Nicola Sturgeon: Brexit could mean a loss of powers for Scotland

This is a podcast extract – for a recording of the full speech see the audio link at the bottom of the page.

The First Minister’s speech to the David Hume Institute on 28 February. Links to a television clip and a complete audio recording are at the bottom of the page. Photographs by courtesy of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

I value – as I am sure all the party leaders do – the opportunity to discuss with you some of the key issues facing Scotland for the future.

When I first spoke here as SNP leader in 2015, it was in the aftermath of the independence referendum. Last year, it was during the run-up to the Scottish parliamentary elections and the EU referendum. And so I hoped – as I suspect many of you did – that 2017 might be a slightly quieter year in Scottish politics.

However, as you have probably noticed, things haven’t quite turned out that way. Within a month, we expect the UK Government to formally trigger Article 50 – setting the United Kingdom on course towards leaving the European Union.

And so this evening – perhaps not surprisingly – I want to talk about that. I’m not planning to concentrate on the likely impact that leaving the EU and the single market would have on Scotland – although as you know, I believe Brexit’s effects would be profound, long-lasting and damaging to our economy and our society.

Instead, I wish to concentrate more specifically on what Brexit means for democracy in Scotland – how it has exposed the democratic deficit which still exists at the heart of our governance, and what options we have for addressing that.

But I want to begin by looking back. This year marks the 20th anniversary of another referendum – the one which led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. That referendum confirmed overwhelming support for devolution – it was supported by almost ¾ of those who voted.

And it’s maybe worth thinking back to why the decision was so resounding. The campaign for a Scottish Parliament was based – above all –on the idea that we faced a democratic deficit. Decisions were being taken for Scotland – so often by governments we didn’t vote for – rather than by Scotland.

The late Canon Kenyon Wright made the argument well in 1989, on the first day of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. He was speaking two days before the poll tax came into force in Scotland. And he said this about the UK Parliament

Again and again…it has debated measures which have affected quite fundamentally Scotland’s national institutions and the quality of life of our people. Again and again the elected representatives of the Scottish people have voted….against these damaging policies. Again and again and again parliament has imposed these on Scotland.”

The poll tax wasn’t the only example of this democratic deficit. Many social and economic policies of the 1970s and 1980s – such as the way in which deindustrialisation was handled across many parts of the country – would also stand as examples.

But the poll tax – perhaps more than anything else – came to exemplify Scotland’s democratic deficit. It was implemented in Scotland despite overwhelming public opposition. And perhaps the overriding reason that so many people in 1997 endorsed the idea of a Scottish Parliament, was to prevent that – or anything like it – ever happening again.

In many respects, of course, the Scottish Parliament has been a very significant success.  It is now firmly established as the centre of Scottish public life – the institution which people expect, and most trust, to reflect their priorities, values and dreams.

Devolution has enabled us to pursue a different approach to politics. Now, I don’t want to overstate this case. Scottish politics – and I’m being polite here – is never knowingly non-tribal!

But at the very least, the modern working practices of Holyrood are far removed from some of the more arcane rituals of Westminster.  And the fact that we have proportional representation means that a search for consensus – a degree of give and take and negotiation – is part and parcel of the Scottish parliamentary system.

But of course the contrast between the Scottish and UK Parliaments isn’t just one of approach; there have also been significant differences in policy.

Early Scottish Parliaments saw measures such as world leading homelessness legislation and a ban on smoking in public places. The Government I now lead reintroduced free university tuition and set the most ambitious climate change targets in the world. It has legislated for a minimum price for alcohol – although that’s a measure still held up in the courts. It has mitigated the impact of UK Government welfare cuts such as the bedroom tax, and expanded early years education and care.

All of these are significant achievements of devolution.

And let me stress, they belong to more than one government and more than one party.

One of the areas where that contrast with the UK Government has been most obvious in recent years, has been our approach to universal benefits. The Scottish Parliament has chosen to provide, defend and extend certain core universal services, rights and benefits.

That decision helps households across the country. It helps, for example –

  • Students who benefit from higher education without incurring £9000 a year of debt for tuition costs;
  • Older people who are entitled to concessionary bus travel and who are eligible, if they need it, for free personal care.
  • Commuters who no longer pay bridge tolls for their journey into work.
  • Families who benefit from a health service which is free at the point of delivery. Before 2007, more than half a million people who earned as little as than £16,000 a year had to pay for prescriptions.

