IN the midst of a Rwandan deportation scheme that has become something of a touchstone for the Conservative right, as well as a bizarre hill that their party members are choosing to die on, I feel slightly uncomfortable quoting from Enoch Powell. But his words come not from his infamous Rivers of Blood speech from 1968, but from a comment he once made about devolution.

“Power devolved is power retained.”

Two stories caught my eye this week that suggested Powell’s observation was as prescient as it is relevant.

The first concerned the news that First Minister Humza Yousaf had spoken to Türkiye’s president Erdogan about the situation in Gaza without first informing the Foreign Office. This breach put Foreign Secretary David Cameron into a huff so dreadful that he wrote a stern letter to Constitution Minister Angus Robertson in which he threatened to remove Scottish offices from UK overseas posts in the event of any further transgressions.

The National: WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 07: British Foreign Secretary David Cameron speaks at the Aspen Security Forum on December 07, 2023 in Washington, DC. Cameron spoke on the need to continue to provide military aid to Ukraine to stop Russia's advancement and

It did appear that the Foreign Office was crushing a butterfly on a wheel. If we really are a family of nations in an equal Union, why the need for a snooty letter? Couldn’t he just have picked up the phone? He seemed at pains to stress the importance of “speaking with one voice to the international community”, but you’d like to think that foreign leaders had the maturity and intellectual bandwidth to recognise that the First Minister of Scotland, particularly given his own backstory, might have a more nuanced view about how to approach the unfolding tragedy in the region.

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But much as being told to know our place through a patronising letter from an unelected Foreign Secretary appointed by an unelected PM would gar onybody greet, I found myself resisting the temptation to resort to faux outrage for one good reason.

And here’s the rub. Baron Cameron of Chipping Norton was actually correct.

Strip away all the fluff and here’s what you’re left with: foreign affairs are reserved. Scotland is not, as yet, independent. Until we are, this is the kind of high-handed disrespectful guff we chose not to escape from when we had the chance to do so a decade ago, and will be stuck with until we finally have the cojones to be a normal, self-governing country. Until then, it is what it is and rather than wasting our energies greeting about a snooty letter from a posh guy with a preposterous and wholly undeserved title, we should instead keep the heid and bring about a way to bring our democracy home.

The whole manufactured stooshie actually reminded us of an important point about devolution. It has limits. Power devolved is power retained.

Which brings us to our second story – the interesting but unsurprising news that the courts have ruled in favour of Westminster over their blocking of Holyrood’s gender bill, which would be an open goal for independence supporters were it not for the fact that the legislation was controversial, flawed and unpopular. That said, it ought to be possible to separate the act from the principle that it may have set a troubling precedent – if they can veto this, is anything off the table? That certainly seemed to be Humza Yousaf’s position when he described the ruling as a “dark day for devolution”. And as the dust settles, he will face a dilemma. If he doesn’t appeal, he crosses a red line for the Greens. If he does, he faces the courts. And “only independence can get the gender bill through” doesn’t sound like much of a rallying cry.

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So was this a “dark day for devolution”? Perhaps, but only if we hadn’t been paying attention. As some on the Unionist side are correctly observing, Section 35 (the veto) has always been part of the Scotland Act. Indeed, it could even be argued that devolution rendered the position of Scottish Secretary obsolete, and that the only reason it still exists is to allow Alister Jack to scupper Holyrood bills. And it’s not as if Holyrood ministers weren’t being advised that the bill might impinge on reserved powers, and as it’s likely we’ll see more court cases in the years ahead, we need our legislators to be more legally savvy.

So the lessons to be learned from the two stories are these. Firstly, devolution is many shades of grey but Westminster is now happy to ignore the spirit of the original Scotland Act and interpret devolution in the narrowest way possible. And while Yousaf may be technically correct in saying there’s an effective veto on everything, in reality, that’s unlikely to be used.

And if you want a great example of the limits of devolution, look no further than farming. Though my industry is devolved and we determine our policies and support structures, we don’t have the ability to change immigration policies to allow us to prosper.

But the biggest lesson from the last few days is one long ago learned by scores of countries across the world who decided that, for better, it’s always better to plough your own furrow. And that the best type of devolution is independence.
Alec Ross
Lochans, Dumfries & Galloway