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Brian Monteith: The Union doesn’t need this type of Tory ‘friend’

David Cameron: Shouldn't resort to namecalling. Picture: PA

David Cameron: Shouldn't resort to namecalling. Picture: PA

It’s sad that unionist political strategy, at this late stage, comes down to calling Alex Salmond rude names, writes Brian Monteith

I had hoped, nay expected, that today’s article would not be about the Scottish Conservatives. I had a number of other issues that I felt required some rumination from my liberal, counter-consensual standpoint.

I’m thinking of Nicola Sturgeon’s rather bizarre argument that independence can help Scotland resist reform of its public services when sovereign states from Tunisia to Botswana to Pakistan are all working hard to deliver better outcomes for their people through a process of institutional reform.

I know this to be true for I have worked on such projects in all of them and they are just three of many, many nations seeking such reform. The patronising certainties of managerial collectivism are old-think and yet according to Sturgeon it would appear that only Scotland, Cuba and North Korea wish to live in the past.

There was also the possibility of considering the unbelievable treatment of charitable and community-based organisations that wish to provide rooms, halls and galleries for free or low cost events now facing the great expense of a new licensing regime – with little if anything to show for this costly regulatory obstacle. I know something of this also for I have numerous friends who are outraged by this latest intrusion of the bullying nannying state.

These had been my first thoughts and my focus would have been on SNP folly, but yet again the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has managed, as only it knows how, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and has gained my undiluted attention by creating a new organisation called Conservative Friends of the Union.

Now, the concept of establishing such an organisation might normally be welcomed, although it will be obvious to many, even the less charitable among us, that a political party that calls itself “Scottish Conservative and Unionist” might be considered automatically to be a friend of this great Union that is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This little campaign front, for that’s all it seems to be (the website is sparse to say the least), is not even the first to sport the name, for there was a more august, more hallowed Friends of the Union created by the late Ian Gow MP in 1986 that, although focusing on Northern Ireland, considered Scotland, too. Sadly, it folded through neglect and lack of support in 2006.

I used to attend its meetings, mostly held in London, where the purpose was to try and keep the maintenance of the Union on the agenda and ensure that the Tory leadership appreciated how their actions often put the very future of the Union in mortal peril. I can tell you I never saw Annabel Goldie, Tom Strathclyde, David Mundell or any of the current leadership rubbing shoulders with other Unionists, working out what lines in the sand had to be defended or what positive arguments should be made in defence of the Union’s true value.

The truth is that back then, just as now, all Unionists heard from the leadership were clichés and platitudes – while negative vitriol and bile was poured over nationalist opponents and their motives. This is why Unionist leaders have been losing the argument.

It therefore comes as a depressing disappointment but no great surprise that even this late in the day, as a referendum is galloping upon us, that the strategy for Unionist political leaders is yet more demeaning and crass name-calling by the Prime Minister towards the First Minister.

Calling Alex Salmond dithering is cheap and unworthy of the UK’s premier. Throughout the nineties and the noughties, the Unionists of Conservative and Labour hue had the opportunity to call a referendum to profess Scotland’s, or even the UK’s support for the Union. The obvious time to do that was as the tercentenary of the Acts of Union approached in 1707.

It mattered not who was in power then, for Blair, Brown or Cameron could all have advocated such a policy, but all were feart of the nationalist beast and preferred to think it would somehow depart the scene if it was not confronted.

Again, after Salmond won his first victory at Holyrood, the Unionists could have pulled together and forced a referendum to spike his guns.

If there is anyone to be accused of dithering it is Goldie, Mundell and Cameron – for they are the ditherers par excellence. Ruth Davidson cannot be blamed for any of this; she has, in the history of Unionist dithering, a clean pair of hands – but sadly I fear she is learning at the feet of her masters.

The Conservative Friends of the Union did not need to have the name Conservative at the front – if, as she says, it is to be open to anyone who supports the maintenance of the Union then why exclude them by the use of such an unpopular soubriquet? Surely the point must be to build a coalition with those who have little political allegiance and thus bring them into contact with Conservatives so they can see for themselves that they do not have two heads.

Most fundamentally of all, the name Conservative Friends of the Union provokes the thought – friends of which Union?

Would that be the pre-devolution Union of the past that so many of the Conservative Party still hanker after? Would it be the Union of the here and now that is about to endure the Scotland Bill on which the Scottish Conservative Party never submitted any proposals to Calman? Or is it the Union of the future that might or might not have more powers, depending on which side of bed the prime minister gets out of?

Friends of what Union? Can Ruth Davidson stop dithering and tell us how the Union might look in 2016, 2018 or 2020? That’s not too far away to have a view. True friends of the Union would have an answer to the question of what powers Holyrood should ultimately have. With friends like these the Union does not need enemies like the nationalists.

• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org

 

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