Now, as you know, the Scottish Parliament decided last week that higher rate taxpayers in Scotland should have a different tax threshold from taxpayers in the rest of the UK.

Instead of following the UK Government with a hefty increase in the higher rate threshold – one of the policies that the Resolution Foundation has said will take the UK back to levels of inequality not seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher – we decided to freeze it.  As a result, we are asking people who earn more than £43,000 a year, not to pay more than they do now, but to forego a tax cut of approximately £7.70 a week: less than the price of a single prescription in England.

There has been a lot of misleading analysis of that decision. It has been reported that it makes Scotland the most highly taxed part of the UK. But that argument simply isn’t true.

It completely ignores the fact that the Scottish Government protected households across Scotland from council tax increases for 9 years. That didn’t happen in the rest of the UK.

Average council tax charges in Scotland are significantly lower than in the UK as a whole – to the tune of around £300-400 a year. Even now, the level of council tax increases in Scotland – a maximum of 3% – is lower than the 5% increases permitted in England.

And of course the argument about tax shouldn’t simply be about what you pay in; it’s about what you get back. For many households – if they have children at university, or parents who need personal care, or if they themselves need prescriptions – the benefits of living in a country with strong universal public services far outweigh the benefits of a £7.70 a week tax cut.

I’ve stressed that principle of universality – partly because it has become a key point of distinction between Scottish and UK Governments, but also because it reflects a bigger principle. Universal services are part of a social contract between the government and the people.

We invest in public services to help provide a secure, stable and inclusive society for everyone who lives here. We believe that by doing so we can encourage people’s talent, enterprise and ambition. We can help to ensure that Scotland will be a place where people want to visit, invest, work and live.

And as part of that, we don’t try to divide society between one mass of people who contribute taxes, and another group who receive benefits. That doesn’t actually reflect reality. We help and support everyone to contribute to society; and we enable everyone to receive some common services or benefits.

In my view – though again, I don’t want to overstate this – one possible reason why the result of the EU referendum was different in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, is that we have been able to demonstrate a more progressive, inclusive approach to social and economic policy.

That doesn’t mean that everything here is perfect – of course it doesn’t. And it certainly doesn’t disregard the fact that a very substantial minority of people in Scotland – 1 million in total – voted to leave the EU. But it may mean that the sense of being left behind or ignored – which is often perceived as a factor in the wider UK’s Brexit vote – played less of a part here.

In addition, the institutions established by devolution command – certainly in relative terms – widespread confidence.  According to the most recent figures, 73% of people in Scotland trust the Scottish Government to act in Scotland’s long-term interests. That is more than three times higher than trust in the UK Government. It’s maybe worth being clear about that – it’s not three percentage points higher, it is actually three times higher than trust in the UK Government.

So in my view, the distinctive approach to politics which has been pursued by successive Scottish Parliaments may well be – at least in part – responsible for the different EU referendum results in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

However it is that distinctive approach that is also now challenged by the outcome of the EU referendum.

Having our own national parliament and a government located here in Scotland has unquestionably made the governance of Scotland more democratic, more representative and more responsive to the people.

But after 20 years of progress, devolution in Scotland is now facing a grave threat from the Conservatives at Westminster.

The democratic deficit which fuelled the demand for a Scottish Parliament in the 1980s and 1990s has opened up again.

The Brexit process has emboldened a now powerful Westminster faction, which perhaps never fully embraced devolution, and which now sees an opportunity to rein in the Scottish Parliament.

In place of a multinational United Kingdom democracy, they see Brexit as the way to claw back ground.

This direction of travel is clear for all to see when we examine what happened before, during and after the Brexit vote.

In the 2014 independence referendum, a key plank of the Better Together campaign was the assertion that a Yes vote would put our EU membership at risk and a No vote would secure it.

However, in no time at all after Scotland voted to stay in UK, we faced an EU referendum – even though the Tories whose policy it was returned just one MP in Scotland at the General Election.

The Scottish Government argued that 16 and 17 year-olds should have the vote – but Westminster said No.

We also argued EU citizens should be allowed to vote – but Westminster said No.

