Henry Hill: Shetland Islands open door to breakaway future as constitutional battle lines are drawn

10 Sep

Shetland explores secession from Scotland…

The phoney war is well and truly over, as this week saw the temperature of the constitutional debate turned up to boiling point on several fronts.

Perhaps most eye-catchingly, the Shetland News reports that the islands’ council has voted to explore ways of gaining self-determination within – or indeed, from – Scotland, in response to more than a decade of ruthless centralisation by the Nationalist administration in Edinburgh.

The Northern Isles have always been devosceptic, wary of getting dominated by an over-mighty Scottish legislature versus a more distant Westminster. This week’s vote was decisive, with councillors splitting in favour of exploring the options by a majority of 18 to 2. Even the SNP’s sole representative supported the motion, although he is wary of it becoming a vehicle for the islands seeking “a relationship with what’s left of the UK after the Scottish independence referendum”.

It should be just that, of course, although the question remains what form that should take. Iain Martin writes at Reaction that crown dependency status would be one of the options explored, but this would leave the Shetland Islands formally outside the UK and without representation at Westminster. The Government should actively engage in finding a better, more integrated alternative.

…as constitutional battle heats up

Beyond that, this week also saw the publication of the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill, and with it the start of a long-overdue pushback against the May Government’s disastrous capitulation on the question of (badly-mislabelled) ‘post-Brexit devolved powers’.

For its part, the Government claims that it felt moved to ‘clarify’ the Withdrawal Agreement after what it took to be veiled threats by the European Union to ban British food exports to Northern Ireland.

Such an outcome is of course entirely unacceptable to a sovereign state which places any value on its territorial integrity – although given that the entire point of an Irish Sea border is that it makes such things possible, ministers do need to explain why this didn’t occur to them previously. For their part, the DUP have offered ‘cautious support’.

This led has led David Melding, the arch-devolutionary member of the Welsh Parliament, to resign from the Tory front bench. In the same week Daran Hill, a high profile ‘Yes’ campaigner in both of the modern Welsh devolution referendums, has joined the Party – a move devosceptics believe is aimed at shoring up official Conservative support for Cardiff Bay in the face of mounting grassroots disaffection.

Whilst it was always very likely that a proper unionist constitutional fightback would alienate devocrats, the Government should be sure to invest time and energy in building the full case that justifies the new strategy if they want to have any hope of winning public support.

This comes as Mark Drakeford, the nationalist (Labour) First Minister of Wales, launched a fierce attack on the proposals and stated that his Party should not stand in the way of a second independence referendum. The Welsh Labour leader was voicing the anger of devocrats that spending and regulatory powers previously vested in Brussels are now, perfectly sensibly, being vested in London. The SNP have also hit out at proposals which will see Westminster directly funding roads, cultural events, and other schemes “for the first time in decades”.

Salmond inquiry puts Sturgeon’s husband in the spotlight

There has been a new twist in the ongoing saga of the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s mishandling of complaints against Alex Salmond – one which really puts a spotlight on just how tight-knit the top of the Scottish National Party really is.

Centre stage this week is Peter Murrell, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, who also holds the role of Chief Executive of the SNP, who this week claimed not to have been told about what several meetings between the First Minister and her predecessor (held at the couple’s own home) were about – despite her having claimed the meetings were in her capacity as SNP leader.

Murrell has reportedly angered MSPs conducting the investigation through ‘disrespectful’ conduct, according to the Times, whilst the Daily Telegraph reports that he denies knowledge of Nationalist ministers using party email addresses instead of official accounts, despite Sturgeon apparently doing so “for years”.

Beyond Murrell, Salmond himself has threatened to take the Scottish Government to court (again) in order to force it to release documents relating to its botched inquiry into allegations against him. Meanwhile Leslie Evans, the embattled Permanent Secretary who is Scotland’s most senior civil servant, has been fending off claims that she is or was ‘at war’ with the former First Minister.

McDonnell defends Leonard as Scottish Labour battle intensifies

Last week, we covered the apparently abortive effort by senior figures in the Scottish Labour MSP group to force out Richard Leonard, their ineffectual and increasingly isolated leader, who is still refusing to step down.

At the time it appeared that the move had failed, but this week the Daily Record reports that Leonard’s opponents believe they have the numbers for a formal leadership challenge. However, allies of the leadership claim that there is in fact no mechanism by which the MSP group can oust their leader, and both sides are now embroiled in a very Labour-ish dispute over the technicalities.

Whilst not of the hard left himself, Leonard is widely viewed as having been close to the national leadership under Jeremy Corbyn, and John McDonnell will have done nothing to challenge this perception when he came to the former’s defence this week. On the other side Rachel Reeves, a member of the current Shadow Cabinet, urged him to consider his position.

The Scottish Labour leader also received some unexpected support from both Tories and Nationalists are Dehenna Davison, the MP for Bishop Auckland, appeared to blame his failings on his English accent.

Op-eds:

  • The fightback to save the Union starts with the Internal Market Bill – Alun Cairns MP, Daily Telegraph
  • The rules of Britain’s internal market should be set by Westminster – Matt Kilcoyne, CapX
  • Dividing the UK – Owen Polley, The Article
  • We’re not nostalgic flag wavers but Tories who see the UK as force for good – Robin Millar MP, Daily Express
  • Unionists must do much more than just deny the SNP their referendum – Henry Hill, CapX