I WAS RATHER unkind about Ruth Davidson’s “keynote” speech late last week. On STV and twitter I dubbed it “Murdo Fraser for slow learners”, and although that may have sounded a little snarky, I was also attempting to make a serious point: Davidson’s analysis of what handicaps the Scottish Conservative Party, i.e. not just how it communicates its message but the message itself, was basically in line with that set out by Murdo Fraser during the leadership contest in late 2011.
Indeed, as Fraser remarked on twitter, he could almost have written it himself. But while the analysis was familiar, the proposed solution was not. Davidson did no more than hint at a shift in policy, perhaps along the lines, intriguingly, US-style federalism. I hope she follows through on that, for I’ve always thought the sensible course for the Scottish Tories is to preach federalism, which is both firmly Unionist and genuinely decentralist in terms of sovereignty and political power.
Now I don’t for a moment think Davidson (or rather, the party leadership more generally) is going to stage a complete mea culpa and propose the abolition of the Scottish Tory Party, although a shift in constitutional strategy looks increasingly likely. However she’s not there yet. Apparently that will be dealt with in another two speeches between now and March.
On Friday a lot of commentators remarked that the famous “line in the sand” set out by Davidson during her leadership campaign appeared to have been washed away. In truth, it was swept away just months after Davidson was elected leader, when the Prime Minister (more or less) promised to look at devolving more power in the event of a “no” vote in the independence referendum.
That still appears to be the caveat – i.e. no more devo until the referendum’s out of the way – although Scotland Office Minister David Mundell muddied the waters somewhat by telling the Scotsman that by October this year all three Unionist parties were likely to have agreed a package of more devolution. Of course that won’t be put to the test in the referendum next year, but rather at the 2015 general election.
Since early last year, that has actually been the position of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the Conservatives, although it hasn’t been clear – with the exception of the Lib Dems – what precisely they’re offering. Certain proposals, however, seem to enjoy broad Unionist consensus, such as the devolution of all income tax (rather than the 10p set out in the Scotland Bill).
By coincidence, the IPPR published its proposals for “devo-more” on the same day as Davidson’s speech, and although its contents have the benefit of being well thought through and applicable, if necessary, to both Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect the three Unionist parties won’t formally back them anytime soon. Even the cross-party “devo-plus” scheme enjoys only informal support.
The SNP, meanwhile, is depicting all this as little more than a Unionist con trick. The only way to secure more powers, runs the argument, is by voting “yes” in October 2014. As Nicola Sturgeon wrote in Scotland on Sunday, a “no” vote means Scotland will get “nothing”, while talk of Holyrood gaining more powers in those circumstances was “fanciful”.
Indeed, SNP rhetoric has hardened considerably against all previous talk of “devo-max”. This is understandable. The Scottish Government pushed for its inclusion among the referendum questions in 2014, but it was not to be. And in her Strathclyde University speech late last year, Sturgeon declared the UK state to be unreconstructable.
This, I think, is unfair, for it ignores that the devolution of power in 1999 amounted to a significant reform of the British state – indeed the biggest since its formation in 1801 – and also subsequent (additional) devolution of power in both Scotland and Wales. Now the SNP could, of course, argue this isn’t enough, but it still undermines any claim that the UK doesn’t do constitutional reform.
On that point, sometimes a lot of SNP and “yes” campaign rhetoric seems to belong in the 1980s rather than 2013. The old rallying cry of “no mandate” still exists, albeit in modified form, while on twitter and elsewhere some Nationalists talk of an “over-centralised” UK state that simply doesn’t exist. Often, you’d be forgiven for thinking a Scottish Parliament hadn’t been established in 1999.
As for the prospects of greater devolution following a “no” vote in the referendum, again I think Sturgeon is overstating her point. Given that all three Unionist parties are now committed to legislating for more powers at some point after the referendum, and that those pledges are likely to be put to the electorate at the 2015 general election, it seems a bit far-fetched to believe that somehow all that will be forgotten about come October 2014.
If the three parties did that then, frankly, they’d get pulverized in the media and, with the SNP’s warnings vindicated, most likely punished at the polls too. The UK Government is also conscious of the Quebec experience in 1995. Then, following a very close “no” vote on separation, the federal Canadian government moved quickly to grant some concessions in order to consolidate the outcome.
So contrary to Sturgeon’s assertion, more devolution is precisely what’s likely to follow a “no” vote in 2014, unless of course the Unionist parties have a political death wish. The SNP is, of course, entitled to question the sincerity of their opponents when it comes to constitutional reform, but given the fact it stood aside from cross-party devolution efforts in the 1990s and late 2000s, Nationalists are not exactly on strong ground.
As I often remind Nationalist friends, the two parties that formally opposed devolution between 1979-97 were the SNP and Scottish Conservatives. Both now not only support the Scottish Parliament, but coalesced (informally) between 2007-11 and today advocate greater powers (of course to varying degrees). However you look at it, this represents considerable change from the constitutional nadir of the 1979 devo referendum.