The referendum on Scottish independence saw voter registration levels reach 97 per cent. This outshines even the eventual turnout (which makes you wonder who was moved enough to register for their vote but not enough to cast it) and helps to underline the democratic impact of the referendum.
But for many Scots, that participatory high might come with one hell of a hangover. Quarter of a century ago thousands of Scots dropped off the electoral roll in order to avoid paying the community charge, popularly known as the poll tax, after its introduction by the Thatcher government in 1989. Many of these people will have re-registered to take part in the referendum – and Scottish councils still want their money.
Ironically, these councils are actually empowered to pursue this decades-old debt by a piece of pre-devolutionary Scottish legal distinctiveness. South of the border a council’s ability to pursue unpaid community charges lapsed after six years. In Scotland, on the other hand, the councils have twenty – and that clock resets every time an attempt is made to go after the money.
There seems to be a general consensus about the rightness of pursuing the money – even the SNP don’t want to come out in favour of tax evasion, even of a suitably insurrectionist and patriotic sort – although some differ from the unionists in their willingness to use the electoral roll to do it.
The Union at Conference
This will be my sixth consecutive Conservative conference since I first attended as an undergraduate in 2009. I can honestly remember very, very little about the first one – I only started writing in May 2010, and that’s the prism through which I’ve viewed all subsequent conferences.
Nonetheless, I have now been to five as a unionist writer, and my pet subject is certainly more prominent now than it was when I started out – although much less so than a year ago.
At one point it looked as if it might get off to a rather inauspicious start indeed when Grant Shapps, at the finale of his opening address, lead hundreds of activists out to go and unleash a Team 2015 blitzkrieg on Birmingham Northfield – immediately before the ‘Our United Kingdom’ section where the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish Conservatives, and their respective Secretaries of State, were due to address the hall.
The sad depletion of the audience was rectified by the end of the slot, as the audience swelled in anticipation of William Hague’s swansong and gave Ruth Davidson a resounding and well-deserved reception as she closed the devolved segment.
Yet it was emblematic of an unfortunate tendency on the part of the conference schedulers to consistently timetable the small number of ‘Union’ events either against each other or against other big draws like the Team 2015 campaign or Boris Johnson. As a result, this was the first year in six that I missed the NI Conservative reception (not that I’d necessarily have met a warm welcome), and I made the Scottish reception only by passing up the ConHome Rally for Victory with Boris. The Welsh reception, with infuriating predictability, was secret.
Despite some very considered individual contributions at various events, overall when compared to the 2013 conference the treatment of the Union felt much less weighty and considered. There were several rather glib references to ‘our full name’ – the Conservative and Unionist Party – but Deputy Chairman of the party Sarah Newton MP determinedly ducked a question at the Carlton Club fringe about whether or not we should actually use it, choosing instead to answer a question nobody asked about devolution for Cornwall.
Elsewhere, matters were largely technical: the Welsh fringe focused mainly on the economy, for example, and both platform speakers and ConservativeHome ensured that the “English Question” had a good conference. Last year’s focus on reviving and strengthening the bonds of Britain, more important now than ever, was not much in evidence.
No new logo for the Welsh Conservatives
Jonathan Evans, MP for Cardiff North and Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives (who did actually address Britishness, as it happens) came out very strongly against the idea that the Welsh Conservatives should follow the Scots and adopt a more distinct party logo, claiming that the current depiction of a Welsh oak is distinct enough.
I asked the question at the Welsh fringe because at present his party are still using their ‘scribble tree’ from the Cameroon rebrand. Whilst it does represent a Welsh plant, I don’t think that’s self-evident from looking at it and to the casual observer it remains, like the NI Conservative and former Scottish Conservative logos, simply a muted and less strikingly shaped version of the old Green Oak (which we have since replaced ourselves).
Whilst I understand Evans’ position, I still think the Welsh Conservatives struck gold during the halcyon age of Tory logos when they took the sweeping flames from our 1992 torch and stuck them to a dragon. How any party can pass up the opportunity to have a dragon as its logo is beyond me.
P.S. I appeared on 5 Live Breakfast yesterday morning to discuss George Osborne’s planned welfare reductions (a short bit about 42 minutes in and then the section from 50 minutes in).