DEEP divisions within the Scottish Conservatives over whether to support more powers for Holyrood were exposed last night ahead of the party’s conference, which begins tomorrow.
As Tories prepared for the annual gathering, which will be addressed by David Cameron, a number of influential figures called for enhanced devolution, arguing it would help the party claw back support north of the Border.
However, the depth of the divisions was underlined by the response of one Tory MSP who claimed that giving further powers to Holyrood would amount to “appeasement on a grand scale” to nationalism.
The conference is being held against the background of the decision by Scottish party leader Ruth Davidson to set up a review into the devolution settlement.
Ms Davidson’s move was a major change in tack as she had argued as party of her leadership campaign against giving any further powers to MSPs.
Although there will be no debate on the floor of the conference, the thorny question of extending devolution will be debated at two key fringe events tomorrow when both camps are to set out their stall.
Former MP Peter Duncan, who is addressing one fringe meeting, said the party had to seize the chance to back more powers last night: “What we are seeing within the party is an opportunity to recover some of the ground we have lost over the last 20 years.”
He added: “The Scottish Parliament is spending money that it doesn’t raise and we will only have a truly accountable parliament at Holyrood when it is raising its own money.”
Speaking to Holyrood magazine, former presiding officer and Tory MSP Alex Fergusson – who also supports more powers – said that there would be “nothing off limits” in the party review.
Murdo Fraser – who unsuccessfully stood for the party leadership last year on a “more powers” ticket – added: “Our problem as a party is we’ve always been the back markers when it comes to constitutional debate. We’ve always been the ones who have been the most slow to move and then only move very reluctantly. This is an opportunity for us for once not to be the back marker and to be seen to be taking a leading line. And we should be because it should be entirely in tune with basic Conservative principles that we support greater financial accountability and a more responsible environment for politicians to operate in.”
However, MSP Margaret Mitchell, who also stood for the leadership to oppose further tax powers going to Holyrood, said last night: “It seems to me to be appeasement on a grand scale. Alex Salmond can just keep saying, ‘no, not enough’ and there is a clamour to give him more powers without the Scottish people even being considered.”
Other sceptics have warned that if Holyrood were to be made responsible for raising its taxes, it would mean an end to the Barnett Formula – the system of funding across the UK which has traditionally favoured Scotland.
There was also a warning yesterday from the Tory peer who led the party’s post-election review in 2010 that more powers at Holyrood could lead to a cut in funds for Scotland’s public services if it meant that the Barnett Formula was changed.
Lord Sanderson, who led a root and branch review of the party, told Holyrood: “There are certain advantages which Scotland has at the moment which it would naturally lose in any revamping of the whole situation.”