LONDON — The UK risks a full-blown “constitutional crisis” if Westminster doesn’t back down on its plans to push its Brexit bill through parliament without Scotland’s consent, the Scottish Brexit minister has told Business Insider.
Under the Sewel Convention the UK government must first seek the consent of the Scottish parliament for actions that would normally be devolved to the Scottish administration. This convention has held for decades but is non-binding and May’s government is technically able to override any refusal to give consent.
However, Michael Russell, minister for Scotland’s place in Europe, told Business Insider on Wednesday that doing so would spark a “constitutional crisis” and “show that Theresa May is not committed to the constitution as it exists.”
“The relationship is at a pretty low ebb,” Russell told BI.
“I think there’s a very substantial lack of trust in this relationship which has been created by Theresa May and the way in which she’s operated,” he added.
I think there’s a very substantial lack of trust in this relationship which has been created by Theresa May and the way in which she’s operated.
“It would show an extreme type of British nationalism if it can’t accommodate the constitution of the country.”
Russell spoke to BI after the Scottish parliament voted by 93 votes to 30 to refuse to consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill, with Holyrood and Westminster at loggerheads over how to manage key powers due to return to Britain.
He called for Theresa May to remove key parts of the EU Withdrawal Bill which the Scottish parliament objects to, warning that the Prime Minister’s actions so far had created a “very substantial lack of trust” between the two administrations.
The UK and Scottish governments agree that 24 EU powers that will return to the UK after Brexit — in key areas such as farm subsidies, fisheries quotas, and state aid for industry — should operate uniformly across the UK.
The UK says it will consult the Scottish government on any changes to those policies after Brexit, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says consultation is not enough, and says Holyrood should have the right to block any changes it disagrees with. UK ministers have dismissed the prospect of such a veto.
Russell said Downing Street’s fears that the Scottish government would use the powers to block the successful passage of post-Brexit trade deals was “ludicrous” because Westminster already has the ultimate legislative power to override the objections of devolved parliaments.
“It is ludicrous that they are trying to oppose it in this way, with no clear advantage. The UK government has an override. Westminster always has an override, so to put in another clunky constitutional crisis of an override is just a waste of people’s time.”
He suggested that the government was haunted by an incident in 2016, where the tiny Flemish region of Wallonia used its power of veto to try and block the passage of an enormous free trade deal between the EU and Canada known as CETA.
“I think [the government’s objections] have much to do with the fear that when it comes to free-trade treaties that Scotland might have a view,” he said.
“They are haunted by the Flemish approach to the CETA treaty but they have no reason to be. [Scotland] has different systems: We can quite willingly opt out of elements we don’t like,” he said.
Scottish nationalists hope any decision to overturn Scottish objections to the Brexit bill will boost support for a second Scottish independence referendum. One poll conducted in March found 41% of Scots want another referendum within the next few years.