Peter Duncan is MD of Message Matters, a strategic communications consultancy, and a former Conservative MP.
It is not that often that Scottish politics has waited – almost breathlessly – for a pronouncement on policy from the Scottish Conservative Party. The party’s relevance has declined with its share of the vote in Scotland, and the Conservatives have too often been reduced to relative spectators at the top table of politics north of the border for many a long year.
That has changed, and not before time. An opportunity has been presented to Ruth Davidson and David Cameron to rebuild Conservative influence in Scotland and it has been delivered, on a plate, by a Labour party who seem to have fallen asleep at the wheel in the their bid to recover ground lost to the nationalists.
The media focus during the long haul that has been the independence referendum campaign has been resolute in its focus upon the consequences and opportunities that might be presented to the Scottish nation if they vote Yes in September. That focus has driven Better Together into a relentless examination of the reasons why it “just won’t work”, “would cost too much” or “would all be a disaster”. As a campaign strategy it has been negative to the point of dispiriting, and ultimately unsuccessful, since momentum since last autumn has swung to the Yes campaign.
Turning that round is overdue, and requires a more coherent narrative on a positive reason to vote No. All the parties have rightly identified that they have to be clear on exactly what a No vote means – setting out their vision for Scotland within the United Kingdom.
Devising competing versions of how they would respond to the public’s demand for more powers has occupied strategists for the past eighteen months, and separate proposals have been the result. For the Lib Dems, this has meant a restatement of their federalist credentials that has been worthy, but has not exactly rocked the boat of public opinion. However, Labour’s timid plans for further devolution after a No vote has neatly placed the ball on the tee for the Tories.
After benefiting for a political generation as the party of devolution, the Labour cap has slipped with the publication of its devolution report. Far too many Scottish Labour MPs, fiercely protective of their status and ultimately their jobs, have stunted the vision of devolution nursed by Dewar and Smith, and the gain has been all Alex Salmond’s.
After an interim report that promised much, Labour’s devolution commission has in the end been a win for the dinosaurs, who routinely inhabit Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons, plotting how to get those pesky MSP’s back into their box. There will have been a rousing toast when the final report presented by their Scottish leader Johann Lamont was confirmed as incremental in its approach to further devolution to the point of inconsequence.
The First Minister grinned as he saw his main opposition once more missing the open goal in front of them. He knows that in poll after poll, the option for Scotland’s future that is consistently rated as most popular – ahead of both independence and the status quo – has been for Scotland to remain within the UK, but with a meaningful enhancement of devolved powers. In short, Labour have flunked it.
All of which makes it all the more interesting how the Conservatives will respond. Two competing approaches have been rumoured – either a menu of devolution proposals that go slightly further than Labour; or, alternatively, being much, much bolder.
By all accounts, the Strathclyde Commission, due to report next week, has considered some quality evidence, and covered the ground extensively. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to a decision. A decision that is as much about the politics as it is about the worthy evidence that will have been considered by Tom Strathclyde’s commissioners.
I hope that this is one opportunity that will not pass the Party by. This is an opportunity to be properly influential over the shape of modern Scotland. The leadership can – at one fell swoop – right the wrongs of 40 years ago when the Party turned its back on our devolutionist credentials. They can reverse the decline in fortunes north of the border, and finally connect with a new generation of Scots who are looking for local control, whilst retaining the best of what our United Kingdom can offer.
What’s more, such a move would make a meaningful move towards rebuilding the wider Party’s credentials as the party of localism. Localism could be the coherent political ambition to ignite a second term majority government, empowering headteachers, doctors, councils, and the nations of the United Kingdom – including Scotland. It can be the theme to underwrite a new connection with Scotland.
Seizing that opportunity will mean a meaningful set of proposals for further devolution in the event of a No vote in September. It should seek to create a Scottish Parliament that is genuinely accountable for its spending – ending a situation where MSPs have significant powers to spend money, but very limited responsibility for raising it.
That lack of accountability is unsustainable, and the Commission’s proposals must go a long way towards addressing it. Even after the recent Scotland Act, with its limited additional tax-raising powers, Holyrood is responsible for raising only 15 per cent of what it spends. Imagine how the Scottish political landscape would change were the Strathclyde Commission to propose raising that to over 50 per cent, and for that approach to be endorsed by the Prime Minister and Scottish Leader, and delivered during the next term of Conservative government.
Labour has left a space for the Conservatives to rebuild in Scotland. Over the course of the few days, we will learn whether or not there is the determination to occupy it. In doing so, it could finally set out a positive vision for Scotland within the UK and solidify support for a No vote in just over three months and do more to restore our fortunes than any other decision since 1970.
At last, the Scottish Conservative Party would be up to the aspirations of the vast majority of Scots, and will have ended a long period behind the curve of public opinion.
Every piece of the last 40 years of political history suggests the opportunity will be missed again. Maybe, just maybe, this time will be different.