9 Jan 17
The Society risked becoming political in welcoming the Government paper Scotland's Place in Europe
It seems I was not alone in being somewhat surprised by the apparent warmth of the Society's welcome last month for the Scottish Government's paper Scotland's Place in Europe. Comments appeared on social media, and our letters page this month carries a protest at the tone of the response to the document purporting to set out ways in which Scotland might remain more closely tied to the EU, should the UK Government pursue withdrawal from the European Economic Area as well as from the EU itself.
It is obvious that Brexit has major implications for the devolution settlement, given that the EU exercises extensive powers over areas such as farming, fisheries and the environment which otherwise fall within Holyrood's competence. The legal and constitutional implications of any transfer of such powers are matters on which independent comment can properly be made without taking sides politically.
At the same time the (present) Scottish Government has an open agenda to pursue Scottish independence, and most commentators accept that its actions are guided by a strategy that it hopes will ultimately win majority support in a second independence referendum, whenever that might take place. Given that it regards Brexit, in the face of the Scottish vote to remain in the EU, as a development justifying a further referendum, caution is advisable over the extent to which a body like the Society, with its express policy of political neutrality, should be seen to welcome a paper that will have been written with such an agenda in mind. The fact that neither the UK Government nor other EU member states have treated the paper as containing realistic proposals, and Spain for one has expressed outright opposition, suggests that it will be confined to the sphere of pure politics.
Contrast the Society's comments with the very arm's-length response from the Faculty of Advocates, which simply “noted [the proposals] with interest”, adding that much would depend on political will, with the Faculty standing ready to contribute its expertise. One might argue that it says little of substance, but perhaps it foresaw the likely response.
Both bodies seek to engage in civic Scotland, and to bring influence to bear in the corridors of power on behalf of their members. The question of how friendly or critical a tone to adopt with Government in pursuit of this sound objective is a recurring one, and the answer often not clear cut. But it need not always involve a welcome for a Government publication, even as a contribution to a debate.
What 2017 will bring is anyone's guess, but I extend best wishes to all readers for the year ahead.