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Why are MSPs afraid to comment on some reserved matters but not others?

As a humanitarian, I find myself frustrated by some Scottish politicians’ craven propensity to utilise the parameters of devolution as a pretext to avoid supporting the campaigns of various nonprofit organisations. Specifically those which encourage an increase in the UK’s foreign aid budget – particularly at a time when mass death is occurring because of multiple ongoing humanitarian crises.

Section 2(1) of the Scotland Act 1998 – a significant constitutional piece of legislation which prescribed for the foundation of a devolved Scottish Parliament – proclaims that Members of the Scottish Parliament cannot alter matters reserved for the supreme legislative body of the realm, the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

However, what does not logically follow from the act’s contents is the preclusion of Scottish politicians from debating and supporting causes – which may fit under the reserved matters umbrella. For instance, the contentious issue of the Trident nuclear deterrent location within the constituency of Argyll and Bute has seen the Scottish parliament vote (96 for and 17 against) in favour of a Scottish Government motion opposing Trident renewal. So, while this vote is legally non-binding, it signals to the UK parliament that MSPs can debate/support reserved matters like their counterparts.

Why is all this important? Well, if you have been tuning in for the last few years, you will have noticed that the increasing needs of people globally have spread foreign aid resources thinner than ever. Now developing countries, like those in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, which are sustaining multiple crises (be it from the cost of living or fuel – exacerbated by the War in Ukraine – or disease), face the unacceptable prospect of starvation. The Scottish government has responded negatively to the UK government’s £4 billion reduction in foreign aid, with Scotland’s international development minister Jenny Gilruth branding the move “deeply irresponsible”. As a member of the world-leading inter-governmental forum, the G7 – whose collective membership possesses 58% of the world’s net wealth – the UK, due to its abandonment of the United Nations 0.7% of GNI foreign aid target when mass death is inevitable, is now in a morally untenable position.

The active vocal opposition from the Scottish government against the UK’s reduced foreign aid expenditure makes it even more confounding when certain MSPs use devolution as a pretext to avoid supporting the likes of The Borgen Project’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) campaign. For instance, when asked to support the aforementioned, MSP Annabelle Ewing somewhat illogically responded with: “this relates to a reserved matter, which falls under the UK Parliament”. Gathering political support across the UK is imperative to the success of foreign aid campaigns, regardless of whether the topic is in a politician’s immediate purview. However, notwithstanding the obvious ethical arguments pertaining to support for the world’s needy, the preceding evidence demonstrates that MSPs are entitled to debate/support causes (in this instance, foreign policy) related to both devolved and reserved matters.

Image ‘The Scottish Parliament Building’ by Mary and Angus Hogg is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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