It has been a while since this column covered the war between the hyper-centralising Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), but that’s only because it seems to be over.
During their 13 years in office the Scottish Nationalists have squeezed the ability of councils to raise their own finances, and partly plugged the shortfall with central funding over which Holyrood ministers have final say.
Now one local authority has had enough. The Press & Journal reports that Aberdeen City Council has voted, by 22 votes to 19, for their Chief Executive to write to Alister Jack to request direct funding from the British Government – and to COSLA to clarify that they want the money to bypass the Scottish Parliament.
It isn’t difficult to see why the Nationalists in Edinburgh would be content to let Aberdeen languish as the “lowest-funded in Scotland”. The city’s government is a ray of light for unionists, being run by a coalition between the Conservatives and local ex-Labour councillors who have defied their party’s myopic ban on working with the Tories even at the cost of getting suspended.
Naturally, the opposition parties aren’t amused. The SNP have accused the Council of basically trying a Trotskyist ‘impossible demand’ so they can blame the Scottish Government – which takes some brass neck, given that this is the normal form of devolved politics. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have accused the whole thing of being ‘an attack on the devolution settlement’.
For their part, the majority have amended the motion to clarify that they do think devolution is good, although how many of them really mean this is an open question. Recusancy remains, for now, a requirement for devosceptics in Scottish public life.
More troubling should be the Lib Dems’ assertion that the proposed deal is “never going to happen”.
After all as Douglas Lumsden, the Conservative co-leader of the Council, has pointed out, the proposal that Westminster take over responsibility for providing grants to local authorities is simply maintaining the order that prevailed under our membership of the European Union. It is the Edinburgh devocrats, with their Britanno-phobic aversion to any exercise of power by London, who are trying to stage a “power grab” by usurping this function and concentrating even more power in Holyrood.
The British Government’s proposals to forge stronger direct links with local authorities across the UK are therefore both well-justified and eminently workable. Whence then the Lib Dems’ apparent certainty that they will come to nothing?
Perhaps they think they have the measure of Michael Gove. As I reported last week, when word first broke that the Government might throw in the towel on the vital UK Internal Market Bill, there is growing concern amongst some in government about an ‘appease the SNP’ tendency on the part of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and some of his advisers.
In the event, the climbdown was much less severe than feared – which is probably why the devolved administrations are still threatening legal action. But government sources report that Gove himself wanted to offer far more concessions and effectively “gut the common framework”. He clearly lost on this occasion – but how sustainable is it for the Government’s constitution and Union strategy to need defending from the man nominally in charge of it?
Reinforcing Aberdeen will doubtless provoke similar squeamishness amongst those who’d prefer to ‘devolve and forget’, ceding the powers to Holyrood in exchange for a quiet life. But that would be dereliction of duty. There is a rebellion brewing in the North East of Scotland, one which compasses not just Aberdeen but also the Northern Isles’ quest for more autonomy from the overweening Scottish Government.
Together, this represents a golden opportunity for ministers to break down Holyrood’s gate-keeping and re-establish Westminster as a complementary government for the whole United Kingdom. They must not squander it: funding for Aberdeen, and giving them Armed Forces Day in 2022, should be just the start. Floreat Aberdona!
We’ve led on one big story this week but there was far too much to cover it all anyway. Below are some of the highlights. First, the usual week of fresh misery for the SNP:
Next, their specific and damning failure on drugs deaths:
More flailing from Labour: