25 May 2014

The Scottish Tories: the new "party of devolution"?

One of the most grating and familiar lines to emanate from Scottish Labour politicians is that theirs is the "party of devolution".  This proprietorial claim is at odds with both the history of devolution, and the People's Party's own chequered and divided attitude to the idea of home rule. But it's an amateurish politician who lets fairmindedness and truth arrest the telling of a good tale. Ultimately, I suspect it's just another of the opiating but essentially debilitating myths to which the party seems increasingly determined to succumb. Yet on a range of fronts, Labour's idea that la décentralisation, c'est moi is being challenged.  

As a sagacious soul recently pointed out to me, come May 2015, the party will have been out of power in Scotland for longer than Dewar, McLeish and McConnell served in it between 1999 and 2007. Johann Lamont's recent devo scheme was an incoherent calamity, born of short-term thinking, naked partisanship, and a lack of intellectual application to the legal and political tensions and opportunities represented by redistributing power away from the centre. Another opportunity missed. But when one player forgoes a diamond chance, a window of opportunity opens for another to sneak in and race off with the ball. There are signs - some scuttlebutt - that the Strathclyde Commission may prove surprisingly ambitious, its devo offer comfortably overtaking Johann's plodding proposals.

For an independence supporter to countenance the possibility of further devolution after a No vote isn't exactly popular. The orthodox line is that we'll get nowt, and the turncoat betrayals of 1979 will be repeated by the current generation of neo-Thatcherite centralisers. There are certainly good reasons to be skeptical about (a) whether warm but vague words will really be delivered on, and (b) the extent to which any of the mainstream UK parties (with the potential, but irrelevant exception of the Liberal Democrats) are profoundly committed, in their guts, to distributing power away from Westminster. 

To adapt Better Together's rhetoric of choice, if we bracket the powers coming down the line under the Scotland Act 2012, there are no guarantees that Holyrood will win additional powers. And it looks quite likely that the powers the parliament might win would represent theoretical and illusory gains, rather than practical and effective levers allowing us to follow a distinctive tack on taxation, social security and so on. 

But I think we can afford to be a wee bit more relaxed about admitting (a) the possibility of further devolution while (b) still maintaining that independence has advantages which a tricky negotiation of powers across the UK can't rival. Firstly, none of the devo-schemes on offer come anywhere near the mythic devo-max, which is to say, none of them incorporate the extensive tax and welfare powers Scotland needs if it is to meaningfully follow its own course within the confines of the United Kingdom. And over and above these questions, the No campaign can continue to argue about the virtues and competences of UK foreign affairs and defence policy if it fancies. It's not a record whose recent big ticket items I'd care to defend.

Yet the possibility of an unexpectedly beefy Tory devolution offer throws up any number of unusual political issues and dynamics. Potential ironies abound. One of the major reasons why folk might want devolution of great swathes of domestic policy is Tory governments, but a future Conservative government might represent the best mechanism for delivering the maximum-possible devolution within the UK. It may not be a message which Tory-disinclined Scots are inclined to hear or credit. As a consequence, it may secure few short term advantages for Ruth Davidson, or "detoxify the Tory brand", but it would represent a remarkable reversal in our politics - and an audacious gambit by David Cameron and his colleagues. 

It would also represent an historic opportunity for the Nationalists and the Tories collectively to kick Scottish Labour to the margins of Scottish politics, its status of "the party of devolution" blown to bits, and its conceit of itself as the natural party of Scottish government thoroughly undermined.  You needn't be tartan Tories to find force in the logic that my enemy's enemy is my friend.  Despite their disagreements with the SNP's ideology, I dare say a few Tory corks popped in 2007 and 2011, when Jack McConnell and Iain Gray took their respective drubbings. 

The centralism of Ed Miliband's "One Nation" Labourism, with its vision of uniform social and economic rights, and "pooling resources" across the country, can't accommodate devolution with any comfort. You can't cut a deal for substantially strengthened powers with that vision of the United Kingdom. Pragmatic Toryism, by contrast, confident in its Unionism irrespective of different policy outcomes in different parts of the country, can probably accommodate these divergences. Lightly beguiled by ideas of decentralisation but unsystematic in its vision, the Conservative Party can find resources within itself to get behind devolution. 

Not the whole crew, perhaps. The ultramontane wing will never be persuaded, but it can be left gradually to die out and leave no heirs. There's nothing necessarily incoherent about the idea that devolution was a mistake which emboldened the Nationalists and undermined the stability of the Union, while arguing that the Union can find a new stability in a better settlement for Scotland. The thought may tighten Alan Cochrane's sphincter, an undeserved sop to the Nationalists, but Cochrane's miserablism is an infertile branch of Tory unionism. No green shoots can grow out of the withered stem of that political ideology.

