26 January 2013

Ruth's Pushmi-Pullyu routine...

Just a brief thought today. Yesterday, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson gave a speech entitled "Scotland First". critically reviewed this morning by Alan Cochrane for the Telegraph and Alex Massie in the Scotsman.  Both more or less agree that the address served at least two functions. Firstly, it represented an attempt to distinguish Davidson from her colleagues in England and Wales and to assert a distinctly Scottish Conservative identity and agenda. No longer stooges for southron masters, no more mere peripheral scoffers on the Scottish political scene, tomorrow's Scottish Conservatives, she insists, must be right-trusty guardians of the Scottish interest, no longer seen as "London’s party in Scotland".

As Alex rightly recognises, this sort of the rhetoric has the nasty habit of re-enforcing rather than subverting the very stereotypes which Ruth hopes to assail, but for now, let's take her argument on its own terms.  The second string on her fiddle was devosomething. Ruth took the opportunity of the speech to slap a boot into the dunes, and in the stinging fug, attempted a pretty outrageous constitutional volte face. Well, probably attempted. As Sieur Cochrane notes, detail there was little. You may remember that on launching her campaign against Darth Murdo in September 2011, Davidson insisted that

“The Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster is the line in the sand. The time for arguing about the powers the people want is over. It’s time now to use the powers that we have.”

Just a few short months later, all's change it would seem. Or rather, all's-apparently-enthusiastically-but-vaguely-guesturing-towards-change. "Viewing devolution only through the prism of the threat of separation has been too one-dimensional," she says. Having hoodwinked her party's anti-devolutionist hardliners into supporting her candidacy agin the perfidious Murdo, she now declares herself devolution's friend, shoots admiring glances towards North Carolina in the United States, envisioning, albeit in a vague manner, yet another bout of "arguing about the powers the people want". Quoth she:

"... once the debate has been won, the threat of separation has receded and Scotland’s place in the Union is secure, we can take a serious and considered look at a new spread of responsibilities within the UK."

All well and good, you might well think. But I find myself wondering, is it really possible to serve these two ends simultaneously, at once to distance yourself from your colleagues down south, while dreaming up proposals for further constitutional change that will be at once practicable and credible? Consider a few simple facts. While the precise ambit of proposals for more devolution need not be made in Westminster, ultimately, it is the politicians in Westminster who must endorse and adopt them. In this ledger, the Scottish Tories are notoriously of paltry scope. Just the less-than-robust David Mundell with a vote and voice in the House of Commons for the last two parliaments. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, a No vote in 2014, the Tories won't go into the Westminister general election of 2016 suffused with confidence that a host of colleagues will be joining Mundell on the blue benches.

As a consequence, if the Tories are going to be the party of further constitutional reform in the short to medium term, those reforms will have to be carried pre-eminently by the party's MPs representing English constituencies.  Of course, the party might well attempt to cobble together a consensual coalition across the Liberal Democratic and Labour parties, but ultimately, a Conservative-led government must rely on its own representatives, few of whom seem won-over to the virtues of devolution, or more than tepid proponents of innovating substantially to alter the balance of power in this country. Ruth Davidson's practical answer for realising more devolution can't be "vote Labour or Liberal Democrat instead and they might take care of it".

In this situation, you might well think that a Scottish Conservative leader would need to emphasise their close ties with her colleagues in Westminster rather than the distance separating them; her ability to bend arms, to convince the skeptical on her own side, to be Scotland's representative in the Tory councils in London, rather than a semi-detached figure, commanding little to no influence with them. Pushmi-Pullyu can't clop north and south simultaneously.


  1. Exactly, the whole premise of the idea of getting more power for the Scottish Parliament from Westminster is completely flawed. When are journalists going to pick up on this? It's not just that they refuse to details WHAT powers they would devolve - they won't tell us HOW they would get them devolved either.

    Devolution is a way of pretending to give the people what they want, while all the time keeping the process completely in the hands of politicians. Any further powers devolved would go the same way - a commission of "experts" would be formed, THEY would decide which powers we can be trusted with, and it would fall a long way short of what the people want. This will always be the case, because the politicians know that once we get what we want, we'll ask for more, so they must always give us less than we want. This is why the Tories and Tory-minded Labour politicians have always been wary of devolution, because they know it's put us on the one-way track to independence. Ruth's attempt to draw a "line in the sand" was futile because she's drawing it on a surface which is constantly moving forward. You can't stop destiny.

    If the devolution process was put in the hands of the people, we'd already be halfway independent by now, if not completely. The people want welfare and taxation controlled in Holyrood. This would challenge the authority of Westminster, as Holyrood would stop being subordinate to them. It would come to be seen as Scotland's main parliament, and soon people would question why Westminster controlled foreign affairs and defence, and thus lead to independence. This is why English MPs will never vote to give Scotland anything resembling the level of powers people want it to have, and if we had been given the opportunity to vote for Devo Max, they would have been given the unenviable choice of doing something they didn't want to do, or having to tell us "no", and face the public outcry.

    If we want politicians to decide when Scotland's grown up enough to have certain powers, people can vote no. If we want to take the powers we want, then we have to vote yes.

  2. Doug,

    I don't think it is all entirely in bad faith. There are loads of decent folk, who think we should stay in the UK but who are dissatisfied with its political structures, whose agitation for "internal" reform is well-meant, hard-headed and quite sincere.

