Conservatives must grit their teeth, give in or at least flirt with ideas short of independence,writes Brian Monteith
Just how serious are the unionists about introducing more powers for Holyrood if there is a No vote next September? With as many as a third of voters remaining unsure how to vote, but more than two-thirds saying they want additional powers, this perception has the potential to decide the outcome.
We have still to see the latest powers come through from the Scotland Act, but more are being promised by all three mainstream unionist parties. The credentials of the Liberal Democrats, as fully paid-up constitutional junkies, cannot be doubted. Their history is dripping with Home Rule proposals. Their own commission reported two years ago calling for greater devolution and last week Lord Steel advocated a Westminster senate that would have 40 Scottish members that could provide a scrutiny role for Holyrood. When it comes to greater powers, they have danced the seven veils leaving nothing to the imagination. They are a sure thing.
Labour, too, has good credentials. Originally formed as a Home Rule party, it has had a split personality over the years but has the attractive advantage of having delivered on devolution. Eventually Labour again fell into opposition, but following lengthy introspection it committed to further powers that it ensured, through consensual political intercourse, would be consummated by the other parties even were it to lose. Now, still in opposition but hungry for power, Labour lies prostrate, waiting for a further proposition and with such a craving it is difficult to imagine it would refuse further constitutional advances. Labour too is a sure thing.
That leaves the Conservatives, and here lies the root of the unionist problem. For while the party may in some ways be considered irrelevant in Scotland, it is the main party of government at Westminster, has been the main party of government of the preceding century and is likely to have considerable influence about what is able to pass through both houses of parliament in the future. This is no abstract perception; the Scottish public is sophisticated enough to be fully aware of the influence of the Conservative Party in the British context while dismissing it in the Scottish arena – which is why the Nationalists try to present it as a prime (if not the prime) reason for breaking with the Union.
The Conservatives could be viewed as being prim and even prudishly resistant to devolution’s advances, only adjusting reluctantly to the prevailing mores of society rather than advocating more liberal attitudes. Their adjustment to devolution has been with the blinds pulled and the curtains shut.
In the last year, however, they have undergone a change. David Cameron has gaily skipped along the paths of debate waving his petticoat in the air, advocating a more bohemian approach, willing others to lead him on. A not-so-old romantic, he is open to seduction so long as he does not lose his dignity.
This has manifested itself in the establishment of a commission under Lord Strathclyde, whose task is to woo fellow party grandees, whispering sweet constitutional nothings into their ears. The problem is that they need to be sweet somethings if they are to mean anything at all to voters and, furthermore, Conservatives need to appear as committed to the Home Rule love-in as the Lib Dems and Labour. Is it all a tease, the voters wonder, as Nationalists repeatedly suggest it is just a cunning Tory honey trap.
To reassure the public, Scottish Conservatives must go the whole way. They must walk the streets, scream from the rooftops, regularly proclaiming their easy virtue. What they cannot afford to do is give any impression that more devolution is poisonous and even if it were delivered would not be used.
Unfortunately, an example of how not to behave in public, how not to give the wrong impression and how not to offer up a hostage to fortune was made last week. When the Scottish Tory transport spokesman Alex Johnstone rushed to condemn a proposal by Reform Scotland for road pricing, it was as if he had not actually read what they said.
The idea was simple: road pricing across Scotland, now made possible by new technology, could be fairer and more just between regular and occasional road users while helping deal with congestion and pollution – so long as the road fund licence in Scotland was abolished and fuel duties reduced, otherwise it would be just an additional tax on drivers. It could result in a reduction of taxes for drivers in rural areas with regular urban drivers paying a little more for their greater consumption of Tarmac. This policy would, however, require further powers for Scotland to control all of these taxes – it would require Devo Plus.
The policy idea could of course also work in an independent Scotland, but here was a chance for Tories to acclaim how Scotland could be different in the Union while remaining in the same family. Instead they dismissed it and damned it. Johnstone’s reactionary statement was a return to those days of long plain frocks with high collars, with not an ankle or neckline in sight. So conservative is this approach to what powers Holyrood might gain and how it might use them that Scottish Tories might as well go around in burqas.
It does not matter if the Reform Scotland idea is of great merit or completely barmy (I happen to think it is the former). What matters is that the Conservatives, for the sake of the Union, and even the other Unionist parties, have to welcome and flirt with new ideas from any quarter that stop short of independence. They need to display vivaciousness in exploring the limits of devolution if the electorate is to be convinced they mean yes when they say yes to more powers. In saying No but meaning Yes they will simply sow confusion that will be their undoing.
Conservatives for change may be an oxymoron but if they wish anyone to take their conversion to devolution seriously, Tom Strathclyde must not just lift his skirt, he must crack the whip of discipline and punish any deviant reactionary thoughts.