At last, the Conservative Party has embraced devolution.
The past week has seen a remarkable volte-face when it comes to Conservative attitudes towards devolution in Scotland. It was not that long ago that the Conservative party was actively opposed to the mere notion of devolution, thinking of it as a precursor to the eventual dissolution of the union. John Major even went so far as to say there were a mere 72 hours to save the union during his general election campaign. Depending on the result of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, we may all end up saying they that they were right all along. Certainly, the electoral checks put in place when Holyrood was created completely failed in their task of preventing any single party achieving an absolute majority. Had they worked, it is hard to see how we would be in this position. But that is an argument about process and avoids political reality; devolution is popular, it works (to a degree) and is here to stay. It is only until very recently that the Conservative party have realised that this is the new Zeitgeist, having previously had the appearance of adopting a Cnut style strategy with regard to the issue. But, like all good Conservatives (think Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act), those within the party who matter when it comes to this issue have decided that when it comes to preserving the union nothing rings truer than the famous line in Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard; “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.”
And so it was with gusto that Ruth Davidson and Lord Strathclyde, with the backing of David Cameron, set out a new radical agenda for Scottish devolution in the event of a no vote in September. So radical in fact, with policies to completely devolve income tax for example, that it appeared to slightly wrong-foot even the Labour party, making them look cautious.
So why should this turn of events be welcomed by Conservatives and all those who sympathise with the union? The answer is threefold:
Firstly, it goes some way to addressing a chink in the armour of the No campaign. By offering a comprehensive and radical package on devolution that will get delivered after a no vote, even if the Conservative party win the 2015 general election, many of those who are tempted to vote Yes in September to avoid another Conservative government may see this as an acceptable consolation in the event of this actually occurring.
Secondly, it takes the Conservative party that bit further down the road of modernisation and brand detoxification. As David Torrance in The Scotsman quotes a Tory MSP airing their opinion on the issue as saying; “We’re laying the ghost of Margaret Thatcher to rest.” With any luck, this will be the beginning of the Scottish Conservative party’s rehabilitation in the attitudes of Scotland’s voters.
Thirdly; devolution is an end in itself. Only time will tell if the slippery slope argument is correct, but in the meantime the merits of further devolution should not be ignored. As Ruth Davidson aptly said, Holyrood at the moment is the pocket money parliament. Further devolution will lead to a greater degree of fiscal responsibility north of the boarder. The endless freebies given out by the SNP will have to be well and truly costed. In addition, more tax raising power north of the border should lead to a comparative cut in the Barnett formula, thus helping to placate one of the biggest grievances among the English. Furthermore, all Conservatives should welcome a healthy dose of tax competition, as more often than not it leads to a lower tax environment all round. Incidentally it is for this reason why I suspect the Labour party proposal is ironically more “conservative”.
Of course, this still leaves many constitutional reforms to be desired. For one, the West Lothian question remains unanswered, and what to do with Northern Ireland and Wales? It is the belief of this columnist that the answer lays in a fully federal UK with an English parliament as one among equals with its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, each responsible for raising the majority of their income, with less reliance on a centralised Westminster for “pocket money.”
As a Conservative and Unionist, I would find a Yes vote in September devastating. That is why I am so pleased my party has finally seen the light. And if Scotland votes No in September, it offers a great opportunity to set about building the UK Mark II.