DON’T expect a No victory to keep the status quo. It will be the opportunity to make Holyrood truly accountable, writes the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson
IN MY time in both journalism and, latterly, politics, I’ve come to appreciate just how powerful the Scottish Parliament can be. Over its 15 years of existence, Holyrood has changed the complexion of our country. The big questions on issues like our health service and our schools system have been debated vigorously and passionately. And – for good or ill – MSPs have made the decisions which have directed how the country is run.
As an opposition politician, I have regularly found myself disagreeing with those decisions. But no-one can doubt that the Parliament has made its mark. It has been free to decide on our children’s education, on our grandparents’ care and on the laws which govern us all. It is a Parliament that has mattered.
And yet since I became a member of the Scottish Parliament nearly three years ago, it’s been impossible to ignore the fact that something fundamental is also missing. Every year, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is allocated by MSPs to spend in Scotland. Yet MSPs are responsible for raising only a fraction of that money. Holyrood is, in effect, a giant spending machine; ministers and MSPs the signatories of a vast cheque book. In modern day, post-devolution Scotland, the difficult business of raising public money from taxpayers continues to rest mostly with Westminster. The freedom to spend that money is enjoyed mostly by Holyrood.
My belief is that this system must end. And this week, the Scottish Conservatives will come forward with our proposals on how to reform it. Central to our plans is a commitment to give Holyrood more responsibility. We cannot continue with a pocket-money Parliament, which gets its allowance from Westminster and then spends it as it pleases. We must move to a new system that brings real accountability to Scotland’s politics. In short, the buck must stop at Holyrood.
Those plans will be contained in a report being published by the Conservative peer Lord Strathclyde after I asked him, more than a year ago, to review the workings of our devolved settlement. I called for that review because I felt that – ahead of this September’s independence referendum – we on the pro-UK side needed to show people what we proposed for Scotland if we vote No. We will all be making an irreversible decision this September. As with the leaders of the other pro-UK parties, I felt it was only right that people could assess our thoughts. As Tom Strathclyde makes clear in his report, his plans will be made redundant if Scotland opts to separate from the UK this September. Independence will end devolution and our plans to develop the Scottish Parliament further will be scrapped.
If people do vote No, however, our plans will become our Conservative blueprint for devolution. I hope they will command widespread support among people of all political beliefs in Scotland. Most of all, as we campaign over these coming months, I want people to know that we are utterly serious and committed to seeing them happen. We’re acting not in spite of our Conservative and Unionist beliefs. We’re acting because of our Conservative and Unionist beliefs. Our preference for a stronger Scottish Parliament comes from our values of greater responsibility and greater empowerment for people and communities. And, I believe, a Scotland with more powers will also be the catalyst for a newly revived UK – one built to last for all our people.
I know, of course, that our opponents will claim we’re not serious. The tired old lines from the 1970s will be dusted off to claim we are not committed to devolution. But these arguments no longer hold any credence. They have all the power and relevance of a pub bore dredging up long-forgotten grievances, of interest to his pint and nobody else.
Firstly, look at our record over the past five years in office. It is the current UK Conservative-led government which has already pushed through major plans to strengthen the Scottish Parliament. These new powers – giving MSPs partial control over income tax – will come on stream soon and will be an important stepping stone for us. But I think we can develop those powers further. The Prime Minister does too. I hope our record over the past five years now speaks for itself in showing we are serious about doing so.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, questions over my party’s commitment to more devolution misunderstand the way the Scottish Conservatives have changed in recent years. It is true that maintaining the strength of the UK will always be our biggest concern. Ironically, this referendum campaign has highlighted the huge benefits that Union brings: a single market, a borderless union and – most importantly of all – our UK pound. I start from the basis that we must do nothing that puts any of that in danger.
But having a Scottish Parliament whose powers meet the aspirations of the people of Scotland strengthens, rather than weakens, our Union. Having a packet of money sent up the M1 from London, distributed by politicians who never think where it comes from – the pay packets of hardworking Scots – is a recipe for instability and grievance politics. Everything good is because of the Scottish Government; everything bad is because those nasty MPs in London cut our allowance. It must stop.
So we need to fix the clear weaknesses in our devolved Scottish Parliament. A belief in our Union is a Conservative bedrock. But responsibility and accountability are Conservative watchwords too. And many people in our party – me included – have now seen the opportunity in these coming months to marry these vital Conservative instincts.
Firstly, a vote to remain in the UK this September will affirm our place as part of our family of nations. Then, a plan to drive power and responsibility to the Scottish Parliament will create a politics in Scotland that works. In other words, I see an opportunity for us to have the best of both worlds: a strong, secure UK which has been affirmed in the referendum, and the chance to create a more responsible, more responsive politics in Scotland.
Giving greater powers to Holyrood is not, as some have claimed, about “handing a consolation prize to Alex Salmond” ahead of the referendum. It may come as a surprise to the First Minister to know that he is not part of our thoughts at all. Instead, this has been about doing the right thing, about doing the Conservative and Unionist thing. As we see it, devolution as it stands has led to a parody of democracy. Responsibility and accountability have gone missing. And our present flawed system has actually helped cause the very disruption to the Union which we now see. An irresponsible SNP Government has taken all the credit for flashing our money. Cynically, it has then sought to blame “London” at every turn when the money has run out. The Parliament in Edinburgh has largely ignored the crucial issues that western countries must face as we enter a period of tighter financial constraints and ageing societies. Instead, the SNP has just blamed the bogeyman. As unionists, we can tolerate this charade no longer. As serious politicians, we shouldn’t tolerate it either.
In its place, we must create a system that injects real political choice and accountability at Holyrood, just as it does in other layers of government. For example, we all know that if your rubbish isn’t collected, you can ring up the council and complain. That’s because you pay your council tax. But the fact that there is no such clear link between your taxes and the Scottish Parliament means that, too often, Holyrood gets away scot-free. It is a licence to avoid difficult decisions and blame others. It is a licence for avoiding the necessary reforms that are needed in our public services. MSPs need not just to be responsible for spending our money – they need to be responsible for raising far more of it than they do at present.
Creating more responsibility on tax will require radical change, and political support and goodwill. And crucially, we must enact these reforms to Holyrood in partnership with the rest of the United Kingdom. We have to accept that the days when devolution can be sorted out in a bilateral shake of the hands between London and Edinburgh are coming to end. We must accept too that further powers at Holyrood have consequences for the rest of the UK that can no longer be ignored. We must find a way to ensure that fairness is achieved right across the UK. We need to stop Nationalists in all parts of Britain stoking up resentment. I have no doubt we can do this. Britain always has.
So my message this week is that we do not have to make that irreversible decision to separate ourselves from the UK to build the stronger, more responsible Scotland that we all want. Three parties of markedly different political perspectives – us, the Liberal Democrats and Labour – are ready to continue our efforts to bring people the best of both worlds. It means the people of Scotland now have a choice. There is a vote for separation – the end of devolution – and a journey into the unknown. Or there is a vote for more devolution and a better United Kingdom. For me, the choice is clear. The Nationalists may be passionate in their case, but the case for independence is uncertain and has not been made. By contrast, we can now say with confidence that voting No does not mean no change.
The Scottish Parliament, as it stands, incentivises the manufacturing of grudge and grievance. The Scottish Parliament, as it can be, will incentivise the manufacturing of goods and opportunity. That’s the prize that’s on offer. I want Scotland to stay in the UK. And I want a Scottish Parliament with real choice and real power. It’s something to vote for – ensuring that the next generation benefit from a stronger Scotland within a more stable United Kingdom. «
• Ruth Davidson MSP is leader of the Scottish Conservatives