Was this the week the Referendum was won?

Was this the week the Referendum was won?

by Murdo Fraser
article from Saturday 7, June, 2014

IT HAS SEEMED obvious to me for some time that the Yes campaign is on the way to losing the independence referendum. There was a brief moment a few weeks back when it looked like they had gained some momentum, but the situation now seems to have been reversed, with the ball firmly back in Better Together's court.

What the Yes campaign need to have any chance of winning is a game-changer, something so striking and significant that it would make people (the great majority of whom appear to have already made up their minds) think differently about how they might vote in September.

And this week we had a game-changer, only it wasn't one likely to benefit the Yes campaign, indeed quite the opposite. It came in the unlikely, and rather Falstaffian, form of Tom Galbraith, Lord Strathclyde, with the publication of his Commission's report into further devolution.

I will freely admit that this is an area where I have some form. Even before the Scottish Parliament was set up, my view was that to establish such a body without proper financial accountability was a serious mistake, and indeed would make it difficult for any party of the centre-right to operate successfully. In 1998, along with Michael Fry and Peter Smaill, I co-wrote a pamphlet on full fiscal freedom.

Back then, folk like me and my co-authors, backed by others like Struan Stevenson and Brian Monteith, were fairly lonely and radical voices in the Scottish Conservatives raising these issues. When I stood for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives in 2011, it was a key part of my platform that the party needed to embrace what I called "New Unionism", ditch its historic hostility to devolution, and embrace the concept of further financial powers for Holyrood. Ruth Davidson, who beat me to the leadership, stood on a platform diametrically opposed, pledging no further devolution.

It has taken a long time to get to where we are today, but I am nonetheless delighted that we have finally made it. Tribute for this transformation is due to a number of people: Tom Strathclyde himself, who I always suspected had little personal appetite for what was being suggested, Ruth Davidson, for having the vision and courage to change track, and David Cameron, for giving this the push and support it required from Westminster.

The Strathclyde Commission proposals will create a truly accountable Scottish Parliament for the first time, having responsibility, directly or indirectly, for more than 50% of the money it spends. It may be, as some have argued, that we could have gone further, but I do think this is a sensible and coherent package which can form the basis of a lasting and durable constitutional settlement.

This is good news for the Scottish Conservative Party. We have out-manoeuvred the Labour Party, producing a more ambitious set of proposals than they did. For once the Scottish Tories are not the back markers in the constitutional debate, and we have the opportunity to finally lay to rest the ghost of our anti-devolution past.

Equally significantly, we will now have the opportunity to fight future elections on the same basis as centre-right parties do across the world: campaigning for financial rigour in public expenditure, and lower taxes to create a more enterprising and dynamic economy. Operating in what Ruth Davidson has described as a "pocket money Parliament" has limited our ability to put forward proper Conservative arguments. In future it will be far easier for us to set out a distinctive case, and give people more reasons to vote for us than have been possible in the past.

More importantly in the short term, this is a real boost to the campaign for a No vote in September's referendum. Over the past two years the Yes campaign have been telling us that the unionist parties would make no serious offer of further powers in the event of a No vote. Now Big Tom has well and truly shot their fox.

The unexpected radicalism of the Conservative devolution proposals has undoubtedly caused confusion in the Yes campaign, evidenced by the mixed messages coming out in response. The SNP, in particular, couldn't decide whether to attack Ruth Davidson for doing a U-turn, or whether to claim that the Tories couldn't be trusted to deliver on promises. More astute nationalists, like Alex Bell, and commentators like Ian MacWhirter (no friend to the Scottish Tories) have been more positive and welcoming.

I have argued for a long time that the centre of gravity of public opinion in Scotland is not in support of independence, but rather is for Scotland remaining in the UK, but with a stronger and more financially accountable Scottish parliament. That is exactly what the Strathclyde Commission proposals will deliver. It allows people to vote No in September, knowing that by doing so they will end up getting what they really want.

As the very able Professor Adam Tompkins, himself a member of the Strathclyde Commission, put it in a TV debate with an SNP MSP: "You're getting fiscal autonomy, and getting to keep the pound. Why on earth would you now want to vote for independence?"

Was this the week that the referendum was won? History will decide, but I would be surprised if there were to be a more significant game changing announcement than the one we had on Monday. The Scottish Tories may just have saved the Union.



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