Brexit and the Scottish National Party: Tories tying themselves in knots again

It is clear that the main tactic of the talking classes who lost the UK independence referendum last year is to cause uncertainty and upset by making simple things appear complex.

One such thing is the recovery from the EU of Britain’s fishing rights on its continental shelf. This is of acute importance to all Britain’s fishermen – English, Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh.

The recovery of our fishing rights does not need “negotiation” with the EU: it comes automatically when we leave the EU as part of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the 1964 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Twenty-five countries have registered EEZs – including France, which has the largest claim of 20 times its own area because of the myriads of islands in French Polynesia, each with a 200 mile radius claim (or 31,000 square miles).

The EEZs belong only to independent states with seats in the UN who are signatories of UNCLOS[1]. EEZs don’t belong to provinces or sub-states like Scotland. In no way can the Scotland Act of 1998, establishing the Scottish Parliament, be said to apply to international matters like the EEZs.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) and Brexit

The SNP claims that as the governing party at Holyrood with a settled policy of separating Scotland from the UK, and the fact that around 62% of the Scottish people (those who voted) voted to remain in the EU, the SNP government has a mandate to obstruct the Brexit process as much as it can.

Bizarrely, recovery of the UK’s fishing rights with the prospect of establishing a completely revitalised and enlarged fishing industry along its coasts, especially in the East of England and North East Scotland, will only be possible when the UK leaves the EU. The SNP, fantastically, wants to “remain in the EU Single Market” which expressly regards fish as a common EU resource (in fact the only one it has). Getting back our fish with a realistic prospect of catching and landing three times the UK current quotas under the EU regime (with no increase in the overall catch) is arguably the one totally beneficial economic and social gain from leaving the EU that we can look forward to.

The Sewel Convention of the Scottish Parliament

As formulated by the Blair (Labour) government at the time of the Scotland Act 1998, and named after one of its functionaries in Scotland, the Sewel Convention states that the UK Parliament would not normally legislate on devolved matters in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, without the individual consent of their Assemblies/Parliaments. What the SNP has done is recent years is to argue that this abstention by Westminster from specific legislation on devolved matters (e.g. education, health, rail transport), is now extended to mean that any UK legislation which could be said to have an effect on devolved matters in some way, could only be enacted with the consent of the Scottish Parliament. This was the heart of the case against triggering Article 50 put by the senior Scottish Law officer in the High Court in December 2016[2].

This is a completely absurd extension of the Sewel Convention (which was a daft thing to concede in the first place when the SNP had only 6 seats out of 71 Scottish seats and Labour had huge majorities at both Westminster and Holyrood). Going to war would have a lot of effects on devolved matters like Health and Education. Is it seriously suggested that the Scottish Parliament should have a veto on this or any other international matter?

More tying in SNP knots

Now we read that Mrs May is likely to concede a Sewel motion (now called a Legislation Consent Motion (LCM)) on its Fishing Bill announced (21st June) in the Queen’s speech. This is to accept the SNP argument that Fishing is a devolved matter, and therefore there may be an LCM which might or might not be said to be binding on the UK Parliament. The only way which Scottish fishermen can obtain the access to fish on a scale commensurate with what the United Kingdom will own will be by virtue of the UK’s EEZ. It is clear that establishing the UK EEZ is a matter of international relations, which is unambiguously a matter reserved to the UK Parliament in the 1998 Scotland Act and re-iterated in effect as recently as the 2016 Scotland Act.

What to do?

The thing to do is to cut through this rubbish and to enact a one or two line Bill asserting the UK’s EEZ, register this under UNCLOS, and dare the SNP to vote against it. And make sure that the Scottish people are made fully aware that the SNP would rather support the EU’s quota decisions for waters off the Scottish coast, than take advantage of the fishing quotas which the UK government will be able to provide.

One might fairly comment that the fundamental approach to the SNP by the Tory and Labour parties has hitherto been one of appeasement of their demands however outrageous. The direction of travel since 1999 has always been to concede whatever the SNP demands, in the hope that they will be satisfied. But they never will be: they’ll simply pocket the concession, offer nothing in return, and move on to the next grudge point. Even if the SNP did prise “independence” out of the Scottish electorate, the claims on the UK wouldn’t stop. There will be plenty of grudges for lawyers to get their teeth into – especially round the split of assets. The best result from the recent General Election is the partial resurrection of the Unionist parties in Scotland – Conservative, Labour and LibDems. Hopefully the Scottish electorate will go on from here to collaborate with England, Northern Ireland and Wales, in building a successful United Kingdom in our post-Brexit world.

End Notes

[1] The Party Québècois, when in power in Québèc, unsuccessfully attempted to claim that the waters offshore from Québèc belonged in some sense to Québèc rather than Canada.

[2] To be fair, the High Court judges did not accept this argument.

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