David Cameron gave a superbly crafted and well-aimed speech to the Scottish Tory Conference in Troon on Friday. It followed his telling statements after his visits to Scotland last month when he met with Alex Salmond. For me, the Prime Minister gave three important messages to the conference, and I am more than happy to give them my full support.
First, he passionately defended Scotland’s place in the UK and urged us to fight to keep it. Secondly, he said that a small Tory vote in Scotland is not an inevitability, and shouldn’t simply be accepted. And finally, he told us to stop being timid and take action to put us back on the political map. No thinking Conservative can disagree with those messages.
Enter Devo Plus – a group on which I am pleased to sit along with senior Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians from the Scottish Parliament. I believe that Devo Plus is a proposition that Unionists should support. Indeed, I think that the adoption of Devo Plus as a policy might well prove to be the best way not only to secure Scotland’s place within our United Kingdom, but also to resurrect our party’s fortunes in Scotland.
Let us be clear that not all Conservatives agree with me on this. Far from it. But we – all of us – must have the maturity to start with the basic acceptance that we are all Conservatives, and we are all Unionists. I am every bit as much a Unionist and a Conservative as each and every one of my colleagues in the party. Ruth Davidson: Conservative and Unionist. Murdo Fraser and Michael Forsyth: Conservatives and Unionists. Malcolm Rifkind and David McLetchie: All are Conservatives all are Unionists.
We also need to accept, fundamentally, that unionism is not a fixed point on the political and constitutional spectrum. It is very much a variable. Is Michael Forsyth’s view of unionism different from mine? Absolutely. But let’s embrace that diversity, rather than hiding from it and trying to hide any differences in opinion that exist between us. It’s unhealthy to do so, and it has never been the Conservative way of going about our business.
My vision of unionism is a decentralising one in accordance, I believe, with basic Conservative philosophy. I want to see each layer of government, from Westminster to Holyrood to local authorities, broadly raising the money it is responsible for spending. I challenge anyone to tell me in calm, clear and sensible terms, unclouded by irrationality, why this is not a unionist concept – it is devolution in its purest form, it is localism in action.
That is the philisophy behind Devo Plus, and it is based quite simply on the principle of financial accountability – a principle that is sadly lacking in our current constitutional structure. It is practised in other strong unions throughout the world, including those of our transatlantic friends in Canada and the United States and, frankly, it is "beyond bonkers" (to pinch a phrase from another former Presiding Officer) to suggest that it cannot work here. So do not doubt my belief in the Union. It has never been stronger, and I do not see as being in any way inconsistent with my belief in devolutionism. Let me turn to David Cameron’s other messages – to stop being timid and to move on from our grudging acceptance that a small Conservative vote is somehow inevitable.
We could spend all day debating why the Conservative vote in Scotland continues to fall. In my view, it is a reflection of the fact that for decades we have been behind the curve on constitutional issues. We have not led the Scottish people, and all too often we have stood back while others took the lead in the debate. We have allowed ourselves to be seen as disinterested bi-standers, usually entering the debate at too late a stage to make any difference whilst giving the distinct impression that we have no vision of our constitutional future. For once, we need to get ourselves ahead of the curve. We need to lead the debate, to be in its forefront, and if we are seen to do that, our natural supporters just might think of returning to our fold once again.
Two things are clear about the Scottish people – poll after poll tells us so. Firstly, Scotland is not a left-wing country. A significant proportion of Scots, many times greater than the number who vote for us at present, associate themselves with a centre-right ideology. So our political philosophy is not the issue. Secondly, we know that the Scottish people want more powers for their Parliament, but have no inbuilt yearning for independence. They want a more responsible, autonomous and above all accountable Scottish Parliament within a solid United Kingdom. And that’s not what the Scotland Bill is about to deliver. People want more say in their own affairs, they are right to want more, and I believe we need more if we are to kick the issue of independence into touch for a century or more. That would be real devolution, and that is what Devo Plus aims to achieve. A long term, stable constitutional structure that delivers a sustainable relationship between the Parliaments and Governments of our country..
Our party – indeed, all parties – are now talking about this issue, and that is immensely encouraging. In my view the end point is clear. The seeds of a Conservative comeback can be sown by embracing the principles of Devo Plus, because those principles embrace our core Conservative values. We should make it clear to the Scottish people that a “no” vote in the referendum does not mean a continuation of the status quo, but that it means a journey towards Devo Plus.