Peter Jones: Tories take a devolution detour

Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson produced some policy surprises yesterday. Picture: PA
Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson produced some policy surprises yesterday. Picture: PA
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Conservative proposals for strengthening Holyrood’s powers indicate a party ready to embrace change, writes Peter Jones

LEOPARDS, it seems, can change their spots after all. Not only that, they can change their spots into radical stripes. Who would have thought that the Scottish Conservatives would come up with a plan that was not just about adding to and strengthening the powers of the Scottish parliament, but which was also more far-reaching than the Labour Party’s proposals?

Let’s not forget that the Tories are the party that campaigned for a No vote to Labour’s Scottish Assembly proposals in 1979, that resolutely set itself against any form of legislative devolution after that, and that also sought No votes in the 1997 referendum that created the Scottish parliament.

The Scottish Tories are also the party that elected Ruth Davidson to be their leader in 2011, a leader who promised to make the Scotland Act with its modest (by the standards of these latest proposals) additions to the Scottish parliament’s fiscal powers a “line in the sand” beyond which there would be no more devolution.

And yet here is the same Ms Davidson enthusiastically backing the plans of Lord Strathclyde’s commission to make Holyrood responsible for setting all the bands and rates for income tax beyond the starting point for paying tax and devolving some power over welfare as well.

Not only that, she has the equally enthusiastic support of the Tory prime minister, David Cameron. Only the distant harrumphing of former Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth signals some discontent and, from what I read, even he is complaining more about the timing of the report’s publication as a “distraction” from the referendum campaign than he is about the proposals in it.

The report justifies this apparent volte-face by going back further into history and noting that it was Conservative governments who established administrative devolution in the first place – by setting up the Scottish Office in 1885 and putting the Scottish Secretary into the cabinet in 1926.

Thus the post-1979 period is glossed over as an aberration from a history re-written to declaim: “The Conservative Party is and always has been flexible about how the Union should be encouraged to evolve.” So the no-to-devolution period was in fact a deviation from the true Tory path.

How silly of everybody not to have realised that. Nevertheless, congratulations to Ruth Davidson for recognising, at least implicitly, that she and the party made a big mistake and it is time to correct it.

The broad lesson is that the Conservatives have only survived in Scotland courtesy of legislative devolution and proportional representation, another abhorrent (to Tories) creature. And if you make your Scottish last-ditch stand on being against any more devolution, you will die in that ditch.

So Ms Davidson and Mr Cameron have decided to climb out of the trench. It is an extremely important signal. Just as Tory opposition to devolution in the 1980s and 90s was interpreted by many to mean the Tories were not interested in Scotland, then so opposition to further devolution has carried the same meaning.

Neither does this seem like a half-hearted if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them conversion. The safe bet would have been just to match Labour’s idea of tinkering with the Scotland Act scheme, increasing Holyrood’s power to alter and collect the revenue from 10p of every tax band to 15p.

No, the Tories plan to match the Liberal Democrat offer of handing over all power to set the bands and rates for all income tax, leaving only the setting of the income tax threshold to Westminster. Relative to recent Conservative thinking, this isn’t just radical, it’s revolutionary.

The Conservatives also think that air passenger duty should be devolved as well, and that the proceeds from VAT north of the Border should be assigned to the Scottish budget.

It means that Holyrood would be responsible for raising about 40 per cent of what it spends on services, slightly more than Labour proposes. It is short of the 50 per cent that the Lib Dems would devolve but if the assignment of VAT, which leaves the rate-setting power at Westminster, is added, that means that Holyrood will collect about half of the money it spends.

Scottish Tories ought to feel able to get out of the shadows of the last ditch and enjoy the sunlight of this new policy alongside their leaders. These proposals fit with long-standing Tory principles that any government’s power to spend money should be matched with the responsibility of raising it.

Some will probably fret that this feels like yet another slide down the slippery slope to independence. If Alex Salmond can’t get the full menu he wants in one go this September, then this is proposing to give him a consolation prize of one quite tasty-looking dish which may serve only to embolden his successors to come back for more.

It is a very peculiar misreading of public opinion, political circumstances, and history.

Scottish voters, by and large, like their devolved parliament and survey after survey shows that people would like it to have more powers. Read the fine print of those surveys, and you discover that people think it should have the power to tax, but that welfare benefits and pensions should be the same in Scotland as in the rest of the UK.

The Strathclyde commission’s proposals fit that opinion extremely well. But that opinion, I can’t help feeling, is partly based on the fact that Westminster has had to take all the hard decisions on tax and spending, which people don’t like, while the Scottish government has only had to implement them. But if these plans are implemented, then the responsibility for nasty decisions becomes much more clearly a shared one.

The slippery slope argument is also a theory of historical inevitability. I have always wondered why Conservatives, who surely are the least likely people to embrace Marxist concepts of the inevitable, believe it in this case.

It can only become true if the case for Union is not made, as it has not been made in any depth for decades. Now the referendum is forcing it to be made. Tories, like a lot of people, are discovering what the Union is all about. If the Union survives, the case for maintaining it will have to be made again and again.

And maintenance does not mean no change, it means changing things when they are not working, which Mr Cameron, Ms Davidson and Lord Strathclyde have realised.