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CWF Forthright Debate: The Future of the Union

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 Mundell

I 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.

Matthew Parris

(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" C).

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.

Alun Cairns

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. C).

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.

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Blogger Ed said... 11:49 am

any needs-based post Barnett set up would see more spent on health in Scotland

So the Scots can't be bothered to look after their own health so let the English taxpayer pay for more services? How very big C Conservative.  



Anonymous Anonymous said... 10:34 am

I'd like to see much more debate about the future of England.
The current situation is intolerable and it cannot continue.
What is not in doubt, is that the barnett formula has literally put a price on the lives of tje citizens within the Union and the English have been seen to be of lesser value (ie funding for the English NHS is always lower than that of the neighbouring countries within the Union. The sick are condemned to lingering deaths for want of drugs available to the so-called Celtic fringes).
There is no wonder that resentment is rising in England and it doesn't need Salmond to stoke it up. If your mother, father or sibling had died in these circumstances, would you support the Union?
Labour has made a mess of devolution. The Tories must grasp the consequence and adopt a policy of equal rights - a Parliament for each nation with equal devolution.
The Scots and Welsh people would understand and the English (who have been so patient and so loyal to the Union which is being so nasty to them now), will be pleased to be given equality. They are not currently demanding independence, but that will change if this situation continues.
How can Gordon Brown, himself an MP elected in Scotland, deny the English the same rights as his own constituents? He cannot defend his current stance. He will lose the next election as a result and we already know that many of his own party support an English parliament in private.
There is no other way, no matter how many straws we clutch at.  



Blogger Croydonian said... 10:45 am

Anon, that is roughly in accord with my position. I would like a federation of the four nations of the United Kingdom, with a union parliament in London, and equal powers for Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and, say, York assemblies dealing with Scottish, Welsh, Ulster and English issues.  



Anonymous Anonymous said... 11:08 am

I am pleased that we agree on this.
However, there is no way that Dave Cameron will allow England a Parliament. He has already made his position (and opinion of the English) very clear.
England cannot go forward under this leader.
I watch the Lib Dem leadership contest with interest and will switch sides if they come out in favour of an English Parliament.
Again, many Lib Demmers are in favour already. They just need a leader who will allow it expression and make it a policy.
England cannot wait for much longer. Too many have died already and we should be defending the weakest in our society, not sending more along the same route.
There is no sitting on the fence with this issue. Resentment and fury are growing. Someone must stop the rot, because if they don't, the Union doesn't deserve to continue.  



Blogger Toque said... 12:01 pm

Perhaps now that the Lib Dems don't have a Scottish leader they will come out in favour of an English parliament - after all it would not have made much sense for them to argue that Ming Campbell or Charlie Kennedy should not be speaking or voting on English matters.

An English parliament is the natural choice for the Lib Dems, especially if it is elected by PR as are the parliaments in Scotland, Wales and NI.

In my view it's the prospect of proportional representation in England that puts Labour and the Tories off an English parliament.  



Blogger Croydonian said... 12:10 pm

I cannot pretend to be privy to LD thinking on devolution etc, but I was under the impression that they were in favour of Balkanisation of England, that they might be in with a good chance of running the South West.  



Anonymous Anonymous said... 12:41 pm

David Mundell ( Scottish ) said
"Salmond is seeking to manipulate English nationalism, and that is perhaps the greatest threat to the Union. "

and

Matthew Parris ( English )said
"I think that we need to move more towards a federation, "

After all these years of banging on about it things appear to be moving .

Firstly a recognition that the real threat to the Union is from England not Scotland .
Secondly an acceptance that the way forward is a federation , which is what the Scots and possibly the English , if they had ever been consulted on the matter , would have gone for in 1707 .
And that with a bit of radical thinking , which the Conservatives are happy to do on other subjects , will conserve the Union .  



Anonymous Anonymous said... 12:57 pm

As far as I'm concerned the uk is over and I would like English Independence.All the political parties have conspired against England. I wonder when the first brick will be thrown.  



Blogger Croydonian said... 1:01 pm

I am an out and out unionist, and while 'losing' Scotland, Wales and Ulster *might* be good for the overall cause of Conservatism in England, I think it is too high a price to pay. I imagine most English folk have substantial connections to other parts of these islands, and putting it in very emotive terms, I do not want to have to flash a passport the next time I fly to Edinburgh.  



Anonymous Anonymous said... 1:37 pm

I am not interested in England being good for conservatives.
Most English people no doubt do have family in other parts of the uk, but the rellos did not want their English rellos voting on their affairs and I don't want them voting on mine. I refuse to have bloody jock brown ramming britishness down England's throat just to save new labour's stinking hide  



Anonymous Dougthedug said... 12:35 pm

The idea of splitting the Scottish Conservatives from the main party is not a new one. This was on the Herald website 13/05/07

Splitting could help Tories find their way back from political wilderness
By DOUGLAS FRASER, Scottish Political Editor

If I was a Tory, the fact that the idea was being floated by a Labour supporting journalist would make me worried.

Below is the comment I posted on that story. I still think it's relevant.

"What good would a split do? They'd still be Scottish Conservatives with the same desire to keep Scotland as British and dependent as ever but without any influence in the main Conservative Party. A sort of Lib-Dem lite party.

I suppose they could call themselves the the Scottish New Unionist Faction Party, or the SNUF's for short.

As for their chances, the name says it all."  



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