When will the Conservative revival start? Following the publication of the Smith Commission’s report, it was good to be a Scottish Conservative last week. Indeed, it has been a generally good year for the party. The question remains, however, will it matter one jot to the Scottish electorate? Will its considerable achievements bring its candidates electoral reward at the 2015 general election and, crucially for the party’s existence, the 2016 Holyrood election?
Try as they may to deny it, the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats must privately concede that the heart of the Smith Commission’s findings reflected the proposals put forward by the Scottish Conservatives. On a number of key issues, Labour has been left floundering and was still internally debating the correctness of devolving full responsibility for varying the rates and bands of income tax when the Conservatives had already recommended it earlier in the year.
Where the Tories did not propose something – such as the full devolution of welfare benefits – its leaders had made it clear that they were open to persuasion, and so it proved.
This is a major triumph, for it finally put to rest the calumny that Scottish Conservatives could not advance policies that would take the Holyrood parliament seriously and make it more accountable by giving it greater responsibility for how it raises the money it already spends.
The prize must be that, if the constitutional issue of how Scotland should be governed can be put to rest, or at least relegated to less of a dominant question, then at long last we can discuss how Scotland improves its public services such as health and education – both of which are performing comparatively worse than those in England and certainly worse than many western European states.
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If the Scottish electorate again begins to consider what matters most – and decides it is their taxes, schools, surgeries, hospitals, roads, courts and other services – it could be surprised to find that, in many cases, the progressive policies for improvement will come from the Tories. It is they who are looking to English counties and continental cities to find what works, while the advocates of policies that protect producer-vested interests against change come from the collectivist parties.
When it came to the independence referendum, Scottish Tories put in more than their shift, committing to voluntary overtime by ensuring they got their particular message across and their vote out. Whatever one thinks of David Cameron’s other policies, it could not be doubted he championed the maintenance of the Union and Ruth Davidson showed she was not a mini-me of Annabel Goldie, but could take on Nicola Sturgeon and come out the moral victor, after the now First Minister repeatedly conceded her case by shouting down Davidson’s rational arguments.
Through all of these recent events should come the recognition that the Scottish Conservatives have discovered their own political mojo rather than having had it sent by Parcelforce from Conservative HQ in London. They at last get it that they not only have to make their own policies (I can testify they mostly did just that) but that they should be seen to do so.
For the electorate, perception is reality, and so developing a public appreciation that Davidson and others such as Tom Strathclyde were able to out-devolve Labour cannot be underestimated.
Of course, history tells us that the Tory devolution boat set sail many times but never reached its port of destination. Edward Heath and Alec Douglas-Home made their speeches that fell on deaf ears, Struan Stevenson and Michael Fry made their written proposals in the Eighties, I recall being reprimanded by the whip in my first week of being a Tory MSP after writing an essay on how taxes should be devolved, and others such as Murdo Fraser have consistently gone out on a limb to argue that Scotland’s politicians must feel the pain of taxpayers whom they wish to relieve of their hard-earned money.
At last there is an opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives to turn the delivery of greater powers for Holyrood through both the Scotland Act 2012 and the legislation that follows the Smith Commission into a record that puts to the sword the lie that the party does not have Scottish interests at heart. The Tories should put these proposals at the front and centre of their election campaigns and make it their goal to then say how they would use them. For if there is one gap in the market, it is that the other parties, while agreeing to further powers, have scant awareness of what to do with them.
Lower personal taxes? Not on the SNP or Labour’s watch. Reforming welfare so that raising spending is restrained while assisting those most in need? Not in the view of other parties that baulk at the thought of any reforms.
The outcome of the Smith Commission does not in itself confirm a bright future for Scottish Tories, for there remain political considerations that need to be dealt with – not least the way English devolution is being presented. The idea that Scots politicians should continue to have the opportunity to determine how England’s health service, schools or other public services should be organised is not only absurd but unjust, when no English MPs, or indeed Scottish MPs, can determine those same laws in Scotland.
That is not to say that Scotland’s reforms should be predicated on change in England – the former should not depend on the latter, and David Cameron must make this clear – but change in England will only help secure the Union for everyone across the British Isles.
Through such an approach, political achievement may just be translated into votes.
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