This column has two general guidelines: stay out of the referendum debate most of the time, and cover multiple stories each week. This week, I’m going to break both. It’s been an important few days north of the border.
There are, as far as I’m concerned, two good Tory reasons to support devolution: to reinvigorate the Scottish Conservatives by making Holyrood more than a machine for distributing public money; and that domestic tax competition might place fetters on the reddest dreams of Miliband et al.
It took a long time to get us to the point of accepting devolution. As she presented her party’s devolution proposals to the Scottish Labour conference, Johann Lamont appeared determined to make us regret it.
Hamish Macdonell sets out the flagship policy in the Spectator: Labour want to make cutting tax in Scotland effectively unconstitutional. Even if a centre-right Nationalist or (hypothetically) Conservative administration were returned by the electorate, a binding piece of Westminster legislation would make it much harder to cut higher-rate income taxes than raise them. This is Labour as it really is, writes Macdonell, “fundamentally red in tooth and claw”.
There are other flaws, of course. Lefty Scots Labour blogger Ian Smart (whom I shall never tire of linking to, it seems, and who’ll appear again further down) tears into them here. In particular there’s the notion that the people of Scotland, yet alone that portion represented by the Labour Party, can tear up this country’s uncodified constitution, abolish the supremacy of parliament and declare the Scottish parliament “indissoluble”, all without reference to the rest of the British people.
That, as I wrote on this website at the weekend, is risible. Coincidentally, that article was written in response to another piece by Macdonell in which he argued that the various pro-Union parties should unite around a solid constitutional offer in the event of a ‘No’ vote before the referendum.
I argued that unlike the ‘Yes’ campaign Better Together consisted of three big, intellectually diverse parties and the chances of them agreeing on the specifics in the white heat of the campaign were close to zero. I wasn’t expecting to have that view affirmed quite so swiftly and spectacularly as it has been by Lamont.
I do find it hard to buy Macdonell’s claim that this policy is born out of a desire to stop Scotland growing prosperous and leaving the Union as opposed to socialist principle. That implies both that Lamont fundamentally disbelieves in the merits of her party’s ideology and would be willing to deliberately keep Scotland poor to bind it to the Union, which seems a stretch.
But Lamont’s position, if sincerely held, is apparently shared by Ed Miliband. She said so herself. If true, then we can infer that high-handed constitutional and economic vandalism will also be Labour’s offer to the rest of the country. Perhaps Scottish Labour can thus join their Welsh comrades in the Tory “look what they did here” armoury.
Lamont’s announcement appears to be an attempt to lock in the Labour base and stop them being lured away by Alex Salmond and his intimations of a social democratic nirvana on the other side of a ‘Yes’ vote. But this poses an interesting challenge to the Scottish Conservatives.
There is a substantial ‘Tartan Tory’ portion of the Scottish electorate. These are the “anti-Labour” vote. Some 400,000 of them vote for us. Most of the rest vote for the SNP. The majority don’t support independence, but when we failed to establish ourselves as the anti-socialist option post-1998, the Nationalists became the natural home for the centre right on non-constitutional issues.
If the SNP can survive the referendum defeat in good shape, they may well reconcile themselves to the status quo for a time and return to that position. But at the moment, due to an unexpected majority in 2011, they’re tied fast to independence, which many Tartan Tories recoil from, and having to woo Labour’s left-leaning electorate. In response, Labour has obligingly decided to be as frighteningly left-wing as possible.
If the Tartan Tories want a vigorous anti-Labour party that doesn’t want to break up the United Kingdom and work perpetually to destabilise the constitution, they have one choice. And they seem to have realised it.
The above-linked piece mentions a string of surprisingly strong Tory swings in local elections. The trend has only continued since then – in her conference speech Ruth Davidson pointed out that the Scottish Conservatives have now increased their vote in “eleven straight council and parliamentary by-elections” – a feat we last managed in 1974, before she was born. Davidson’s confident, assertive leadership style – “the time for sackcloth and ashes is over!” – is winning admiration in all sorts of places (that’s the last Smart link, I promise).
Of course Scottish Conservative recoveries have been spotted before. Ian Lang spotted one in 1992, and look where that went. But with a strong leader and a consistent pattern of improved performance there really does seem to be some prospect of a revival for the Scottish Conservatives – provided we don’t fall to pieces over our own devolution proposals.
Johann Lamont has given us the clearest indication yet of where Labour want to take this country and all its constituent nations: old-fashioned bleed-the-rich economics; veneration of the public-sector producer interest over the interests of users; yet more un-mandated meddling with the very core of this country’s constitution; and on top of all that, making cutting tax unconstitutional. This is a gift to our party, in Scotland and Westminster. We must make sure we use it.