And we also took seriously the UK Government’s argument – one which was made repeatedly during the independence referendum campaign – that the United Kingdom is a partnership of equals. We proposed, on that basis, that the United Kingdom should only leave the EU, if all four countries within it voted to leave.

After all, if the UK truly is a partnership of equals, that should be reflected in the reality of legislation, as well as the rhetoric of campaigning. But Westminster ruled that out too.

A clear pattern of Westminster closing the door on any compromise with Scotland and closing their ears to the democratic voice of Scotland was already emerging.

That pattern has continued.

When the vote itself came, Scotland voted by a decisive 24-point margin to remain in the EU.

Every single one of the nation’s 32 local authority areas voted to remain.

The Scottish Parliament then voted by 92 votes to zero to mandate the Scottish Government to explore options for protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU, and our place in the single market

Now, the party I lead was very clear in its manifesto for last year’s Scottish elections. We said that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold a referendum “if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”

However, a referendum on independence has not been our starting point. I didn’t decide on 24 June last year to immediately exercise that mandate. Instead, since June, the Scottish Government has consistently sought to find common ground, or areas of compromise, with the UK Government.

During the autumn, we argued that the UK Government, notwithstanding its exit from the EU, should remain inside the single market. We still support that solution. In my view it remains, overwhelmingly, the obvious compromise solution for the UK as whole.  It would reduce the worst economic and social consequences of Brexit.

And it would also be the most democratically justifiable option. After all, 48% of those who voted chose to remain. So did 2 of the 4 nations of the UK. Even in Wales, which voted to leave, the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru are now jointly arguing for continued single market participation, which they say could include remaining part of the European Economic Area.

But again, the UK Government said No. The Prime Minister’s speech last month confirmed the policy of a hard Brexit, outside the single market. I think it is important to note that even though she said shortly after becoming PM that she would seek to agree with the devolved administrations a UK wide approach to triggering Article 50, something I was very heartened by at the time, her speech – ruling out continued UK membership of the single market – was made without any prior consultation whatsoever with the Scottish Government or the other devolved administrations.

Now, as things stand, there remains one further opportunity for compromise. The Scottish Government has proposed that as part of its negotiations the UK Government would seek an outcome that would allow Scotland to retain single market membership, even after the rest of the UK has left. That would mean that we would continue to benefit from free trade and free movement of people

Single market membership under these terms is not an ideal scenario for Scotland. For example, it seems almost certain that we would be inside the single market, but outside the European Customs Union. Our proposals address the technical issues which arise from that.

But although elements of our proposals are complex, and less than ideal – that is inevitable. As we all know, everything about Brexit will be complex, and less than ideal.

We have already seen that the UK Government – rightly – is considering special measures to ensure an open border is maintained in Ireland. Gibraltar’s circumstances will also require particular attention. And there has been talk about specific deals for specific sectors of the economy.

These times require open mindedness, fresh thinking and flexibility. The Scottish Government has tried to bring those qualities to our discussions with the UK Government.

But so far the UK Government has refused to commit to putting our proposal forward as part of its Article 50 aims.

Again, despite its promise to listen and to seek agreement, whenever Scotland’s voice is asserted, the reaction of Westminster is to say No.

I mentioned earlier, that we were told repeatedly during the independence referendum that Scotland was an equal partner in a family of nations. But the EU referendum last June was the most important UK-wide decision of my lifetime. When the Scottish Government made proposals on how the referendum should be run, we were ignored. When people in Scotland voted to remain, we were outnumbered. Now – when the Scottish Government is doing everything we can to seek a compromise – it looks as though we are being disregarded.

There are those who argue that, as the vote was a UK-wide one, the result in Scotland is essentially an irrelevance, of mere academic interest.

However, to do so is to deny a long-established constitutional and political tradition in Scotland, one that goes well beyond the confines of my own political party.

Namely, that Scotland – as a nation – should always have the right to determine its own destiny, and that the people of this nation should be able to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.

The UK Government and Parliament, to their great credit, accepted that principle back in 2012 in the Edinburgh Agreement and the legislation that followed. After the independence referendum, it informed the work of the Smith Commission, and appeared in its final report.

