Published:

The bedroom tax unites the kingdom… against it

The
government’s new welfare measures, greeted with such decorum by the left-leaning national press, have made waves in the devolved regions
too.

The
‘bedroom tax’ – or spare room subsidy, if you prefer – was front and centre in most coverage. Both the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations have criticised the new policy, as has the Scottish government –
although they have stopped short of a Labour proposal to outlaw evictions stemming from the new rules. Opponents of the measure in Cardiff, Glasgow and
Edinburgh
 joined others from across the UK in a series of coordinated public
demonstrations.

The
long term political implications aren’t clear yet, but people are already
trying to capitalise on the visible anger provoked by the new rule. I wrote in
a previous column about Welsh politicians using it to make the case for the
devolution of welfare, whilst the New Statesman carries a piece about how such
measures – and Labour’s inevitable commitment to some form of austerity if and
when it returns to office – are apparently driving Scottish trades unions towards
supporting independence
.
Long gone, it seems, are the days when Scottish NUM leader Mick McGahey said: “Scottish
workers have more in common with London dockers, Durham miners and Sheffield
engineers than they have ever had with Scottish barons and landlord traitors.”

From
the perspective of three months writing this column, what has struck me most
about the bedroom tax response is that it’s one of the first truly “British”
stories I’ve encountered that hasn’t been some form of constitutional angst. It
is very rare to encounter in the news a Westminster policy, certainly a
domestic policy, which actually affects the entire British people in this way.
Normally, Westminster features either as the sparring partner of a devolved
politician or group, or in the ‘rest of the UK’ section. This, hopefully, is
something that pro-union politicians will reflect upon when they’re dreaming up
their vision of the “next stage” of devolution.

An all-Catholic final for Northern Ireland Conservative Future Chairmanship

Most
of you will likely be happily unaware that Conservative Future had their
leadership elections in the past week. CF is the youth wing of the party
everywhere except – in a piece of mystifying Murdoism – Scotland, and I’d like
to draw attention to the interesting and heartening fact that two of the four
candidates for the Northern Ireland regional chairmanship were Irish Catholics.
Stephen Goss and Eimhear Macfarlane apparently not only topped the poll but tied
the vote
, with Goss’ name being picked out of a hat at CCHQ (and by Macfarlane’s campaign
manager, no less!).

It
strikes me that with sectarian tensions simmering in Northern Ireland and the ‘McUnionists’
declining the NI Conservatives red (blue?) carpet welcome in favour of a new
party, this is exactly the sort of thing the local party needs more of. What
better way to demonstrate that they’re a genuinely new force in centre-right,
pro-union politics than having Catholics duking it out for senior leadership
positions?

Sadly,
such things appear confined to the youth wing for the moment. The NI
Conservatives still don’t have an official leader, elected by the party
membership. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case – perhaps they wanted to
leave such a position vacant as an additional lure to a potential MLA defector –
but since that eventuality is now looking remote it seems like something the
party should set about rectifying.

In
the meanwhile, that burden will have to be shouldered in part by their new
youth chairman. Goss, from Andersonstown in West Belfast, has enjoyed a media
profile in the province since he addressed the Ulster Unionist Party
conference
back in 2008. He’ll doubtless be a useful asset for a party that desperately
needs to find a direction before the McUnionists take all their political
oxygen. But no serious party can have its media fronted by its youth wing.
Northern Ireland’s young Conservatives have chosen a leader – it’s about time
their elders did the same.

Cameron's choice: Salmond challenges PM to independence debate

The
SNP, you will be amazed to hear, are not very keen on English Tories. Many aren’t
hugely keen on our Quisling cousins north of the border either, of course, but
compounding Conservatism with Englishness is a sure-fire way to put yourself on
the wrong side of the Yes campaign.

Indeed,
so concerned were they about the referendum being “bought and sold for English
gold” (a line based on old but questionable claim that the Treaty of Union was secured by mass criminality] that they campaigned
hard to impose tight spending limits on the race. When the staunchly unionist
Sir Alex Ferguson accused them of trying to close down the debate, the Yes camp specifically raised the
spectre of “Conservative Party fundraisers held in England” to justify their
stance.

In
light of this, the SNP’s newfound enthusiasm for getting David Cameron, just
such a dastardly Angle, more involved in the Scottish independence debate might
seem rather surprising. Yet the SNP are now set on having the Prime Minister go head-to-head with Alex Salmond in a television debate on independence. Indeed, according to
Better Together they’ve even gone so far as to snub Alistair Darling, the
Scottish unionist leader.

Once
you set aside the sheer inconsistency of it, of course, the SNP’s thinking
becomes perfectly clear. Despite his surname David Cameron is the English leader
of a mostly-English party with a very English accent. In any debate the SNP’s
subliminal message will likely be along the lines of: “Look at this strange and
alien fellow. Do you really fancy him ruling over you again?” Such a debate
would also allow Salmond to frame the clash as between “Scotland” and “Britain/England”,
rather than as between two groups of Scots with divergent senses of identity. For
the SNP, trying to side-line the many capable and articulate Scottish unionists
makes perfect sense.

Does
all this mean that Cameron shouldn’t speak? Probably not. For starters, polls
show a strong majority in favour of the Prime Minister stepping up to the
plate, so ducking the challenge might well do more harm than good. The best way
to avoid marginalising Better Together is probably for Cameron to publicly make
his debate appearance conditional on Alistair Darling also getting one.

Moreover,
there might be much good to be wrung from it, for party and country both.
Cameron is a strong media performer and a man whose unionism is wholehearted
and completely sincere. His speech on the matter last year went down rather
well
– indeed, Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman described it as “the strongest explicitly Unionist speech made in Britain since the 1950’s”,
claiming that Cameron was one of the most effective voices on the pro-union
side.

So
by appearing, Cameron could bring his formidable talents as a debater and rhetorician
to bear on the First Minister, who remains unchallenged in Scottish domestic
politics, and do much good for the pro-Union cause. If he is to limit his
appearances in a fundamentally Scottish debate to a few key interventions, this
seems a good one.

It
could also be good for the Conservative Party. Cameron strikes me as one of
those political phenomena that are easy to demonise in the abstract. Going
head-to-head with Salmond would give Scottish voters the opportunity to get to
know Cameron as he debates Scottish issues (unlike the pan-UK general election
debates). It might afford many who have not seen or heard him speak before the
opportunity to see him and our party in a different light.

And
in a campaign where people are using the prospect of future Conservative
governments to try to raise support for independence, he can rise above such
attitudes by arguing, as he clearly believes, that country comes before
political difference and that Tory or not, Scots are our countrymen. With any
luck, he’ll convince at least a few more Scots to feel the same way about him.

Comments are closed.