I attended a Conservative Way Forward
debate on the Union last night, addressed by David Mundell
, our man in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale, Matthew Parris and Alun Cairns, our man for SW Wales in the Welsh Assembly.Given the quality of the panel and the importance of the topic, I was a little disappointed that the turn out was 40-50 ish. Ben from 18 Doughty Street was there filming it, so I imagine it will be available for viewing ere long. Anyway, for those who cannot wait, the following is my attempt to craft a half way sensible narrative from my rough notes.David MundellI am not the only Conservative in Scotland, but at present the only MP. However, Scotland is *not* a hopeless case for us.
John Lamont took Roxburgh from the Liberal Democrats in the May Scottish elections, the Westminster seat having been Lib Dem for 40 years, and he did it in the traditional way by doorstop campaigning. While our position in Scotland is not as good as we might hope, the outlook is not bleak. The same holds true in local government, and it has to be conceded that we have been helped by the STV system - there are Tories on North Lanarkshire Council and on virtually all Scottish councils. (Having checked, there is a Tory, singular
) Moreover, all Scots have the chance to vote for a Conservative. While we are not where we would want to be, we have 17 MSPs, including the Presiding Officer (speaker).
Interruption from Jonathan Isaby : 'He's an old Etonian'. To which Mundell rebutted, 'it shows how inclusive the Scots Tories are...'
So, the Union. We want it to continue, but it has to evolve. It is now 300 years old, but with the anniversary's marking so muted, one would scarcely have realised. Gordon Brown announced a £2 commmemorative coin that cost £14 to buy... It is important to have a greater understanding of the Union, as it has brought stability and prosperity on both sides of the border . While the Scots know the difference between 'Scottish' and 'British', the English are less able to split 'English' from 'British'. The reality in Scotland is not as it is sometimes seen in London - there is 25% support for independence, a figure that has been much the same for 25 years. While there is a desire for greater independence, there is little sign of a greater desire for separation. The Scottish Parliament is comparatively popular, but the Lib/Lab coalition that ran it until May was a lowest common denomination coalition, and Labour in London effectively had a veto. The prospective 'New Age of Enlightenment' did not come about, and while things have not gone sour, they have gone stale, and that disenchantment manifested itself in May. It was a vote for change, and as the largest opposition party the SNP benefited, with this not a vote for independence.
Salmond has 47 of the 129 seats, and cannot legislate without the support of other parties, still less push for independence. However, he has promoted 'The Big Conversation', which 'consults' on the constitution and the like, and he has threatened to take this to England. Salmond has proved adept at stirring up mischief between London and Edinburgh, and no process for dealing with differential government was in place as an old pals act between Dewar / McConnell in Edinburgh and Blair in London kept things ticking over. Similar factors were at work in Wales between Alun Michael / Rhodri Morgan and Blair. Salmond has proved expert at grandstanding, and characterises the United Kingdom as doing down Scotland, as evidenced by the spat over the Libyan in jail over the Lockerbie bombing. There are other buttons that Salmond can press, and he is on the look out for issues to stir on (Note my post about nuclear energy the other day. C
) The problem is the lack of understanding of the devolved settlement, and this gives the oxygen for these difficulties to be expanded upon.
However, these give us opportunities: the 17 of us, plus the SNP and the Greens gives a majority and the challenge is to use that positively. The SNP is not as left (or as prolier than though
) as it is often painted, note the shares in Scottish Energy that had to be put in a blind trust... We are working with the SNP where we can promote conservative (small 'c') policies. Salmond is seeking to manipulate English nationalism, and that is perhaps the greatest threat to the Union. Consider the claim that Scotland is cutting class sizes to 18 - this was rubbished in Scotland but treated as fact in London. Likewise, the talk of free personal care for the old - there are court cases and waiting lists. Scotland is not a land of milk and honey. Salmond uses these matters to advance himself and to stoke resentment in England. The Union is more, much more than pounds, shillings and pence and there are links between Scotland and England that go way beyond the financial. The financial issues have ebbed and flowed over 300 years, and a pound less spent in Scotland does not equal a pound more spent in England. Differentials between parts of England are greater than between England and Scotland, and any needs-based post Barnett set up would see more spent on health in Scotland. Britain is greater than just England and Scotland, and is much, much greater than the sum of its parts.
