of Scotland at every single election for the past seven decades.

In their desperation, the Tories have turned to interfering with our democracy, through culture wars and wedge issues. They are criminalising asylum seekers who are fleeing war through the Illegal Migration Bill; they have blocked legislation that received a supermajority of support in this Parliament and that aimed to make the lives of trans people just a little bit easier; and they have blocked our efforts to tackle climate change with the deposit return scheme.

It is clear that we must not only retain the devolved powers that we already have but accelerate the pace at which we diverge and, ultimately, break away from this Westminster Government—a Government that is as morally corrupt as it is democratically bankrupt. What we need is independence.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I thank Keith Brown for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue.

Back in 2016 during the European Union referendum campaign, when Tory Brexiteers claimed that they were going to take back control, few of us thought that our Parliament would be in their sights, but that is where the disastrous Brexit project has headed. It is not enough to withdraw from the collaborative cross-national politics of the EU; we must now also unpick the progressive politics of devolution, apparently.

Centralising power in the corridors of Westminster, where anyone can have a say as long as their pockets are deep enough and they have friends in high places, was the logical next step. We therefore find ourselves being blocked from introducing a policy—the deposit return scheme—that was once supported by all parties in this chamber and was legislated for back in 2020, before the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 had passed, and which is wholly within the devolved competencies of this Parliament. It sounds absurd and, indeed, if you asked our European colleagues, for whom deposit return schemes are a long-standing part of public life, they would say that it is indeed absurd that such a constitutional crisis should be caused by a simple recycling scheme.

However, let us be honest: we all know that this is not about glass bottles or recycling; it is about the Tories’ fundamental and long-standing opposition to the principle of devolution. That same principled opposition led to the section 35 challenge to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. We explicitly wrote into our legislation that it would not affect the Equality Act 2010, yet that was not good enough. Making life a bit simpler for marginalised people is clearly less important to the Tories than taking back control from democratic devolved Governments.

At least the Tories have mostly been open about their opposition to devolution, so their behaviour is not entirely unexpected. Labour members, on the other hand—the self-proclaimed architects of devolution—are just sitting back and watching as the UK Government rides roughshod over this Parliament. Labour’s encouragement for all sides to use a common frameworks approach to resolve the GRR dispute is utterly disingenuous, when we know that Westminster routinely bypasses those frameworks whenever that suits it.

Keith Brown

I thank Maggie Chapman for taking an intervention. I tried to intervene on Sarah Boyack, because I wanted to make the point that, although she is the only Labour member in the chamber, I believe her sincerity when she says that she supports devolution. That goes back to the time when I campaigned with her father and ran a marathon to raise money for a Scottish assembly, as it was called.

Is Maggie Chapman, like me, utterly dismayed that the strongest Labour voice in defence of this Parliament is the First Minister of Wales?

Maggie Chapman

That is pretty shocking and a betrayal of everyone who fought so hard to ensure that Scotland had a Parliament of its own in the first place.

The current situation raises serious and fundamental questions about the future of this Parliament. I am deeply concerned that the behaviour of the UK Government and the blanket powers that it has granted itself through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 will lead us into a deadlock that will make much of this Parliament’s work impossible. The Green and SNP Government has a democratic mandate to deliver the shared programme of policies on which we were elected but, as it stands, between the IMA and the ultimate veto of section 35, there is a real doubt that we will be able to make much progress that the UK Government will not try to block.

Just this week, a UK Government source told the media—not the Scottish Government—that the UK Government may withhold permission for greater marine protections, despite the fact that it is already rolling out that policy in English waters. So what will be next? Will the UK Government try to take back free bus passes from our young people because it wants a single internal market for public transport? Will it block our plans for rent controls because it puts the profit of private landlords above the right to a decent affordable home? Will it challenge our proposal to end abusive conversion practices, because that, too, would supposedly impact the Equality Act 2010?