For devo-enthusiasts in the party, the calculation is presumably that the Tories can be coaxed into travelling wherever the leadership ordains that it should go. That the blue rinsers won't cut up too rough. And the siren voices of old time reaction in Westminster will do what they're told, or be sufficiently isolated in parliament for Cameron coolly to shrug off their dissent. What right-thinking soul gives a ha'penny toss what Darth Forsyth thinks anyway?

And if the price exacted in this transaction is the loss of a few Scottish Labour MPs? So much the better. Leave those Scotch communitarians to the folly of their nannying state. If a strain of English nationalism produces Tory indifference about an independent Scotland, surely that sentiment can be mobilised - at least to some extent - to extend the level of self-government which we enjoy within the Union. That, I imagine, is the theory anyway. Quietly. Behind the shutters. 

If the rumour and speculation about the (relative) ambition of the Strathclyde Commission proposals are borne out in practice, and the Tories take the opportunity to try to o'erleap the commitments of their Labour opponents, the response of most Nationalists and pro-independence campaigners can be pre-scripted. Remember 1979. It'll never happen. You can't trust the Tories anyway. Thatcherism. Perfidious Albion

And fair enough - to some extent.  Why rely on the uncertain business of securing the consent of a majority of UK MPs, when you can guarantee that the Scottish Parliament will enjoy all of these powers with independence? Why not exercise your sovereign choice in the ballot box on the 18th of September, instead of waiting for our sovereign parliament in London to devolve powers which it has consistently declined to transfer, despite golden opportunities to do so as recently as 2012?

But if September yields up a No vote, and the SNP are required rapidly to reverse-ferret on the idea that the UK's capacity to reinvent itself is spent, the jockeying for position as "the party of devolution" promises to be fascinating and unexpected scrap. Lord Strathclyde and his colleagues may be poised to give the kaleidoscope of Scottish politics a vigorous shoogle.


  1. We most assuredly CANNOT afford to be relaxed about admitting the possibility of further devolution. We can better afford to be relaxed about admitting the possibility that the world is flat and lies at the centre of the universe. Because neither of these latter admissions has the serious implications for our nation that the former undoubtedly entails.

    It is a great mistake to imagine that the British parties in Scotland are vying to be the "party of devolution". In fact, they are competing only in a game of jam tomorrow promise trumps. British Labour in Scotland having played a singularly bad hand, it will surely be easy for the Tories' talking shop to come up with something that is at least superficially superior.

    But the fact that the Strathclyde Commission's proposals may at least have the advantage of being coherent does not in any way imply that the proposals themselves will be any more relevant or meaningful.

    There is still no "more powers" option on the referendum ballot. There is still no rational reason to suppose that the British parties in Scotland can sell their proposals to their bosses in London, far less make any of these proposals binding on a future British Parliament.

    There is no reason whatever to believe that the victors in a power struggle will conceded to the vanquished the very thing over which they have been fighting.

    There seems to be a growing fashion for pretending that devolution is not dead, but merely resting. Or pining for the fjords. This is a silly and a dangerous fad. The battle following a No vote will not be about what new powers the Scottish Parliament is granted, it will be over what powers it is to be permitted to retain. Some may be able to fool themselves for a while by talk of nailing the dead parrot of devolution to its perch with the tacks of further constitutional tinkering. But the forces of history will not be so readily denied.

    There is no devolution settlement that will address the needs and/or satisfy the aspirations of Scotland's people. The British parties have had two tries at cobbling together such a settlement and even they have been forced to acknowledge that they have failed. Why should we believe that the third attempt will be any more successful? Especially when we have not the slightest idea what this attempt will involve.

    Devolution is dead. It must ultimately fail because it is founded on the denial of the essential fact of Scotland's nationhood and the sacrosanct principle of popular sovereignty. Let us please recognise this now and put an end to the pointless and frustrating process of constitutional tinkering by voting Yes in September. And let us not undermine the chances of a decisive Yes vote by pandering to the false notion that a No vote might hold the possibility of some acceptable, viable alternative.

  2. Labour at Westminster have made it clear that there is no appetite among their MPs for more devolution and given their tribal hatred of the SNP likely to be less devolution should they return to power in London.
    Why would the Tories give Scots control over their resources after a No vote when that will continue to allow them free access and control.
    Cameron is on record as saying that fiscal autonomy is incompatible with being part of the same country so I think we can see what the Tory reponse to a No vote would be (whatever the result of Strathclyde's enquiry).
    However,it will leave a legacy of disappointment and bitterness from those whose aspirations for their country will have been dashed.
    Devolution was never a process (as Labour claim) but a means to an end,that end being continued London rule of Scotland and a No result will give the Westminster politicians the legitimate claim that we Scots are satisfied with those arrangements and they need concern themselves with the issue no further.
    No means No change.

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