David Mundell MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and was one of the speakers at yesterday's Reform seminar in Westminster on the future of the UK constitution.
Events like the Reform seminar held in London yesterday help expose Scottish politics to a wider audience. Parts of the national media, including ConservativeHome, are also good at this. It is something that is immensely important.
People elsewhere in the UK are interested to hear about developments in Scotland, as one would expect in a political, cultural and social Union. Equally, the Scottish political debate is better when it does not occur in a vacuum. There are constitutional lessons for Scotland to learn from the Welsh and Northern Irish experiences of devolution and policy lessons from the successes and failures of the reforms introduced by England-only Departments in Whitehall.
There needs also to be an appreciation that many issues being debated separately in Scotland and England are actually interdependent. Just like many Scots wanted a Scottish Parliament set up, many English want the West Lothian Question answered. Just like many Scots want the Barnett Formula reformed to allow the Scottish Parliament to have new, tax-raising powers, people in some parts of England and Wales think it needs to be reformed to meet the needs of their region.
Unfortunately, though, people elsewhere in the UK sometimes get the impression that, as was said of the Bourbons, Scottish politicians have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. The London media can see Scottish politicians having the same old arguments about national identity and “Scotland’s oil” and dismiss Scottish politics as being a bit like Fight Club. If “what happens in Fight Club stays in Fight Club”, they think that what happens in Scottish politics should stay in Scottish politics.
However, I believe that Scotland’s politicians have learned a lot in the decade since devolution and that the debate in Scotland is beginning to mature and change for the better. There are three major changes that have occurred and those affect how I view the work of the Calman review of devolution – the big issue in Scottish politics in recent months.
The first change is that, now we have a Scottish Parliament, keeping Scotland’s place within the UK is clearly the “settled will of the Scottish people”. Opinion polls show support for leaving the UK at record lows. That is a new reality the SNP is having to face up to.
Nevertheless, strengthening the Union was the Calman Commission’s central tenet. It has also been the first consideration of the Conservative Party as we evaluate each of the Commission’s proposals. As a result, full fiscal autonomy or upheaval in defence and foreign affairs has been ruled out. This is because such change would strike at the pooling of resources and risk: one of the main benefits of the Union. However, like the Commission, we do support moves to make the Scottish Parliament more financially accountable. That would end the ability of the Scottish Government to blame every failure to deliver on inadequate funding from Westminster. If the SNP genuinely wanted to pursue policies like writing off student debt, then it could put up the tax to pay for it.
The second change has primarily been one for Labour to adjust to. It is the increasing focus that has been put on relations between Westminster and the new devolved institutions. When Labour set up the Scottish Parliament, they appeared to take it for granted that there would always be a Labour Government in the UK and certainly in Scotland. As a result, they failed to set down formal mechanisms for ensuring effective co-operation between the two Parliaments and Governments. The election of the SNP devolved administration in 2007 and the real chance of a Conservative Government later this year has drawn attention to that mistake and the need to correct it. Fortunately, David Cameron has led the way in setting out how to create a relationship of mutual respect between Westminster and Holyrood. The Party supports all Calman’s recommendations on this and indeed has committed to do even more.
Finally, the third change since 1997 has been the success with which the Scottish Parliament has established itself and the way that the Conservative Party has changed around it. The Scottish Parliament has emerged from an inauspicious start as the first in a long line of botched Labour building projects to now being seen instead as an institution that works and that is stable. There is the capacity for it to do more.
The Conservative Party has moved on from the turmoil of the late 1990s too. Devolution is now recognised as having a place front and centre in the Conservative way of thinking. Localism is one of David Cameron’s defining themes: we want to push power down as far as possible. In Scotland, we see devolution as being a first but hugely significant step that has already been made in that power shift. Far from wanting to reverse it, we want to build upon it. That is why we will take forward the substance of Calman’s proposals on non-financial powers.
David Cameron has said that a Conservative Government will set out how it will implement the Calman proposals before the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. I believe that our commitment to strengthen devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, combined with our determination to answer the West Lothian Question and introduce more local decision-making in England, will do much to improve the standard of governance and safeguard the Union for generations to come. We will continue to be stronger together rather than weaker apart.