Henry Hill: Why Scotland ought to matter for the Conservatives in 2015
Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow him on Twitter here. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
He will be editing this new “Red, White and Blue” column, focusing on politics across the United Kingdom, every Thursday.
I’m not a fan of codified constitutions. I developed my deep distaste for them in my years studying, and subsequently following, American politics. The effect on the way politics worked just seemed so meritless. On fundamental issues, policy debate by elected representatives is suborned to rather arcane and entirely self-serving debate between competing lawyers on what precisely a collection of long-dead people had meant to say when they wrote the constitution.
The fundamental assumption behind such debates is that the will (or what can possibly inferred to be the will, according to the predilections of an unelected judge) of the Founding Fathers is more important than the will the modern American citizenry – for example, the idea that if the Fathers only intended guns to be owned within a militia, this outweighs the fact that the great majority of US adults support private firearms ownership. Really, the purpose of a written constitution is to bind future political debate within the preferred parameters of its drafters.
On that note, the SNP are proposing to introduce a codified constitution for the Kingdom of Scotland should they triumph in 2014. Not only that, but they are also talking about using it to make SNP policies, such as free education and a nuclear weapons ban, constitutionally binding.
Of course, Salmond says in the above-linked article that a codified constitution would be formed with “widest possible involvement of popular opinion.” And there’s no guarantee that the first general election of an independent Scotland would deliver an SNP government – presuming that the drafting of a constitution would wait until after such a poll. But even setting aside my distaste for them, I think that the SNP line over a codified constitution is a tactical error – and one the Scottish Conservatives might be able to exploit.
The reason for the move seems fairly clear. All the stuff about how all “modern” countries have codified constitutions creates not just a dividing line between the SNP and the majority (but not all) of the unionists, but casts the United Kingdom as somehow archaic or backward. It also demands a defence of the uncodified constitution, which whilst perfectly possible is harder to mount than “but everybody else has one”. It also allows the SNP to reach out to Labour voters by dangling the prospect of a Scotland where state generosity is preserved in constitutional aspic, safe at last from the depredations of… well, us.
But despite Salmond’s caveats about “wide consultation” – and the SNP don’t have a good track record on consultations since their majority – this sort of talk still ties the prospect of an independent Scotland closer to the SNP’s vision for it. Which, given the narrowness of their coalition, is a problem.
The ‘Yes’ campaign is technically an independent body whose cause is backed not only by the SNP but the Scottish Greens, the Scottish Socialists and others. But in practise, it’s the SNP’s show and almost everyone knows it. The Nationalists haven’t really managed yet to disentangle in the minds of the electorate the general idea of post-separation Scotland from the partisan visions of the nationalist party, and this talk about putting SNP policies into Scotland’s constitution will do nothing to reverse that.
It is part of an interesting wider trend in the campaign. Pro-union Labour blogger Ian Smart once mused on the fact that the SNP could have responded to all of the problematic policy-based attacks being thrown at them by the No camp by responding, quite fairly, that those were issues to be decided by the Scottish people in an independent Scotland. The problem is that this does very little to reach out to people beyond ‘existentialist’ nationalists, who are a small minority of voters.
So to build a voting majority big enough to deliver independence, the SNP have had to get drawn into policy-based fire-fights and wed the prospect of an independent Scotland to their particular vision for it. And to have any chance of winning over Labour voters, that vision has to be fairly left-wing.
All of which leaves an opening for the Scottish Tories. More than any other party, the SNP have profited from our party’s woes north of the border by hoovering up a lot of the anti-Labour vote. In places like the north-east of Scotland, they hold a number of Westminster seats in what used to be our Scottish heartland (back in the halcyon days when we had such a thing).
Assuming a ‘No’ win in 2014, the 2015 general election, and the 2016 Scottish elections are being viewed by some in the party as a chance to pry back some of that lost support. First, the prominence of the union issue can help pro-union centre-right voters who currently vote SNP realise that even when the SNP don’t mention breaking up the UK much in their manifesto – and in 2011 they didn’t – it is and always will be their raison d'être. Second, the need to pitch to Labour voters will allow the Conservatives to point out to those same voters that the SNP aren’t really centre-right either.
This isn’t just the assessment of this columnist: taking SNP votes was the basis of the Tory strategy outlined to me at the party conference by, amongst others, Grant Shapps. This is good, because winning in Scotland is very important and should be something our party pays proper attention to.
Not just because of the big electoral advantage it gives Labour, but because as I told the panel at ConHome’s ‘A Plan to Win the Next Election’ conference event, it should be deeply troubling to the Conservative and Unionist Party that separatists can mount a credible campaign to break up the country on the basis that we will sometimes be in power. Our weakness in Scotland is bad for the UK, not just for us.
It is obviously hard, facing an election that looks as close as the next one, to spare time and resources for Scotland, as it does not have much by way of low-hanging fruit. But for the reasons outlined 2015 is an opportunity for us, and we should try to make the most of it. To that end, I hope some room for the Scots is found at ConHome’s upcoming ‘Victory 2015’ Conference. A Scottish revival isn’t going to happen by magic, after all.