The Church of Scotland has just announced that the Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Jim Wallace) has been chosen as next Moderator of the General Assembly.
Older readers will recall that Lord Wallace has been a prominent party politician since becoming leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in 1992. He has held senior positions in Westminster and, post devolution, at Holyrood. He entered the House of Lords in 2007 and served as the Advocate General for Scotland between 2010-15 in the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government.
What now for the noble Lord?
The Church explains that Lord Wallace will become “the Kirk’s ambassador at home and abroad next May”. We also learn: “The Moderator Designate said he hoped to use the role to try and promote the theme of justice – social, economic and climate – as the country rebuilds.”
Presumably in an attempt to reassure how an experienced politician will handle this role and promote his ‘justice’ agenda, we are told of the plan for his time as Moderator. It seems he will switch off his party politics for a year!
“At present a working peer, Lord Wallace will move to the non-affiliated benches in the House of Lords during his time as Moderator. This means he will not belong to any parliamentary group and will cease to take the Liberal Democrat whip.” And: “Lord Wallace will not be taking part in the Scottish Parliament election campaign next year.”
But before he switches off, what are Lord Wallace’s political views on key issues for Scotland? Firstly, he was vocal in support of the ‘better together’ campaign, as we learn from Hansard. In June 2014, in a speech as Advocate-General for Scotland, Lord Wallace made some promises if we voted ‘No’ and also warned what it would lose by voting ‘Yes’.
Vote ‘No’ and get more powers
“As part of the United Kingdom, the powers of the Scottish Parliament will increase: we are already delivering the largest transfer of financial powers in 300 years, as set out in the Scotland Act 2012. … More powers will follow. That is the firm commitment of all three pro-United Kingdom parties in Scotland—not just by the separate commitments that each party has made, but by their united pledge to deliver further powers in the event of a no vote.”
That last phrase should be kept in mind when later we examine what Lord Wallace and fellow Lib Dem peers are saying nowadays about the status of devolved ‘powers’!
Vote ‘No’ or else lose influence
In the same speech Lord Wallace adds: “It is not only the economic case that demonstrates why we are truly better together. … the European Union, for example. The UK exerts its influence in Europe on behalf of Scotland and all parts of the UK on issues that matter to people and businesses in Scotland, such as budget contributions, fisheries and agricultural subsidies. This influence is exerted in Brussels, Strasbourg and across all member states.It is influence which ensures that Scotland has a loud voice at the top table, and will continue to do so as part of the UK.”
Later we will take a look at what Lord Wallace and others are saying nowadays on Scotland’s ‘voice’ and influence now in the Tories’ Brexit Britain.
An adherent of ‘British Exceptionalism’
One feature of Lord Wallace’s case-making speech that day in the Lords was its surfeit of ‘British exceptionalism’: “When we say that Britain is a force for good in the world and that it punches above its weight on the world stage, it might seem like a soundbite but it is true. We are an influence for good in the world and we do punch above our weight.”
“We should be mightily proud of our role across the globe, a role that we play together as a result of being a United Kingdom. Together, over three centuries, we have made one of the great states of the modern world; we continue to be a force for good in the modern world; and I am confident that together we will continue to be so for many years to come.”
I suspect we could all identify many who would take a less gushing view of British ‘goodness’! Perhaps this rhetoric is better suited to the role as an ambassador for the new ‘Global Britain’?
How is Lord Wallace’s precious Union working out for Scotland?
Well we know what happened on Europe: influenced by people like Lord Wallace and believing in the promises he associated himself with, too many of us opted to reject the agency on offer at the ballot box in 2014. Too many chose to leave it to chance or to the power of others to determine our future in Europe, indeed to leave others to determine our future over so many important things.
That much to be valued influence in Europe is all gone (for now) but the negative impact of following Lord Wallace and his ilk in 2014 persists in other ways. Fast forward to the last couple of weeks and let’s see how Scotland is faring having opted not to be a normal, independent country. As Lord Wallace is still active in the Lords and spoke on the Tory’s UK Internal Market Bill on 19 October, let’s illustrate how matters stand now for Scotland using his own words.
Untold damage to the devolution settlement
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (LD): “… I express real concern about the potential for this Bill to do untold damage to the delicately crafted architecture of the devolution settlements. I seriously question whether this Bill is necessary. …. the evidential base for needing legislative requirements for mutual recognition or non-discrimination between the different political units of the UK is wholly underwhelming.”