But the actions of the Conservative Government in relation to Brexit and the devolved administrations seem to disregard it. And they go further than just a lack of partnership in forming a common position with regard to Article 50 – they actually threaten the existing basis of devolution.

Because, far from the promises of the Leave campaign that a Brexit vote would automatically see swathes of new powers repatriated from Brussels to Holyrood, there is not yet any real guarantee from the Tories that the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved administrations won’t be stripped of some of their powers.

In my view, the post Brexit landscape would demand a fundamental rebalancing of powers across the UK. It would be time to consider whether, for example, employment law should be devolved instead of left at the mercy of a UK Government that has already threatened a race to the bottom if it doesn’t get its way in the EU talks. And surely, it is time now for a real debate about where power over immigration should lie and whether a one size fits all policy is any longer fit for purpose.

But far from being open to these discussions, it seems that the UK Government wants to go in the opposite direction. It is clear from their statements that even elements of farming and fishing policy – which have been wholly devolved competences from day one – now risk being taken back to Westminster.

That would be utterly unacceptable.

It would betray the claims and promises made during the EU referendum campaign.

And more profoundly it would fundamentally undermine the basis of the existing devolution settlement.

The Scotland Act 2016 supposedly enshrined in law the principle that the Westminster Parliament should not normally legislate in devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

But in the recent Supreme Court case the UK Government went out its way to argue that its own legislation was in fact worthless and that the Westminster Parliament could legislate at any time on any matter whether devolved or not.

So what we have is in effect an attack on the very foundations of the devolved parliament we voted for 20 years ago.

It is being made by a UK Government which speaks the language of partnership but which in reality is paying scant if any heed right now to Scotland’s democratic voice. The question we face, is how to respond to it.

I began this speech by talking about the 1997 referendum.  That referendum, of course, gave rise to the 1998 Scotland Act, which in turn led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

After it had been passed by the Westminster Parliament, Tony Blair gave Donald Dewar a signed copy of the Scotland Act. It’s now kept in the Parliament building at Holyrood. The Act was inscribed to Donald with the words “It was a struggle, it may always be hard; but it was worth it. Scotland and England together on equal terms!”

The Scotland Act was a significant achievement – a lasting testament to Donald Dewar’s career in public service. And Tony Blair’s sentiment was undoubtedly a generous one. But it wasn’t quite accurate. Scotland is not on equal terms in the United Kingdom. The EU referendum has demonstrated that more clearly than ever.

The entire process, so far, has echoed those words of Canon Wright from 28 years ago: “Again and again the elected representatives of the Scottish people have voted… against these damaging policies. Again and again (the UK) parliament has imposed these on Scotland.”

There are no easy answers to the situation Scotland finds itself in – it is one which is not of our making or choosing.

But the basic question we face is actually quite simple – what sort of country do we want Scotland to be and who gets to decide?

The policies of Scotland’s elected parliament, since devolution, provide some sort of an answer.  They suggest that the people of this country overwhelmingly believe in a Scotland that is progressive, internationalist, outward looking, connected and compassionate.

Those values and priorities are threatened by the type of Brexit which the UK Government appears to be pursuing – one which is inward looking, regressive and which ignores Scotland’s views time and time again.

The UK Government still has an opportunity to change course before it triggers the Article 50 process.   I very much hope it does.

However if it doesn’t, it will show that the democratic deficit which people voted to end in 1997 doesn’t just endure – it continues to cause harm to Scotland’s interests, to our international relationships, to our very sense of our own identity.

And so if those circumstances arise, proposing a further decision on independence wouldn’t simply be legitimate, it would arguably be a necessary way of giving the people of Scotland a say in our own future direction.

It would offer Scotland a proper choice on whether or not to be part of a post Brexit UK – a UK that is undoubtedly on a fundamentally different path today than that envisaged in 2014.

And in the absence of compromise from the UK Government, it may offer the only way in which our voice can be heard, our interests protected, and our values upheld.

As a result of the Brexit vote, we – Scotland and the UK – stand just now at a crossroads. Decisions taken in the months to come will reshape our economy, our society and our place in the world – in short, they will shape the kind of country we are going to be. The question is should we decide for ourselves which path to take or are we willing to have that decided for us?

We may all offer different answers to that question. But surely the choice should be ours.

Video clip courtesy of ITV Border here