ConHome’s annual ‘Rally for Boris’ is always an extremely popular event, but I confess that as I slipped out of the Scottish Conservative reception in order to make it I felt a little guilty. My aim at conference is normally to try to attend as much Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish stuff as I can. Wandering off to watch Boris, whose love-letters to London are enjoyable but seldom relevant to this column, felt something like a dereliction of duty.
It was to my delight, therefore, that Boris used the crescendo of his address to delegates to throw himself headlong into the West Lothian Question.
He has teamed up with the leadership of other ‘core cities’ – whose ranks include Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol and Nottingham, to demand that they be devolved substantial tax-raising powers. In his words: “When you look at the role of cities as the motors of the economy, distinctive places with a political identity, visible authority and leadership structures, they’re the obvious vehicle for English devolution.”
As solutions go, it is certainly an intriguing one. The need to ‘balance’ the UK constitution with regards to England is one of the thorniest issues facing unionists if they win the Scottish referendum next year. The West Lothian Question – named after Tam Dalyell, who first raised the problem of Scottish MPs voting on Westminster legislation that did not apply to Scotland – is a source of legitimate resentment amongst English voters who are conscious of it. Yet all the possible solutions have their problems.
An English Parliament, whilst passing the nationalism test, doesn’t actually bring government much closer at all to ordinary people on the ground, serving merely to exclude a small percentage of the UK population. Regional assemblies bring government down to roughly the level of the devolved assemblies in terms of area and population (usually), but beg questions about money distribution and, more definitively, have already been rejected by voters in the North East. Restricting voting rights on Westminster legislation to MPs from affected areas is elegant, but risks turning the British Parliament into a sort of English Grand Committee.
Powerful local government, on the other hand, maintains the problem of asymmetry. Will it be possible to devolve to such units the sort of powers afforded the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish institutions? If not, what happens to those areas of government which remain asymmetrical? Meanwhile whilst it seems relatively logical to grant powers to big, cohesive urban centres, how do you parallel that devolution in the countryside?
Despite that, it perhaps offers the best balance of local decision making, constitutional balance and national integrity of all the options currently on the table. Let’s see if Boris can sell it.
…whilst Ruth Davidson out-Goves Gove
It I probably an injustice to the Scottish Conservatives, but I did not go to their fringe event on Monday expecting to hear truly radical policy discussion. Normally when a party is viewed as lying outside the political mainstream, the response is to try to buy your way into that mainstream by moving closer to it.
Not so here. Ruth Davidson took the opportunity to outline the Scottish Conservative’s new education policy – and it’s every bit as radical as Michael Gove’s.
The basics are much the same: giving schools the option to break out from local authority control to set their own pay and conditions, operating hours, admissions policies, and so on. Whilst every child will have a space reserved for them at a nearby school, parents will be given a voucher to the value of their child’s state education funding to ‘spend’ at whatever school they like. Oversubscribed schools will presumably be afforded the opportunity to expand to meet demand, whilst failing schools will be easier to turn around with a smaller roster.
Better still, Davidson explicitly ‘ruled in’ that schools would have the option of including academic merit in their selection criteria. Whilst the reserved-places scheme means that it won’t produce any thoroughbred grammar schools, it does offer parents and organisations the option of having at least a part-selective school intake.
One thing that didn’t come up was the specifics of funding. Two questions which suggest themselves are whether education providers will be able to operate schools at a profit, and whether or not the ‘education vouchers’ are redeemable against the fees of private schools.
Cameron and Welsh Conservatives condemn fixation on Silk Commission
Both the Prime Minister and Andrew RT Davies, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, have criticised the ‘Cardiff bubble’ for focusing overmuch on the devolution question rather than getting on and using the powers they already have to tackle day-to-day issues.
Neither of them opposed the idea of Wales getting tax-raising powers – Cameron said that as a Conservative the idea of people responsible for spending money being responsible for raising it held great appeal – neither thought that the delays in the Silk process were calamitous. Davies argued that “a couple of weeks waiting for Silk will make no difference.” In the meantime, the Welsh leader outlined how the Welsh Conservatives plan to use the powers the Assembly already has to deliver for Welsh voters if in office.
A plea to the schedulers
I just want to end with a plea to whomever it is that hands out the timeslots for the conference fringe: might it be possible to stop scheduling Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish events against each other? There aren’t all that many of them, and it is immensely frustrating every year to have to choose between attending either one or another of these organisations.
Of all the parts of the party, those in the devolved nations ought to be given – and take – every opportunity to network with each other. The Scottish Conservatives may have much to learn from their Welsh colleagues in rebuilding from the post-1997 wipeout, and has Mark Wallace has written on this site the Scottish Tories in turn have much to teach the rest of the party about signing up the next generation of supporters as they have through Conservative Friends of the Union. And as an interested party member from England, I’d like the opportunity to visit them all.