It is so rare to see a Conservative push back against devolution creep that I didn’t believe my eyes at first. Stephen Kerr, newly elected to the Scottish parliament as a list member for Central Scotland, highlighted this week the £2 million per year the Scottish government spends on a Brussels office with 17 staff members. This crypto-embassy is joined by similar set-ups in Washington DC, Beijing, Dublin, Berlin, Ottawa and Paris. All in, Nicola Sturgeon’s administration is spending just shy of £6 million each year to run these offices and employ almost 40 staffers across them. Kerr says: ‘It’s clear the SNP are doing this to try and boost international support for separation, using taxpayers’ money to do so.’
Now, it’s true these overseas ‘Scottish government offices’ didn’t begin with the SNP. They started under the deservedly forgotten first ministership of Labour’s Henry McLeish. It’s another one of those things set up by Labour that definitely wasn’t going to undermine the Union and help the SNP. Those always work out well. What the SNP has done, however, is aggressively expand the quasi-diplomatic estate established by Labour, something I’ve been banging on about for years. While a separatist-run Scottish government creating an embryonic network of embassies for a future independent state is audacious enough, it is far from the only facet of the SNP’s foreign policy strategy.
Glorified junkets to foreign capitals are stage-managed by the Scottish government as state visits, and dutifully reported as such by much of the Scottish media. Following the Brexit vote, Sturgeon sought meetings with representatives of European governments (sometimes successfully, sometimes less so) to ‘set out Scotland’s perspective on the result of the UK referendum on the EU’. She even delivered a speech at the French parliament in which she pronounced that ‘Scotland and the Scottish government is committed to the European Union’, branded Brexit ‘isolationism’, condemned the UK government as ‘unwilling to recognise the complexity of the vote across the UK’, and talked up independence. This was not Sturgeon firing off some tweets from her personal Twitter account. Holyrood’s First Minister — a minister of the Crown — addressed another country’s parliament in the name of the Scottish government to undermine the policies of the UK government on reserved matters. This brought no censure or sanction.
Westminster’s complacency about such challenges to its authority has only spurred the nationalists on to further power-grabs over reserved matters. Law professor Andrew Tettenborn has noted how the SNP’s recent incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international treaties into Scots law will create potential obligations on the UK that ministers in Whitehall have hitherto avoided by not making them domestic law. The Scottish government is openly pursuing a foreign policy not only independent of that pursued by the UK government but at times directly contradictory to it. A folly begat by Scottish Labour’s diet nationalism (and political vanity) has, with the relentless efforts of the full-fat nationalists, become a serious challenge to Westminster’s sovereignty.
Nor are such challenges limited to foreign policy. When a mob prevented UK Border Force officers from detaining two suspected illegal immigrants in Glasgow earlier this month, Sturgeon branded their actions ‘unacceptable’. The actions of the Home Office, that is, not the mob. ‘To act in this way, in the heart of a Muslim community as they celebrated Eid and in an area experiencing a Covid outbreak was a health and safety risk,’ she opined. Her justice secretary Humza Yousaf said: ‘I abhor Home Office immigration policy at the best of times, but to have taken the action they have today is at best completely reckless, and at worst intended to provoke.’ Yousaf, now health secretary, later agreed with an interviewer that it was proper for him to ‘delegitimise’ the UK rule of law because, he reasoned, ‘I think people look to me for ensuring that I, and the Scottish government, are the voices of justice’.
While it is commendable that Stephen Kerr is pushing back against the Scottish government’s separatist empire-building, it is a dismal state of affairs that it has been left to an MSP, barely five minutes in the door, to do what the UK government should have been doing years ago. Maybe the blame lies with Boris Johnson’s utter terror at having to even think about Scotland, let alone act like the prime minister of the place. Maybe it’s down to Michael Gove, whose love-bombing strategy seems to begin from the assumption that Westminster needs permission from the SNP or the wider Scottish establishment to govern Scotland. Maybe it’s the quality of advisers at Downing Street, some of whose ideas for saving the Union have major 9 a.m.-tutorial-and-not-done-the-reading energy. Whatever the cause, if the UK government wants to keep the ‘UK’ in its name much longer, it might want to start doing some governing.