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Brian Monteith

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and a former Conservative & Unionist member of the Scottish Parliament.

Last Thursday’s Scottish referendum seems like such a long time ago. Despite my cataclysmic warning in last week’s column about what a Yes vote could mean I was confident that there would be a No victory by a margin of about ten per cent. I should maybe start trying political betting!

I do not intend to go over the outcome of the result more generally as I have written thrice about it already in the Evening News (Friday), The Scotsman (Saturday) and The Scotsman once more (Monday). I would far rather focus in this column about the Conservative performance from both the Westminster-led party and the Scottish party.

The only general point I wish to make is that the SNP now has to abandon its campaign to generate a movement that questions the result, that organises marches for a revote (really!) and is intent on having a neverendum. Doing so is self indulgent and conceited. So much for respecting the sovereign will of the Scottish people and so much for adhering to the Edinburgh Agreement.

It must abandon its divisive culture and instead work for the greater good of Scotland. Doubling its membership in the last week does not endorse its behaviour, it has simply become a receptacle for those whose expectations have been raised and then dashed but remain engaged and are experiencing withdrawal or even a sense of loss. The Greens have experienced the same effect.

What is not being reported is the effect of the result on the other parties. I would still expect that over the whole campaign the Unionist parties should have benefitted too. There surely must have been an increase in Scottish Conservative membership in the last year and I would expect that to be announced next week at the UK conference in Birmingham. If there has not, I would be asking “why?”

We need to recognise reality and accept that the Scottish Conservatives got off to a bad start back in November 2011, not because Ruth Davidson was elected leader but because she was elected with her infamous “line in the sand” about no new powers for the Scottish Parliament.

There were probably a number of reasons the statement was made; it made her stand out as politically different from her main rival for the leadership, Murdo Fraser; it helped attract the core vote of small-c conservative members who on many other issues and for other reasons might have supported Fraser; and it ensured support from key figures like Michael Forsyth.

I have no doubt that it helped her win but it put the future of the Scottish Conservatives back at least eighteen months – until the Prime Minister broke Davidson’s spell by personally washing away her line in the sand. This meant she was able to make the political journey to become an advocate of proper accountability for Holyrood (for Conservatives that is what more powers are about – responsibility and accountability). Frankly, Davidson has rarely looked back since that point. Her contribution on TV debates, in schools and on the stump cannot be discounted.

As someone who has at times been critical of her positions or judgement I think it only right that she be congratulated on having a good campaign.

Davidson did the right thing of taking a journey by way of a number of speeches that laid out what she thought about various Scottish and constitutional matters. This was generally well handled and gave her some bottom in the debate. From then on it was a matter of getting the committee chaired by Tom Strathclyde to report – and while this could have been done earlier, what it said was what mattered. It was such a pity that more was not done with it and in that regard I really wonder what “Conservative Friends of the Union” was all about.

It could have taken the Strathclyde proposals and run with them all through the summer, making up for the absence of any solid Labour proposals (while they squabbled amongst themselves and finally diluted their original ideas), showing how there could be change and building up Conservative support. Instead CFU appeared to be little more than a fund-raising and data-gathering exercise.

One thing that should happen now is that CFU must be preserved – it can have a role of developing the case for the Union on a constant basis, employing a researcher and holding events so that the arguments in favour of the UK are never again just taken for granted. CFU should be elevated as a core activity of the Scottish Conservative Party, whatever becomes of it.

It was always the case that Labour would dominate the No campaign – but due to its leadership’s partisan distaste for their own country when they are not running it they were unable to say anything positive about the UK. This nearly lost the unionists the referendum. By elevating CFU into an ever-present campaign unit the Conservatives can ensure the positive case is regularly heard.

So Ruth Davidson and the Strathclyde Commission’s report were all good points for the No campaign – and so too was the performance of the Prime Minister. Again, at times I have been a critic, explaining that the question, franchise (in particular) and timing were his responsibility and were all unhelpful concessions –  but he actually had a good campaign.

He was the most positive of the UK leaders in explaining the importance of the family of nations and more than others was willing and able to put the emotive arguments. He was right not to debate Salmond. My only criticism (and it’s a minor one) would be that although he was in Scotland regularly he would have benefitted from coming north even more often, rather than doing PR stunts like the three amigos turning up the week before the vote.

It should not be forgotten that throughout the referendum campaign – and still now – David Cameron’s personal ratings have been higher in Scotland than Ed Miliband’s. I don’t think the Prime Minister would claim to have saved the Union (even to Her Majesty) but he certainly put in a better shift than the Labour leader.

This is not to say, as Labour advisor and commentator John McTernan has argued, that the Scottish Conservatives have lost their toxic brand status in Scotland. Let us remember that the SNP used Labour’s association with Tories in Better Together as a big stick to beat Labour’s politicians and attract its voters, And it nearly worked. They are still using it even now in the aftermath. So while the Conservatives undoubtedly found unionists rallying to their cause there was still much hate, vitriol and bile directed at them – and it will be even greater in the General Election.

The Tory brand is still toxic in many parts of Scotland but it has at least gained a greater self confidence from which it might find the energy to justify its political existence. It should start by challenging the SNP in its own backyard: Perthshire, Aberdeenshire, the Western Isles and Argyllshire, areas that were once naturally Conservative.

It might also be going too far to say that in outlining that the Scottish party needed to find a more distinctive voice and advocate further powers Murdo Fraser saved the Union, or that in essentially signing up to what Fraser has advocated for the last decade Tom Strathclyde saved the Union, or that in changing her position Ruth Davidson saved the Union – but they all certainly made a significant difference. For we ended up with the Scottish Conservative proposals made earlier this year proving more radical than Labour’s peelly-wally offering, and more likely to form the basis of how the UK moves forward.

Looking forward, the move to greater tax gathering powers and some welfare devolution does of course come at a price – and English readers should be aware that Scots are generally very comfortable with the idea of English votes for English laws, or even English regional parliaments or an English Parliament. The chief opposition comes from Labour, which fears losing the ability to pass legislation on say, health and education, should it win a Westminster majority that rests on Celtic members.

English votes for English laws can therefore only be a stop gap, for it will lead to further constitutional turmoil that will pit the family of nations against each other and fuel further discontent from which UKIP must surely benefit.

Further change will be required, but here’s the rub. If England wants the possibility (and very strong likelihood) of different laws on transport between the West Midlands and London, or on different prescription charges in Yorkshire and the North West (or between various city regions), then English voters need to realise that’s what regional parliaments will bring. They will be legislatures. Period. And those are the differences that are already possible between Scotland, Wales and England (through Westminster)

Or they can have one national parliament that will be able to set English laws – but it shall require an English executive which will from time to time be different in political colour from the UK government. Do people really understand this? I’m not so sure, although I think both forms of what is really federalism can be made to work.

This, then, is what Conservatives need to develop in the coming months: a coherent policy and a timeline on where to take England and the rest of the UK.

That’s why last Thursday seems like an age ago already. So much to review, so much to learn from and so much still to do before May 2015.

6 comments for: Brian Monteith: The Scottish Conservatives had a good referendum

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