David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary and sole Conservative MP in Scotland, is due today to welcome the Government’s plans to transfer more powers to the Scottish Parliament.
According to The Independent, a UK Government source has called the proposals “the biggest shift in the history of devolution in the UK”.
They further claim that: “It will see a transformation in the way Scotland is governed as big as the inception of the Scottish Parliament itself back in 1999.”
The Government really ought to be a little more ambitious than that, because in most of the ways that matter 1999 didn’t change nearly as much as advocates of the Scottish and Welsh chambers promised it would.
That isn’t to say it hasn’t turbo-charged dramatic changes, principally by focusing politics through the constitutional lens to the benefit of the Nationalist administration in Edinburgh and the soft-nationalist Labour regime in Cardiff.
But in terms of day-to-day policymaking, devolution has been anything but revolutionary.
Where the United Kingdom is a large and very diverse polity, New Labour designed devolution around areas with an overweening, pro-Labour political consensus: Scotland, Wales, and an attempt on the North East.
As a result, Scottish and Welsh Labour have been able to retreat well into their Old Labour comfort zones, with predictably underwhelming – and occasionally disastrous – results.
Even when the SNP dramatically displaced Labour as Scotland’s hegemon of choice, there hasn’t been a significant new direction in policy terms (notwithstanding the constitution).
Perhaps as a result of their poor performance, some devolved politicians developed very thin skins about cross-border comparisons.
For example, in 2014 Huw Lewis, the Welsh Government’s minister for education and skills, accused Michael Gove of demonstrating “colonial attitudes” towards Wales after the Education Secretary highlighted how poorly Welsh schooling compared to English after 15 years of devolution.
Conservatives have long hoped that the passage of fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament, which will make it responsible for raising taxes as well as disbursing money, will change the dynamic of devolved politics.
It is clear to see why Tories would hope that voters might have more time for their message when Scots have to consider the implications of the usual generous spending plans on their annual tax bill.
But if the Conservatives are to get on the front foot on the devolution agenda (which Mundell is clearly trying to do), powers are only one half of the equation.
They must also articulate the optimistic, Conservative vision of devolution – and contrast it with the alternative.
To nationalists (and too many in Labour are nationalist in temperament), devolution is a way of avoiding change, scrutiny, or responsibility.
Having created new institutions in areas of great strength for a prevailing point of view, those in power feel no pressure to innovate, whilst by treating criticism of the Government’s record as an attack on the nation, too many devolved politicians try to de-legitimise critics and conscript patriotism in defence of poor policies.
The Conservatives, in contrast, should offer an approach to devolution which is at once optimistic and unabashedly British in outlook.
Cross-border comparisons and criticisms should be welcomed and sought out. Tories from Cardiff, Edinburgh, and London should meet regularly with the explicit purpose of sharing with each other the best ideas to come out of their jurisdictions.
Rather than going to the trenches for poor but home-grown policies, Conservatives should openly admit when they are implementing an idea pioneered elsewhere in the UK – and when a policy from their part of Britain is successfully exported elsewhere, they should shout about it.
Will this eventually lead to the various parts of the UK having similar policies on a number of areas?
Almost certainly, but only nationalists need fear that outcome. Conservatives should measure the value of policies by their effects, not how different they are from what London is doing.
The new powers offered to the Scottish Parliament make it one of, if not the, most powerful devolved chambers in the world – and thus an unparalleled sandbox for experimentation.
But as the SNP’s deeply unimaginative budget demonstrates, powers mean nothing without the right attitude and will to wield them.
If the Conservatives truly wish to change the way devolution works, that’s the catalyst they need to offer.