In a recent interview with the News Agents podcast, the First Minister said that she is no longer 100% certain that the Conservatives would not attempt to abolish the Scottish Parliament. Even a few months ago this would have been an unthinkable possibility, but given the blatantly anti-democratic behaviour of the Conservatives over recent months with concerted attempts by the Conservatives both at Westminster and at Holyrood to delegitimise and undermine the Scottish Parliament, it now seems clear that the Conservatives would abolish the devolution settlement if they thought that they could get away with it. Combined with a Labour party which pays only lip service to challenging the Conservatives’ attacks on the powers of Holyrood, we are perilously close to the political situation where the Conservatives might think that the political damage caused to them by the abolition of the devolution settlement is outweighed by the advantages of concentrating all power at Westminster, which in practical terms means in the hands of whoever happens to occupy Ten Downing Street.
The only thing preventing the Conservatives from a head on assault on Holyrood, and the devolution settlement in general is their fear of the political consequences in England. They have given up on Scotland, even though they cannot admit it, but they know that there are few votes to be had for them in Scotland, certainly not enough to help them to victory at the next General Election. What they are afraid of is Labour weaponising a Conservative attempt to abolish the devolution settlement in order to portray the Conservatives as a danger to British unity and to the national interest.
However, perhaps even more salient in their thinking is that they are also afraid that an overt attempt on their part to abolish the devolution settlement without any mandate to do so from Scotland or Wales would put turbo boosters under the demand for independence, something that they cannot afford to risk as long as Scottish independence and the possibility of another independence referendum remain live electoral issues. Even BBC Scotland would have a hard time explaining away or minimising the impact of a return to the direct Conservative rule of the 1980s and 1990s. If Scotland is foolish enough to vote against independence in another independence referendum, then the Conservatives would not hesitate to abolish Holyrood or at least to introduce measures to turn it into a toothless talking shop, because under those circumstances they could do so with limited political damage to themselves.
To be clear, the First Minister still does not believe that the Conservatives would go so far as to abolish the devolution settlement outright. The reality is that they can achieve their Anglo-British nationalist centralising goals by other, less direct means. You don’t pick a fight that is going to cause you significant harm even if you know you are going to win in the end if you also know that you can achieve all or most of the same goals by other less overt and more underhand means which do no come with the same cost to you.
The Conservatives are venal, politically short-sighted, and deeply hypocritical, but they are not entirely stupid, at least not all of them, and they know that they can achieve most of their aims by less overt means which can be provided with political explanations which will not attract the attention or anger of a Scottish media which is already overwhelmingly disposed to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Instead what is more likely to happen is that we will see further incremental attacks on the devolution settlement and a gradual chipping away of the powers of the devolved parliaments combined with more measures allowing Westminster to intervene directly on devolved matters, by-passing the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments like those we have already seen. This would give the Conservatives political cover and allow the likes of Michael Gove to assert that the Tories are really ‘augmenting’ devolution, a claim which the supine Scottish media will allow to pass unchallenged no matter how risible it really is.
Should the Conservatives successfully normalise the use of a section 35 order, which they have employed in order to veto the Gender Recognition Bill passed by a cross party majority at Holyrood, we will find that future Labour governments are just as ready as the Conservatives to employ this measure in order to ensure compliance on the part of the devolved parliaments and we will be in a position where Holyrood will self-censor and be reluctant to pass any legislation which has not met with the prior approval of the British Government or find itself under attack from Scotland’s overwhelmingly anti-independence media for ‘grievance politics’ and ‘picking fights with Westminster’. The fundamental basis of the devolution settlement will have been negated, and the Conservatives will have achieved most of their key aim with only very limited political damage to themselves.
Those independence supporters who warn that the Conservatives are poised to abolish the Scottish Parliament are missing the real Conservative strategy. The Tories do not need to abolish Holyrood when they can get away with what the First Minister calls their “concerted effort to undermine, delegitimise and remove powers from this parliament.” That is what the Conservatives have been doing since the EU referendum of 2016, and they will intensify those efforts in the months and years ahead.
Labour will not resist these gradual attacks and the incremental political erosion of the powers of the Scottish Parliament because Starmer knows that if the Conservatives are successful in getting away with them it increases his own room for manoeuvre once he gets himself into Number Ten. Spending political capital to ‘defend the Scots’ which merely damages Labour’s standing among those English nationalist Brexit supporting voters whom Labour strategists have identified as the key constituency which Starmer must win over in order to ensure a Labour victory at the next General Election.
It remains highly unlikely that short of a resounding defeat for independence in a future independence referendum – de facto or otherwise – the Conservatives will move to pass legislation to abolish the Scottish Parliament outright, instead Holyrood and the powers of the Scottish Parliament will be subjected to a long slow and lingering death by a thousand cuts.
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