EVENTS over the past 12 months have strengthened Scotland’s link with the Union but the third way for devolution should not be ignored writes Murdo Fraser
Today I am travelling to Belfast to speak to the Northern Irish Conservatives at their St Andrew’s Day dinner. Like all members of the unionist family across the UK, they are keen to hear how the constitutional debate in Scotland is developing.
After almost a year of debate, the “Edinburgh Agreement” represents the end of the beginning of the referendum campaign. It was a good agreement. The legitimacy and clarity of the outcome of a single-question referendum is undoubtedly greater than would be the case if there were three options. The two sides can outline opposing views and the voters can choose – you’re in or you’re out.
So the “Edinburgh Agreement” removed the uncertainty of a third option. But it does not remove the debate about a “third way”. The debate about this third way – more powers for the Scottish Parliament within the UK – is not going away. And nor should it. It is a live issue within all of the three main opposition parties, and the sharing of a platform last month by Duncan McNeill of Labour, Liberal Democrat Tavish Scott and the Tories’ Alex Fergusson serves to confirm its relevance. Endorsing the sound principles articulated by Jeremy Purvis and Reform Scotland’s Devo Plus group, these three very senior members of their parties are standing behind a shared vision which may very well be the blueprint for a new constitutional future.
The third way is the new centre-ground in Scottish politics. Overwhelming evidence in poll after poll tells us it is popular – far more popular than either independence or indeed the status quo.
There are three reasons why I believe the third way – a significantly more powerful Scottish Parliament – is the road down which we should travel.
First, and most importantly, it is correct in principle and will strengthen the Union. Devolution is not yet working to its full potential, and the reason for this is the absence of a link between legislative responsibility and financial responsibility. Until a Scottish Government is given responsibility for raising the bulk of the money that it spends it cannot be expected to tax, spend and behave in a financially responsible manner.
Further devolution is not a surrender to nationalism. Far from it. There are countries all over the world in which sub-national tiers of government hold substantial power whilst also appreciating that they are better together as one nation. The UK need be no different.
In this respect, the Scotland Act should be welcomed as a significant step in the right direction, and as an indication that, contrary to many people’s assumption, the Conservative-led government at Westminster is quite prepared to devolve more power if it is in demand in Scotland and is in the interests of a stronger UK.
Secondly, vesting more power in the Scottish Parliament is strategically sensible. The constitutional debate has distorted Scottish politics for decades by crowding out debate on the very real, very difficult, political issues of our time.
We must move on. Deep down, we all know that the post-Scotland Act status-quo has no long-term sustainability. It is a resting place on the long road to devolution’s ultimate destination, which is an accountable Scottish Parliament raising most of the money it spends. Where is the sense in prolonging the agony and exacerbating the problems which have been caused so far? We must cut to the chase.
Thirdly, there are strong tactical reasons to move to the new centre-ground; and before the referendum, not after it. What we must focus upon is not just victory itself, but its margin. The status quo would probably defeat independence in 2014; even Alex Salmond’s version of independence, with its shared currency, shared monarchy and, in many respects, shared Britishness. But at present I would estimate the likely margin of victory to lie somewhere from 55:45 to 65:35.
That is not enough. It would not, in all likelihood, lead to the departure of Alex Salmond and the fracturing of the SNP. It would not necessarily render the SNP any less likely to repeat their 2011 Holyrood victory in 2016. And most importantly, it would not consign the independence movement to the fringe status it must in future have in order for Scotland to move beyond the constitutional tussle.
In that respect, I have a concern that the upturn of unionist support in opinion polls is giving some within the Better Together campaign a false sense of security. I am concerned that this may lead to a stubborn determination amongst unionist leaders to reject calls for further devolution in favour of fighting the referendum on the status quo.
There is no denying that 2012 has been a good year for us unionists. The Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, in particular, aroused a passion in committed unionists like me, and even put a British spring in the step of tens of thousands of constitutional neutrals. Combined with a series of bad days at the office for Alex Salmond, this has led to a marked uplift in unionist polling to the degree that many inside the Better Together tent feel that more of the same will do just nicely.
But we cannot assume that the First Minister will keep on having more bad days at the office. And the “Scolympians”, as the First Minister called them, wrapped in a Union Flag in the east end of London in 2012 will be wrapped in a Saltire in the east end of Glasgow in 2014.
So we need to understand the bigger picture. We need to understand that only a unionist referendum victory somewhere in the region of 75:25 will be large enough to marginalise the nationalist movement indefinitely. It is unlikely that such a scale of victory can be achieved simply by fighting for the status quo.
Armed with this knowledge, I would like to see us take control. I would like to see the Better Together campaign and the Westminster government making a strong common statement – well in advance of the referendum – that a No vote is not a vote for the status quo, nor a vote for the Scotland Act, but is a vote for a new, enhanced and responsible Scottish Parliament which serves the people of Scotland within the UK. This will allow Better Together to conduct a genuinely positive campaign for something, rather than simply against something.
The opposition leaders in Holyrood deserve praise for the steps they have taken over the last few months. Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has published an excellent report cementing his party’s commendable track record in campaigning for a federal UK. Johann Lamont, Labour’s leader, has set up a commission to consider the issue, and I understand that it is doing so with enthusiasm and vigour as it works towards a report next year. And my leader, Ruth Davidson, has correctly identified the need for a UK-wide approach to considering further constitutional reform.
We do not need every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted before 2014. But we do need a live process and a clear and agreed set of principles; a statement of intent so that our objective is in no doubt.
This is not the time for ambiguity, or kicking the issue into the long grass. Promising jam tomorrow is asking for trouble. We know where we should go, and we know where people want us to go. So we must go there. This St Andrew’s Day, let us agree to take the next step.
• Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife