19 January 2017
Brexit, independence and reform
As in the rest of the UK this week, the talk of the town in Scotland is Brexit, following Theresa May's announcement that the UK "cannot possibly" remain in the Single Market. Brexit has been the major talking point in Holyrood over the last few months, and this has increased following the Scottish government publishing a paper entitled Scotland's Place in Europe in December, as well as Theresa May's speech.
There are a number of areas in which the paper is in agreement with the UK government's position on Brexit negotiations – on workers' rights and the recognition that powers repatriated from the EU should be devolved if they fall in areas that would normally be devolved. However, it's impossible to escape the reality that the UK government aims don't entirely align with the Scottish government, and this will have a knock-on effect on the constitutional arrangement for Scotland as we move forward.
At this stage is seems unlikely that the Scottish government will succeed in achieving their goal of a differentiated position for Scotland in the final Brexit deal. This strengthens talk of a second independence referendum, only a week after Nicola Sturgeon ruled this out during 2017.
In the 2016 SNP Holyrood manifesto, the SNP raised the prospect of a referendum re-run if there was a "material change in circumstances", and in the aftermath of the EU referendum suggested membership of (rather than access to) the single market could be a red line to trigger one when launching the SNP's "listening exercise" on independence last summer. With those circumstances met, it promises to be an ongoing talking point.
There is widespread agreement that Brexit should change Scotland's devolution settlement, including from the Scottish secretary, David Mundell. As powers over agriculture and fisheries will be repatriated from the EU, and those matters are devolved to Holyrood, the SNP have been pushing for the UK government to confirm those powers will be returned to the devolved administration after Brexit, rather than reserved by Westminster.
All these impending changes, in addition to those powers currently being devolved to Holyrood, have rightly sparked a conversation about the roles, structures and effectiveness of the parliament itself, leading to the presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, Ken Macintosh, establishing the Commission on Parliamentary Reform. It's a conversation that as churches who are part of the fabric of Scottish civic society we need to be involved with.
When the Scottish Parliament was created 18 years ago it was purposely set up differently to Westminster – the government and opposition benches aren't opposite one another to attempt to create a more consensual atmosphere, the electoral system is a mix of first past the post and proportional lists, to ensure no one party dominates. However, there are elements that have been criticised, and the commission has been set up to explore changes to make the parliament more effective.
Possible avenues under consideration include expanding the number of MSPs (to reflect the increased powers and workload of the parliament), the electoral system (to alter the balance between directly elected seats and those provided by the list system, or to look at the effect the list system has on the power of central party officials), and also the parliament's committees and the powers given to them. We will be following the work of this commission and plan to respond to their consultation in February.
Constitutional issues will not be the only talk in Holyrood in 2017 and we expect legislation in areas of Christian interest such as education, welfare, land reform and transgender to name a few. However they will be hugely significant.
Once again our challenge will be to consider our identity in Christ first and foremost (over any national or political identity) and then to consider how we can be Salt and Light in building a better Scotland that reflects more of Christ's values, in whatever area of policy or constitutional change is proposed.
To respond to the Commission for Parliamentary Reform click here:
To read our previous work on Holyrood powers and constitutional work click below:
What Kind of Holyrood?
What Kind of Nation?
Image: CC0 Scottish Government