    As you say, the problem with all of this is that our politicians seem to share neither this candid commitment to the idea at an ideological level, nor feel a sufficiently strong impetus to innovate and reform.

    We shall see!

  3. Murdo put it best on twitter: 'Could almost have written it myself.'

    The question is whether the Tory party base in Scotland would accept any cast-iron commitment to further devolution. Given that they voted for Ruth precisely because she said 'nuh' to further devolution, I'll be very interested to see how she squares this particular circle.

  4. KJH,

    I wonder. Conceptually, it seems impossible to reconcile her remarks this week with those back when she launched her leadership campaign.

    The Scottish Tory membership is not a group of folk I know a great deal about (just 8,000 folk, if I remember correctly), but presumably, some of them are feeling pretty grouchy about today's speech. Yet another reason, in addition to the stated feelings of many of Ruth's comrades in England, to feel skeptical at this stage about whether all of these loose, warm words about more devolution will amount to an even modest hill of beans.

  5. The point KJH makes ^ is interesting.

    Alan Trench & Guy Lodge stated that that the all three NO elements need to reach a common position on further ('more') devolution.

    If they cannot achieve this,they say, no positive case can be made for the Union.

    In that scenario the chance of YES vote is high (or, at least, higher).

    As KJH notes, that creates a problem for the Tories. It may mean that, from the very outset, the Tories will not be able to reach a common position with the other two.

    For the Liberals this may be less of an issue. It seems they will agree with anything anyone says, whenever, wherever, and with high moral dudgeon. They face near-annihilation anyway.

    For Labour there is a clear practical gain in reaching this agreement because it may serve their primary interest, as a party, in Edinburgh and in London.

    In the end, my guess is that the advantage to be gained by agreement (and the media-monstering to be suffered in failing) will entail the Tories taking a neutral line, feigning agreement, and deflecting questions about practical implementation at Westminster.

  6. Usually your articles are well thought out and superficially (at least) objective, this one seems less so - perhaps this is why you have mentioned the wrong year (2016) for the next [Westminster] general election. It is certainly true that the Conservatives in Scotland have a difficult case to make, but I think that Davidson makes it pretty well despite your attempts at mockery - or perhaps your mockery is itself an indication of the quality of her arguments.

  7. 'In this ledger, the Scottish Tories are notoriously of paltry scope. Just the less-than-robust David Mundell with a vote and voice in the House of Commons for the last two parliaments.'

    Well yes - but in that election that saw them take one Westminster seat they also gathered over 400,000 votes across Scotland. A democratic conundrum here, as shown by the fact they have 15 MSPs at Holyrood - a fairer reflection of their vote across the nation.

    Re distinguishing Heather-clad Tories from the southron folk well I am glad that they became less distinct from the 70s to me. I remember a very nice young English Tory giving up on activism in Scotland - as he said, in England, it was bad enough having to counter racial bigotry among his comrades, here it was racial and anti-Catholic bigotry.

    We forget how awful and reactionary many of the senior Tory and SNP figures were even in the early 80s - and I have to add many Labour figures to that depressing memory.

    Good luck to Ruth Davidson - don't agree with her politics but she seems a decent sort and let's face it going back on earlier sine qua nons is hardly a uniquely Tory thing.

  8. Edwin: 400,000 votes over Scotland for one seat?

    And yet Mr Cameron says that First Past The Post, the system which delivered that 1 person, is the best, and indeed, the fairest way to elect a parliament.

    Does that not show that he has very little respect for his voters in "North Britain"?

  9. It is not as simple as saying that the three No parties in Scotland have to agree a common devo plus platform. They also have to persuade their UK parent organisations to accept that.

    As long as the Scottish branches of Labour/Tory/Lib Dems are saying it's OK,independence is behind in the polls, the SNP are heading for a humiliation,Scotland will never vote yes then the parent organisations will say - quite reasonably - well then why should we deliver more constitutional change? If it ain't broke, why fix it? That's a fairly unanswerable question I would have thought.

    So I don't think there is, at the present moment, the slightest intention on the part of the No parties to deliver further devolution.

    This speech of Ruth's is just another doomed rebranding exercise to try and make the Tories more relevant. Their problem is not that they aren't relevant, it is that they are disliked and mistrusted. They would need to change their policies to change that - but then they wouldn't be Tories any more.

  10. Is it perhaps worth considering that "a serious and considered look at a new spread of responsibilities within the UK" does not necessarily imply further devolution, and could in fact refer to the very opposite? Or am I being too cynical?

  11. tris - well said about Cameron. Have to say I am in two minds - at least two minds - about FPTP v the options, but it gives food for thought that one of the best examples of how FPTP can fail to represent the wishes of the electorate is Tory representation in Scotland.

  12. Bill,

    And here was me thinking that I was giving Ruth a generous piece of advice! Fair enough, I cocked up the date, but I'd be interested to hear, in substantive terms, why my point - that her two goals might not pull in the same direction - is fundamentally wrongheaded.


    It is a fair point about their 400,000 voters, and one which I touched on in the latest podcast and hope to write something about this week. That said, it is impossible to resist the low blow that the Tories are themselves intractably opposed to proportional representation. They could easily beef up their Scottish contingent to Westminister if they wanted to...

  13. Tyranny, under any guise, may be 'right'for some, but 'wrongs' the many. The one certainty is it has no place in a true democracy.

    Sovereign parliaments in conjunction with FPTP systems result in tyrannies based on political primogeniture.