(I had the opportunity to speak with Mr Parris prior to his address, and he is a man of immense charm and a rich source of anecdotes. A friend from university was his research assistant, and it was encouraging that the man I knew by proxy was the same in the flesh
What David says is true, we will do better in Scotland, we will win more seats, but Tory policy to devolution is not seaworthy. It can be compared to the stance of the Partido Popular in Spain to Catalan separatism. It has accepted regional devolution in as far as it goes, in a reactive way, and in common with us, talks of a stance that evolves. However, maybe we need a revolutionary
approach. The PP is associated with Madrid, Castille and the 'centre', and it has shrivelled in Catalonia (having checked, the PP has 14 seats out of 135 in Barcelona, and took 11% of the vote
). The PP is seen as representing 'Spain' and the Left Catalonia. We are at risk of making the same mistake, as the Conservatives are seen in the same way in Scotland. I think that we need to move more towards a federation, and to quote that great conservative Lampedusa, "If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change
" (or in the original, and why not?, Se tutto deve rimanere com'è, è necessario che tutto cambi"
We could outflank Labour by going along with regionality, with a shared but separate identity. While opportunistic, this is also a real
political philosophy. Can we do business with the SNP? If we yield to them they have the opportunity to become Scotland's right wing party. (The SNP was formed by the merger of the Scottish Party, which was right-ish, and the National Party of Scotland, which was left-ish. C
A split, perhaps deliberately engineered, between the Scottish Tories and the Tories in the rest of the country would best serve Conservatism in Scotland (What I would call the Germany / Bavaria model. C
), as otherwise English nationalism could be the accomplice of Scottish nationalism. A Scottish and rest of the UK Conservative parties could be good for both, and there are plenty of areas where a Scottish Conservative party could act alone an in the interests of Scotland rather than the UK, so the final question is whether the Conservatives can successfully pursue an approach between what we have now and prospective Scottish independence.
Why did the Welsh Conservatives fare so badly, and why are things now improving? We were wiped out in '97, and we were seen as an English party in Wales, and /that/ footage of Redwood has been replayed ad nauseam. (According to his biography, Mr Cairns is fluent in Welsh, and he certainly sounds very Cambrian
At the time of the Assembly referendum, the Conservatives were the only party to oppose it. The plebiscite was nearly lost by pro-assembly forces - there were just 6000 votes in it. (From memory, only a quarter of the Welsh electorate voted for an assembly. C
) As Hague puts it, 'Good generals do not fight yesterday's battles', and we have to accept the settlement. While I am not personally in favour of the Assembly or PR, they have served us well in Wales, and the Welsh Conservatives have accepted them.
Under Alan Michaels' administration, only the Tories were opposing leftism, and this underlined our apparent lack of Welshness. Faced with the first Assembly elections, we opted for a 'preferendum' in out platform, with this compromise allowing us to be united and thus to present policies on day to day issues, and not get caught up on policy towards devolution and independence. Our comparative success since then has been due to that settlement. David Davies (Monmouth, not Haltemprice. C
) would have liked to have had a referendum, but now accepts the settlement. While we could abolition of the Assembly central to our platform, instead we have opted to give the Left the necessary rope. We are campaigning positively, scrutinising, pressing etc and believe that we can squeeze Plaid Cymru. PC is small 'c' conservative in West Wales, but leftish in the Valleys. We are attracting the small 'c' PC voters, and pushing PC into being a left wing party, by being alone in offering conservative policies.
Labour is worried about the logic that Wales should, post-Assembly have fewer MPs, as it gains from over-representation in Wales. A re-balancing (as in Scotland. C
) would strengthen the union. For Wales to accept that quid pro quo suggests that it has confidence in itself. Devolution needs the Tories as we are alone in offering opposition to the three left wing parties, and we can either lead, or follow the debate. Nick Bourne (Tory leader in the Assembly. C
) has suggested a move to Edinburgh-style powers, and he has been able to show that we are serious, that our arguments are relevant and we are (again) seen as Welsh.