It is increasingly clear that the Tory UK Government is on borrowed time, and it knows it. Rishi Sunak, Alister Jack and their colleagues seem determined to burn the place down on their way out. Members in this chamber, from across all parties, should unite to defend the democratic mandate of this Parliament and the democratically cast votes of our constituents, because right now devolution faces an existential threat.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I call the next speaker, I should say that, due to the number of speakers who want to participate in the debate and given the time, I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Keith Brown to move the motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Keith Brown]

Motion agreed to.


Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

I congratulate my colleague Keith Brown on lodging the motion, which so clearly identifies the assault on the powers of this Parliament by a UK Government that is led by a party that never wanted any kind of Scottish control over Scottish affairs and which is now clearly doing everything in its power to neuter our ability to govern, as we have been asked to do, by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland.

Historically, the process of the attacks laid out in the motion has been in play since the leave vote in 2016, but rather than have some abstract consideration of a principle, I want to focus on one area in particular to give some context to what all of this means in reality. As important as principles are, the direct effect is more important to folk in their day-to-day lives.

As a hill sheep and cattle farmer with a diversified catering business, I was at the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston on the day that the vote to leave was confirmed. There was a palpable feeling of shock around the ground, because nobody in the farming community actually thought that it was possible. It was possible in England, but not in Scotland.

However, my concerns in this respect went back to the Scottish referendum, when my biggest fear for the farming sector was that the very strong rural voices of French and German farmers in advocating for the sector EU-wide would be lost to us, and we would then be at the mercy of a UK Government that had long espoused the theory that food was a global commodity that was easily enough acquired. Domestic production was not its priority, and the sector would be betrayed in the same way that the fishing industry was when we entered the common market.

In fact, I was so concerned that I attended the National Farmers Union autumn conference, where a certain David Mundell was the guest speaker. When I asked him where the powers over agriculture would lie now that England had overridden the people of Scotland’s desire to stay in the EU, he obfuscated and said that we would now have even more powers.

When I went to the spring conference, I asked the same question of the Conservatives’ Scottish leader Ruth Davidson. I have to say that she was far more ebullient, but she essentially said the same as Mundell. When, in my follow up, I asked whether the same amount of money would be available and whether the Scottish Government would have full powers over agricultural policy to deliver the needs of the Scottish people, her response was more telling. She said, “Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune.” The intent was therefore clear from day 1.

Since then, we have had the New Zealand and Australia trade deals, which will harm our agricultural sector; the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which will harm not only agriculture but, as we have heard, many other areas; and the Subsidy Control Act 2022, which will limit our powers to support sections of our community such as hill and upland farming, if the UK Government chooses to use it as it has used the UK Internal Market Act 2020. All those major issues in agriculture are tiny parts of the overall move to stifle our right as a Government and the will of our people to be governed by the people whom they elect to do so.

Devolution was designed from the start to halt Scotland’s inevitable and irreversible move towards being an independent country, and now that the confidence and self-belief of the people of Scotland are becoming evident, they—the Westminster parties—are flexing their muscles to try to contain and control it. The Labour Party was always terrified of this day coming—so much so that it set the trap that is now being sprung by the Tories. The Scotland Act 1998 was Labour’s method of giving what it believed was just enough power to Scotland to quell any feelings of nationalism that was not British nationalism. It was for that reason that it wrote into the Scotland Bill the clause that allowed the power over constitutional affairs to be reserved. How many people who voted in the election to establish this Parliament knew that the price that we would have to pay for that to Labour paymasters was the very inalienable right to self-determination?

It is that alone that ties the hands and makes obsolete the votes of the Scottish people when it comes to where our constitutional future lies. Those in the Labour Party are the modern sellers of Scottish rights “for English gold”, in the mould so abhorrent to Burns. They were wrong to do it, and it must be reversed.

The Scotland Act 1998 should be amended to repatriate the powers of the sovereign will of the people to be exercised in the normal democratic manner by the people of Scotland alone, without needing approval from the governor general. The denial of that right to the people belies the fact that this United Kingdom is a democracy. If it is not a democracy, why should the rest of the world—or the people of Scotland—pretend that it is?


Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

The Scottish Parliament reconvened on 1 July 1999, 300 years after it was abolished, as part of the process of union with England. For the benefit of the sole occupant of the Labour benches, the two occupants of the Tory benches and the deserted Liberal Democrat benches, I quote the words of Donald Dewar, who was the first First Minister:

“There shall be a Scottish Parliament. Through long years, those words were first a hope, then a belief, then a promise. Now they are a reality. ... Today, we look forward to the time when this moment will be seen as a turning point: the day when democracy was renewed in Scotland, when we revitalised our place in this our United Kingdom. This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves. ... The past is part of us. But today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future. Walter Scott wrote that only a man with soul so dead could have no sense, no feel of his native land. For me, for any Scot, today is a proud moment; a new stage on a journey begun long ago and which has no end.”

I was there; I heard those lyrical words at the rebirth of this ancient Parliament.

I repeat:

“A journey begun long ago and which has no end.”

Many of us were then inexperienced, taking our first steps into formalised politics and learning how to be effective—in my case, as an Opposition back bencher and committee convener.

Twenty-four years on, this Parliament has matured and defined its Scottishness, social democratic values and distinctive priorities. I am proud of free personal care, which the Labour-Liberal coalition brought in, and the SNP’s minimum unit pricing, free prescriptions, concessionary fares, free childcare and the more recent child payment.

I have observed six Governments in my six sessions here. Not one of them has been perfect, but they have all been accountable at the ballot box to the Scottish electorate, which has spoken loud and clear for the second time and delivered an overall majority that is indisputably committed to Scottish independence.

Now, a Government that we did not vote for—there are only six Scottish Tory MPs to the SNP’s 45—denies and even defies devolution, let alone the democratic right of the people to a referendum, as it interferes in devolved areas. What next? What will happen around, for example, nuclear power, against the will of Parliament, which controls planning law, and against the will of the Scottish people? Power devolved is, indeed, power retained; for the current Tory Government, it is power regained, which is a red alert to all who support devolution, if not independence.

We have, as a nation, travelled so far in nearly a quarter of a century, regaining our Scottish voice. The remedy lies where it must—with the Scottish people, who are sovereign, and not with Westminster. Let people use their voice loud and clear at the next election. Only independence gives them the Government and the policies that they vote for. To this chamber, that is democracy.


The Minister for Independence (Jamie Hepburn)

I join other members in thanking Keith Brown for initiating this debate, and I agree with John Swinney that it is important to have it.

Many members—Christine Grahame, from whom we have just heard, Collette Stevenson, Karen Adam, Stuart McMillan and others—have talked about the advances that we have secured through devolution, and Maggie Chapman talked about those that are yet to come. It is important that we have this debate because, if the Scottish Parliament cannot stand up for the advances of devolution, who will? In that regard, I am very grateful to those members who have taken the time to participate.

However, I genuinely regret that participation in the debate has been limited in some quarters. In a sense, we would have expected the Tories not to have taken part in it with gusto. However, I agree with Donald Cameron, who said that looking at who signed the motion that we are debating tells us all we need to know. I could not agree more with that sentiment. That does tell us all we need to know.

The absence of Labour’s participation has been more disappointing. Only one of its 22 MSPs elected to the Parliament has sought to contribute. That is no slight on Sarah Boyack. I agree with Keith Brown, who talked about her sincerity in her defence of devolution. At least she took the time to participate in the debate. However, I have to say that her sense of regret that we debate the constitution rather than how we deliver for the people of Scotland seems to be based fundamentally on a false premise, as those things are inextricably interlinked.

It is of genuine regret that not a single Liberal Democrat has participated in the debate. I say that on the basis that we can expect that from the Tories, but the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens fought hard for the establishment of this institution, and we would expect those parties to stand up when threats to it have to be taken into account.

I say to Stuart McMillan that the Scottish Government would be very happy to bring forward a debate on the matter, because the issue is, sadly, unlikely to go away any time soon.

