AS the bitter dispute between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor comes to a climax, there are alarming signs that the devolution settlement itself could be damaged in the fallout.

It’s well known that the Conservatives have never liked devolution. In part that’s because they cannot countenance an alternative seat of power which can challenge the quasi-dictatorial power that the British political system affords to a Conservative prime minister with a substantial majority in the House of Commons, but it is also because devolution runs contrary to the centralising British nationalist instincts of the modern Conservative Party.

The Conservatives regard devolution as nothing more than a sop to “the Nats” and a launching pad for Scottish independence. They have not only fiercely resisted any demands for an increase of powers for Holyrood, at every turn they have sought to undermine and weaken the devolution settlement .

The Conservative assault on devolution has intensified in recent months. They have been determined to use Brexit as an excuse to seize devolved powers back to Westminster, a determination which has only become more entrenched as the Scottish public responded to a Brexit that it rejected at the ballot box by turning towards independence as the quickest route back into the European Union.

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The Conservatives’ UK Internal Market Bill contains a number of clauses which represent a blatant attempt to grab devolved powers back to Westminster and by-pass the Scottish Parliament. Just this week, the Conservative Government said it would be extending its so-called levelling-up fund to Scotland and would use it to allocate funding on capital projects directly.

In England the fund’s expenditure has been criticised for spending disproportionately in Conservative constituencies. It would be entirely out of character for this Government not to behave the same way in Scotland and to use public funding to boost its electoral fortunes in seats that the Conservatives seek to retain in the Scottish Parliament.

This extension of British Government control over spending on devolved competencies comes after the Conservatives slashed Scotland’s capital budget by 5%. Scottish funds which were previously under the control of Scotland’s own democratically elected institutions have been replaced by funds which are to be spent at the discretion of politicians from a party which Scotland has consistently rejected at the polls.

The Conservatives’ governor general in Scotland, Alister Jack, referred to his party’s putsch at the expense of Scottish self-government as “real devolution”, which is a bit like calling The Only Way is Essex a gritty documentary about the economic struggles of post-industrial south-east England, and that Botox, fake tans and cosmetic surgery are real natural beauty.

So, given their assaults on the devolution settlement and the rising panic in which they view rising support for Scottish independence, it should come as no surprise that the Conservatives have leapt on the dispute between the current and former first ministers, intent on weaponising it as a part of their war on devolution and by extension, on Scottish hopes for independence. The Conservatives have amply demonstrated by their behaviour in power that they have absolutely zero interest in good standards of government. They are led by a man who lied to the Queen in order to unlawfully prorogue parliament in an effort to escape proper scrutiny of government actions and who regularly lies to Parliament and to the public.

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Last week, disgraced former defence secretary Liam Fox – or more accurately, the former defence secretary Liam Fox who was disgraced before the most recently disgraced former defence secretary Gavin Williamson – stood up in the Commons to proclaim that the Salmond controversy threatens to “bring politics in the whole of the United Kingdom into international disrepute”.

The National: Re-elected Kinver MP Gavin Williamson is back at Westminster to lead the Conservatives’ talks with the DUP after being dispatched by Theresa May to Belfast at the weekend

That would be as opposed to his own and Gavin Williamson’s behaviour in office, which merely brought the British Government into disrepute. Williamson, it should be recalled, leaked information from a top-secret Government Cobra meeting in order to throw some dirt on party colleagues whom he believed not to be sufficiently zealous about Brexit.

Like Fox before him, Williamson was not permanently cast out into the wilderness with his career in ruins. He was soon offered another government position of power and influence by his friends in the Conservative Party. There was not a peep of protest from the likes of Ruth Davidson, who is now telling one and all that the Salmond controversy represents an existential threat to the standards of government and to the future of democracy itself in Scotland. Ruth has likewise been noticeably silent about more recent crises in governmental standards which have beset the British Government. She has not uttered a word about the PPE procurement scandal which saw the British Government waste millions of pounds of public money on PPE which was unfit for use, awarding lucrative contracts to Conservative party donors and the friends and associates of Conservative government ministers.

The National: Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock was found to have acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of contracts. This is a scandal far greater in its scale and impact than anything that happened between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, involving billions of pounds of public money and leaving thousands of vital frontline workers exposed to coronavirus due to inadequate PPE.

Yet from Ruth Davidson, who in recent weeks has not foregone a single opportunity to pop up on our telly screens to mouth off about the supposed shortcomings of the Scottish Government, there has been not a word.

The National: Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson

The Tories have no interest at all in the maintenance of high standards in government. Like their allies in the American Republican Party they are interested only in the maintenance of their own power.

In Scotland that means doing what they can to damage Scottish self-government and hopes of independence because they know that when choice is given to the people of Scotland in the ballot box, their party has no chance at of gaining power.

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They can only do so by relying on their support in England. What Scotland wants or needs has never been a consideration. The Tories are cynical and opportunistic.

They don’t care about the rights and wrongs of the dispute between the current and former first ministers, but they will not hesitate to use the Salmond-Sturgeon affair as a stick with which to attack Scottish confidence in this country’s institutions and as another weapon in their long war of attrition on Scottish self-government and on Scottish confidence in this country’s ability to govern itself. We enable them at our peril.