It’s been a busy old week in Scottish politics. The SNP government is suffering a public backlash over plans to allow councils to levy a tax on workplace car parks. There has been a fatal infection outbreak at another hospital. MSPs are angry that the nationalists have installed one of their own as chair of the parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the Alex Salmond affair. Best of all, the Scottish Government’s headquarters opened its first gender-neutral toilets.
Nicola Sturgeon, though, has missed it all. The First Minister is on a trade mission ‘promoting Scotland in North America’, according to the Scottish government. Scots have been settling Canada and the United States since the mid-17th century. I think they’re aware of us. Mostly the tour has been about Sturgeon playing make-believe world leader. She has given a (flat, predictable) speech on Brexit at Georgetown university, or, more specifically, the Georgetown institute for women, peace and security, who sound like a fun bunch. She’s done the rounds at the UN and even been made the inaugural #HeForShe global advocate, which I think means she gets to star in the next Gillette advert. She and the governor of New Jersey have also agreed that climate change is a bad thing.
All laudable but not terribly relevant to her day job as First Minister of Scotland. Most Scots would rather she was here working on Brexit planning than giving lectures about it to academics and minor American public officials. No doubt striding through the corridors of the UN pretending you’re Golda Meir with a more stylish wardrobe is a rush but the people who elected her would rather she spent her time advocating for better public services from the government she leads. Of all the downsides of devolution, one of the most comical is the sight of people who would otherwise be lucky to scale the dizzying heights of their local town hall strut around Turtle Bay like they’re squeezing in Madeleine Albright for brunch before this afternoon’s vote in the Security Council.
The SNP has been tireless in pushing the outer limits of its remit when it comes to engagement with international bodies and foreign governments. Foreign affairs is reserved to the UK Parliament but that hasn’t stopped the nationalists using Brexit as a cover for laying the groundwork for an independent Scottish foreign policy. If the UK Government doesn’t see the dangers of this, it should just give the separatists sovereignty and be done with it.
There are a number of remedial options open to the UK Government, although some would require primary legislation. First, they could amend the Scotland Act to require the Scottish Government to submit for approval to the secretary of state for Scotland any proposed spending which could reasonably be construed to involve reserved matters or be otherwise ambiguous. Next, they could require that all ministerial visits outside of Scotland are signed off by the secretary of state as falling within the remit of Scottish ministers.
So a trip to Brussels for a conference on wind farms might be allowed but not another presidential tour of North America or hapless attempt to negotiate directly with Brussels on Brexit. The latter would have to be funded by the SNP, not the taxpayer. Where Foreign Office civil servants support Scottish ministers on an overseas visit, those civil servants must be given access to every meeting, especially where a minister is sitting down with a representative of a foreign government, business or third sector organisation. A revision of the Scotland Act to reverse the principle that all powers not explicitly reserved are devolved would be another way to hem in boundary-pushing Scottish ministers.
The Scottish Government needs to be reminded that it is the junior partner to the UK Government, not equals, not sovereign allies. A return to the original name ‘Scottish Executive’ might be in order, as would an explicit warning of prorogation should Holyrood ever press on with another independence referendum without a Section 30 order (i.e. without the approval of Parliament). Devolution’s design flaws allow Nicola Sturgeon to jet around the world pretending to be a head of state when there are more pressing matters to attend to at home. Perhaps if she won’t use the powers she has, Westminster should start taking some of them back.