The Prime Minister has now hit the right notes with reasons to stay part of the UK, writes Brian Monteith
The Prime Minister should be congratulated on his speech in Edinburgh last Thursday and given every encouragement to repeat the exercise, for while he struck the right tone there remains much unfinished business that only he can put right.
It is not difficult to find critics of David Cameron in Scotland, and I must include myself as one of those, albeit from a position of occasional disappointment rather than hostility. Nevertheless, I think that most fair-minded people of whatever political persuasion who might read his Edinburgh speech would recognise that at last there was a wholehearted and sincere attempt to explain why Scotland has a better future remaining in the United Kingdom than leaving it.
It might not answer all the questions posed by Nationalists but for once there was a real attempt to construct a positive case on a non-partisan basis. It was a speech worthy of a Prime Minister speaking for the whole of Britain rather than the leader of the Conservatives looking for party advantage.
Gone was the negativity. Instead, Cameron argued that while Scotland is capable of being an independent nation, there was more to be gained by being British too and that both Scotland and the rest of the UK benefits from us working together. He did not use the words “New Unionism” but that is what he has started to articulate – long overdue.
Whatever is finally settled regarding when the referendum vote will be, who oversees it and the wording of the question (or questions), the advocates of Scotland’s union with Britain have to start explaining the many benefits that come from our interdependent institutions, our sharing of risks and opportunities, and our intertwined social and cultural relationships, be they at top tables or the result of family ties.
There are of course negatives to independence, such as the threat to what remains of our shipbuilding industry winning Royal Navy contracts, but it is important that these are presented by showing the loss of opportunity that the union currently offers rather than suggesting a dependency that belittles our faith in Scotland.
All of that said, the Prime Minister then astounded his audience by suggesting that further powers could be transferred to Holyrood following a “No” to independence. What these powers might be and how far they might go was not explained, but the offer was made and many hares have already been set running.
While I welcome the apparent realism of the Prime Minister that reform of Labour’s devolution settlement will not be achieved by the Scotland Bill, that unwanted progeny of Wendy Alexander, Tavish Scott and Annabel Goldie, I cannot fail to notice that we have been here before and that the Scottish public, being once bitten, will most certainly now be twice shy.
When in 1979 former prime minister Lord Home said that if we voted “No” in that year’s referendum, a Conservative government could bring forward something better than what Labour was offering, many people thought it an honourable offer – but nothing ever materialised from the Thatcher or Major governments and Home’s offer was shown to be worthless.
For David Cameron’s words to mean anything, to have any credibility and thus make a difference, the Scottish Conservatives must work out what new level of devolution, be it new-devo, devo-plus or devo-max, they are willing to legislate for and then keep their word.
For new devolved powers, it is no good offering the Scottish public a lucky bag; they will not settle for anything less than the genuine article, a Louis Vuitton, and not some knock-off at that.
There remains a difficulty about this new found Tory enthusiasm for devolution and it is the fact that it was only last November in the party’s Scottish leadership election that the winner, Ruth Davidson, was telling us there would be no more powers for Scotland after the Scotland Bill. It was for her a line in the sand and it was intentionally so, for it marked her out as implacably different to her main rival, Murdo Fraser, who has been campaigning for fiscal autonomy since 1998.
Now, with a few carefully considered words of the Prime Minister, Ruth Davidson has been instructed to go back on her promise to the party members. Can Davidson show face in public again and advocate Murdo Fraser’s policy as if it is her own? Does she have the gall to remain leader when she has been elected under a false prospectus?
Worse still, does she or her party even matter to Cameron, for he has with such casual authority made Davidson and her supporters a laughing stock at Holyrood.
One is left feeling that the Prime Minister is happy to devolve more power to a Scottish Parliament but cannot contemplate giving such power to his party in Scotland and will dictate how the Conservative campaign towards the referendum will be run – with the strategy determined in Downing Street but the bloody infantry deployed from the Scottish Tory camp in Edinburgh.
As I have explained above, for there to be any currency in the Prime Minister’s offer, there has to be a policy paper published, consulted upon and debated by the Scottish Conservatives. It must be adopted and advocated as regularly as any others that Ruth Davidson has already promised. Two weeks ago, she issued a paper on education – now she must do the same on greater devolved powers.
The obvious person to undertake this task for Cameron and Davidson is Murdo Fraser; he understands the issue inside out, he eats it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and has seconds when his wife is not looking. If Davidson is to retain any shred of self-respect, she should task Murdo Fraser with the role of developing the new policy that the Prime Minister wants. Davidson can hardly write it herself, having been so implacably opposed to the idea.
There is not a moment to lose. The fate of the unionist campaign, never mind the fate of the Scottish Conservatives themselves, could be determined by how they now play their hand. Fraser may have lost the battle for a separate Scottish Tory party but he is winning the war for more powers for Scotland.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org