Leslie Clark is a final year History student at the University of
Aberdeen and was President of the University of Aberdeen Conservative
and Unionist Association. Leslie seeks to solve the West
Lothian Question recently examined by Ken Clarke’s Democracy Task
Force, the problems of the Scottish Tories and the unfairness of the
Barnett Formula by advocating Scottish
Margaret Thatcher once remarked that “Conservatives are and always have
been, British Nationalists.” Although the Iron Lady did many great
things, in this instance, I wish to challenge her. The Scottish
Conservatives have paid a high political price for the rigid Unionism
espoused over the past few decades. Opposing devolution and the
imposition of the Poll Tax are two cases in point. The view that ‘the
Union is not for turning’ should no longer be sacrosanct. The Scottish
Conservatives should not fear an independent Scotland. Indeed, we
should embrace it.
The current poll ratings for the Scottish Conservatives defy sense,
especially since they are the only centre-right party in Scotland. It
is perplexing not to find Cameron’s softer brand of Conservatism – in
contrast to the abrasive nature of what preceded it – being more
conducive to the Scottish electorate. The Cameronian revolution is in
full swing in England but there is sheer indolence north of the border.
This suggests that the problem lies not in ideology but image. The
Conservatives still suffer from the myth that they are an anti-Scottish
bunch. One way of countering this may be to become fully fledged
My stance on independence is firmly grounded in the realities of today’s politics, not romanticism about what Scotland once was or battles fought centuries ago. I do not wish to sever ties with England, far from it. My form of ‘independence’ would only involve repealing the 1707 Treaty of Union, not the 1603 Union of Crowns which gave England and Scotland a common monarchy. This would return us to the original United Kingdom of Great Britain, with two independent legislatures. We would be a close alliance of two separate nations, each with the dignity of self government but united by our common monarchy, shared history and family ties. Perhaps the Scottish Tories maxim should therefore be ‘Independence in the UK’?
The ideals of Conservatism and Scottish nationalism are not as contradictory as they seem. Independence would bring with it the Conservative virtues of self reliance and individual responsibility. All that Unionism seems to bring is dependency and deterioration, with UK Government figures showing a £13bn annual subsidy passing from England to Scotland, not to mention that the fact that Scottish growth rates have lagged behind that of England for the majority of the last 15 years. The only thing that ever grows in Scotland is the public sector. The so called ‘Union dividend’ via the Barnett Formula runs in opposition to the key Conservative belief in lower government spending. Those that gain most from continuing such dependency are the Labour Party who could point to the impending doom if public spending had to be curtailed – by separation from Britain for instance. Ever wonder why Gordon Brown so vehemently champions the Union?
We need to see the Union as what it is delivering now, not what it did in the past. Historically, Scotland undoubtedly benefited from Union, with Scots gaining an indecent share of the plunder of Empire for example. But during the last thirty years there has been a declining sense of Britishness. Although one acknowledges that many Scots have some sense of ‘British’ identity, it plays second fiddle to their Scottish identity. At present, most do not want independence but the majority want Holyrood, not Westminster, to be the centre of power. Opinion polls illustrate continued support for more powers to be granted to Holyrood. Scottish identity is now stronger and more confident – the Tories must adapt to such feelings. It is also apparent that few have yet to digest the contents of Linda Colley’s work Britons: Forging the Nation, “Britishness was superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to contact (and conflict) with the other.” This ‘other’, such the threat of Catholic France in the 18th century, is hardly relevant today. And what a profound historical irony it was when a minority SNP administration took power on the tercentenary of the Anglo-Scottish Union.
Some may question the financial viability of independence. Nevertheless, whilst the newly independent nations of Eastern Europe have been prospering and moving forward, Scotland has been left behind. Nations such Estonia show how quickly an independent nation can grow their economy after secession. Of course Ireland is one of the most striking models for small aspiring European economies. A 2007 paper by Gabriel Stein of the Adam Smith Institute outlined just how Scotland could flourish under independence. After adopting Irish tax levels, the average Scot would be £6,000 a year better off than the rest of Britain. Independence would enable Conservatives to argue for what we really require – a high growth economy, low taxation and smaller government. Initially, Scotland would undoubtedly face tough challenges. However, unable to go cap in hand to London, Scotland would be forced to abandon its socialist tendencies and opt for a free market route. With its average tax burden and high public expenditure, the current approach would simply not be sustainable.
Independence would not just have the potential of transforming Scotland economically but it would change the nature of its body politic. By advocating a fiscally independent parliament, the Scottish Conservatives could attract those in the business community who already back full tax powers and patriotic Scots who feel disillusioned by the left wing character of the SNP. It is important to bear in mind that patriotic politics appeals to something profound and real in the Scottish electorate. If Alex Salmond is such a dishonest opportunist, please may someone explain why he is doing so well?
Scottish independence would benefit England too. The problem of pesky Scottish MP’s voting on English matters would be eliminated as would the wholly unjustifiable subsidy that travels northwards. Surely Cameron would rather this money be directed to the hard pressed regions of England, areas that the Conservatives need to attempt to expand their support? But more importantly, independence would enable the English to rediscover their own national identity which is so often overlooked in the debates regarding the future of the Union. So, for the sake of the party north and south of the border, I feel it is time for a new radical approach, with a fully autonomous Scottish Conservative Party championing independence. So my fellow Tories, what will it be: the deep red sea of devolution or the bright blue sky of independence?