READING the papers on Wednesday, I came across a couple of stories about two seemingly very different subjects – Scottish farming and the fall-out from the ongoing Covid inquiry – that on closer inspection share an important and common theme about power, and who gets to wield it.

Firstly, farming. After finding out about possible trade negotiations with the US through media reports, Scottish Government ministers Mairi Gougeon and Richard Lochhead wrote to the UK Government to outline their opposition to any relaxation of food safety and animal welfare standards resulting from any trade deal.

The letter stated that the Scottish Government was concerned about the practical effects of trade on Scottish farming and food, and stated that any relaxation to the opposition to GM crops and chlorine-washed chicken as part of a new trade deal would be “especially egregious”, especially in light of consumer opposition.

It asked that Scottish ministers be fully engaged in UK/US trading discussions, and emphasised the need to protect Scotland’s reputation for safety and quality that makes its exports so sought after in the first place.

It’s a relatively small story but I think it talks to some interesting themes. Like, who gets to exercise power? What are the limits of devolved power? And how permanent are Scotland’s constitutional arrangements?

The UK’s failure to engage with Holyrood is a classic example of where the Sewel Convention should have been applied, but wasn’t. International trade (reserved) affects Scottish farming (devolved). And yet Holyrood didn’t hear about it until it read it in the paper.

It’s not that Westminster doesn’t have form for this.

The post-indyref Smith Commission – which included an agreement that the people of Scotland could vote on their own constitutional arrangements at any time of their choosing – also made some recommendations. One of these was that it need not always be the Defra minister attending meetings in Brussels (this was before Brexit), and that it could easily be the Welsh or Scottish equivalents. In 2015, there was an opportunity to enact this sensible approach when there were fishing talks scheduled. Instead of sending Scotland’s rural affairs minister, David Cameron sent his unelected Tory school pal from the House of Lords.

The incidents highlight once again the narrow limits of devolution and the need for powers to be deeper and have permanence. And the wider picture is that a Brexit that Scotland rejected has created so many examples of the convention being ignored and adversely affecting so many aspects of Scotland’s devolved competencies that we may only conclude that the sensible convention designed to prevent devolution being eroded has been deliberated abandoned.

So how does this relate to our second story, the Covid inquiry?

The inquiry, with testimony under oath from the same people spouting this nonsense in 2014, firmly gives lie to those deceitful fantasies. And, ironically, the guy speaking the truth was a certain Boris Johnson.

In a rare moment of candour, Johnson stated that he had refused to meet with both first ministers during the pandemic because he didn’t like the optics. He felt that working collegiately would make the UK look like a mini version of an EU that we were just about to leave. Devolution, he felt, was never supposed to work like that. He felt it would look like the Union was “a potential federalist Trojan horse” where power was broadly shared equally, when in fact ultimate power resides in Westminster. Power devolved is power retained. In this, at least, he was correct. Devolution is and always has been a Unionist construct.

And this is where the Covid story converges with the earlier farming one. In a revealing piece of testimony, Johnson said he regretted not using civil contingencies (reserved) instead of public health (devolved) to legislate over Covid. In other words, he believed that Westminster should have had total control. And that’s something to bear in mind the next time you hear a politician greeting about Holyrood not using all the powers available to it. And it’s also worth considering how much mileage there is in a second vote on Scotland’s future from a political class that has shown itself – through its attitude to Holyrood in the US trade deal talks, through Brexit, through its disregard for Sewel and the Smith Commission, through Covid and beyond – to be not just against any further devolution of power but seemingly in favour of an aggressive rolling back of a constitutional settlement they’ve always despised.

When people show you are, believe them the first time. The contempt for devolution has been hiding in plain sight for years. Now, it isn’t even hiding.

Alec Ross