Scotland on Sunday reports that David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has “challenged” Nicola Sturgeon to specify how new powers will be used. According to the report, “the UK government will not meet the SNP’s drive for more powers unless Sturgeon’s party produces ‘detailed proposals’ to demonstrate the benefits of further devolution.”
It’s been deeply embarrassing at times to see how little is understood in Westminster about what has been happening in Scottish politics, and this is another prime example. The first problem is practical. Mundell’s ‘challenge’ amounts to a requirement to produce a full legislative programme which cannot legally be enacted in its own terms. Why would any responsible government do that? The second problem lies in the legislative process. Nicola Sturgeon is the First Minister of Scotland, and that is not much like being the governor of a province of the Roman empire, or for that matter a directly elected Mayor. She does not speak for, and cannot bind, the Scottish Parliament. All a government can do is to propose legislation, and use their best endeavours to deliver it – and in Scotland, where the parliament has fallen inexplicably into the habit of listening to reasoned evidence from people who disagree, that does not mean that it will be done. (Look at what happened to the review of criminal evidence.)
The third problem is an issue of principle. Time and again, devolution has been seen as a process where the UK Parliament permits local authorities to administer central policies through delegated authority. Mundell’s ‘challenge’ asks for the Scottish Government to come up with detailed proposals that he will then review, one by one, to determine whether or not they can be permitted to go forward for consideration. Scotland has spent more than two years considered an argument for something different – the power to make its own decisions in defined areas. The ‘vow’ said that this was going to happen; the Smith Commission said that it would happen; and the latest draft legislation bends over backwards to make sure it won’t happen.