“Even within the EU regulatory framework, devolution has led to some divergences to reflect local needs and political priorities. … But this Bill does not replicate the limited grounds set out as legitimate aims, which are provided for under Article 36 of the TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) where a legislature seeks to diverge from internal market principles. Nor, indeed, is there any reference in this Bill to the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, which also underpin the current EU framework. As a result, the scope of devolution is restricted, unprecedentedly without the consent of the devolved legislatures.”
The Bill: “.. takes away power from the devolved Administrations”. This is the time to recall Lord Wallace’s earlier promises of more powers for Holyrood in his 2014 speech advocating that a “No’ vote.
During the same debate on the Internal Market Bill, Lord Wallace’s fellow Lib Dem peer, Lord Newby was more forthright:
“However, the Bill does not simply provide overarching UK-wide market access provisions; it takes away power from the devolved Administrations and reserves it to London at the same time. There are several ways in which it does so. It undermines the devolved institutions’ right to regulate in devolved areas of competence. It gives wholly new powers to UK Ministers to spend public money on devolved issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, without necessarily involving them in deciding on priorities. And it seeks to amend the state aid legislation, so that the UK Government could impose a new state aid regime without the agreement of the devolved Administrations. Over the course of the debate, my noble friends and other noble Lords will set out in detail why this legislation is so very damaging to the devolution settlement.”
“To seek to undermine devolution in these ways, under the innocuous cloak of maintaining market access for goods and services across the UK, is not simply disingenuous; it is dangerous, because it can only give succour to those who want to break up the United Kingdom.”
A threat to agriculture in Scotland too, Lord Wallace?
On 23 July, 2020 Lord Wallace spoke in the Lords on the Tory’s Agriculture Bill.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (LD): “What is of concern is that, specifically, regulations can by virtue of Clause 41 impose limits on the amount of domestic assistance available to each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those could be at a lower ceiling than exists under the current arrangements. Thus it is self-evident that this is crucial to the operation of the devolved competence of agriculture, yet there is nothing that requires consultation with the devolved Administrations, let alone consent.”
“Agriculture is prima facie a devolved matter. Although negotiations on the CAP were the responsibility of the UK Government, the devolved Administrations had direct input into the preparations of the UK negotiating position. It is the case that while implementation of the CAP was devolved, as is the management of direct payments to farmers, the allocation of agricultural budgets between the devolved Administrations has been reserved to the United Kingdom Government. However, that allocation invariably involved detailed consultation, even if not always agreement, as the disputes over the allocation of the EU convergence uplift illustrated.”
Lord Wallace’s fellow Lib Dem peer, Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville was more forthright in the same agriculture debate:
“The devolved Administrations had direct input into the CAP discussions with the EU. The UK Government are now taking this power to themselves as a reserved matter.”
So where is Scotland now – a time for the noble Lord to reflect?
The grounds for self-reflection before Lord Wallace switches off from party politics for a year are numerous:
- he used explicitly continuing EU membership and its associated international influence as a core argument for a ‘No’ vote in 2014 – and therefore to reject agency in favour of dependency on Westminster
- he used explicitly the extension of powers to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government following a ‘No’ vote as a core argument to reject independence in 2014
- a majority in Scotland supported his positions – voted ‘No’ in 2014 and voted ‘Remain’ in 2016
- for over a decade now, Scotland has been governed in Westminster by Tory governments we did not vote for – indeed by a party of government to whom we last gave a majority in the mid 1950s!
- it is a Tory Party rejected in Scotland which in government has decided on the form of Brexit being pursued – regardless of Scotland’s position on the issue
- it is that same Tory Party in government that is now looking to enact radical changes in domestic legislation to further its own post-Brexit vision of the UK
- and it is this domestic legislation – on the Internal market, on agriculture (and other areas?) – that Lord Wallace, his fellow Lib Dem peers and many others now recognise as undermining the devolution settlement. This hardly accords with the promise of more powers Lord Wallace and others in 2014 promised in return for voting to decline agency.
But does Lord Wallace reflect on any of this, I wonder? Does he acknowledge his role in getting us into this mess? Is he still sure & steadfast in his Unionist faith regardless of the consequences of the position on Scotland’s future he has enthusiastically espoused? Those who worked to convince most of Scotland’s electorate to shun the opportunity to acquire agency when it was available and who are now pointing up the serious threats to Scotland as a direct consequence of a Tory Brexit – Scotland having rejected both ‘Tory’ and ‘Brexit’ – have surely much to reflect upon!
As Lord Wallace switches off his (party) politics – for a year – to be the ambassador of this still dependent nation’s church and pursue ‘justice’, he can be sure on one thing. Many of us in Scotland can’t and won’t be switching off our politics: we have our own ‘justice’ agenda to pursue!