The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government have maintained a high level of trust and support from the people of Scotland. The latest social attitudes survey showed that three times as many people trusted the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s best interests as those who trusted the UK Government to do so.

Sarah Boyack talked about the two Governments working together. I say to her that that is not for lack of trying. I can tell her that there are many instances in which I have sought to engage with the UK Government, as have many of my colleagues. However, that is not often reciprocated.

Fundamentally, people in Scotland want decisions to be taken in Scotland, but that principle is under attack. Decisions that the UK Government has taken, especially since 2016, have highlighted the inherent vulnerability of devolved institutions within the UK’s constitutional system. There have been fundamental changes in the relationships between the Governments and Parliaments at Westminster and Holyrood. As we have heard, the UK Government has undermined the Sewel convention, and it appears intent on continuing to do so. What was unheard of prior to Brexit has been normalised.

Keith Brown quoted Mark Drakeford, who is no supporter of independence for Scotland or, indeed, independence for Wales. He said:

“When it became inconvenient for the UK Government to observe Sewel, they just went ahead and rode roughshod through it.”

That is not how devolution is supposed to work. As Keith Brown said, we have the absurdity of a Labour First Minister of Wales standing up for Scottish devolution more than the Scottish Labour Party is prepared to.

The UK Government is increasingly using novel methods to block some of the Scottish Parliament’s legislation. It has referred the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill to the Supreme Court, and it has blocked royal assent for the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill using parts of the Scotland Act 1998 that had not been used before. On the latter, one of our number said something to the BBC that was quite telling. They said that that move

“feels like a politically malicious act, and I think it’s about time that Viceroy Jack got back in his box.”

That was not said by any member of my party or the Green supporters of independence—it was said by Paul Sweeney. It would have been nice if he had been here to take part in this debate.

I will address the issue of the section 35 order, which Donald Cameron commented on. Although that may be in the Scotland Act 1998, it is meant to be used as a last resort. The UK Government has not followed the memorandum of understanding in avoiding the use of that provision through negotiation and engagement. That goes back to the point that I made about Sarah Boyack’s remarks. It is not as simple as the Scottish Government and the UK Government working together.

As we have seen with the Sewel convention, once the UK Government has set a precedent, it finds it easier to justify using a power repeatedly, to erode our hard-won settlement. Its disrespect for devolution can be seen in other ways. In relation to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, ministers received a request for legislative consent on a Friday afternoon, only to hear on the following Monday in the House of Lords that the UK Government would proceed without that consent. We can also see that disrespect through the UK Government’s disregard for the mandate that the people of Scotland have given the Scottish Parliament to hold an independence referendum. Again, the UK Government’s convenience supersedes Scotland’s democratic principles.

That dismissive approach to devolution and democracy has already had real-world effects. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020—which was imposed on Scotland—demonstrates how damaging overriding the Scottish Parliament can be to the devolution settlement. We have seen what has happened in respect of the deposit return scheme. On the notion that the two Governments should work together, there have been attempts over the past two years to engage to try to secure that arrangement. On Friday night, the UK Government made an 11th hour attempt to sabotage that scheme, which we have legislated for.

The 2020 act has also given UK ministers new powers to spend directly on devolved services in Scotland. That is similar to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. In relation to levelling up, I thought that Donald Cameron was either ill informed—although I have never found him to be a man who is ill informed—or disingenuous when he suggested that the Scottish Government has never complained about the EU providing funding for the people of Scotland. The key difference, which he knows, is that that funding was provided via the Scottish Government, which enabled a coherent policy approach, rather than via a UK Government that is riding roughshod over the elected Government of Scotland.

That is not what the people of Scotland voted for, which is why we need to take another constitutional path. The Scottish Government remains committed to the belief that decisions about Scotland are best made by the people who live in Scotland. Although we will always stand up for the gains made by devolution, the process of its erosion by Westminster underlines its limitations. Only independence would secure Scotland’s democratic future, whereby decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who live here through this elected Scottish Parliament.

That concludes the debate. I close this meeting of Parliament.

Meeting closed at 18:12.