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Brian Monteith MSP: What we need is New Unionism across the UK

Monteith_brian_3 Member of the Scottish Parliament Brian Monteith - until recently a Tory - sets out his manifesto for 'New Unionism across the UK':

  • The Scottish Conservatives must become truly independent of the British Party so that they have credibility in their own land
  • The Scottish Parliament must have more financial powers so that it can be held to account by its electorate
  • There should be a referendum to reconfirm the Union held separately by all four constituent nations so we can lance the boil of nationalism; and
  • Reform of the House of Lords reform should be completed with its Scottish members sitting as a second chamber for the Scottish Parliament so that there is a check on its mob democracy and its legislation is better scrutinised.

I have not easily or lightly come to these conclusions. I write this as the person who, in 1997 when everyone else in Scotland ran to the hills for cover, stepped forward, set up and ran the No campaign. Having lost that battle (which was conducted in an atmosphere of emotional hysteria fed by a media and three other parties rejoicing in Tory defeat) I believed I should stand for Holyrood to offer constructive criticism that might rebuild the Tory position.  I have, I believe, been the Parliament’s most outspoken unionist critic and yet I am now convinced only a separate Scottish party, taking the whip at Westminster, also sitting in an Edinburgh Parliament with greater powers can work for the Scottish Tories.

From day one I have said that Labour’s devolution settlement would not work because, as Enoch Powell with typical prescience predicted, it is designed to retain the real power at the Treasury.  This straightjacket means it is never able to satisfy the demands placed upon it in Scotland while the block grant and Barnett formula will always be a source of resentment for the bounty it delivers at cost, real real or imaginary, to the English taxpayer.  With the resurgence of Scottish nationalism, the questions about Scottish MPs deciding English laws and the debate about an MP from Scotland becoming Prime Minister, the predictions of myself and others are bearing fruit.

Abolishing the Parliament has never been a serious option as us Scots would never admit our mistake and for Scottish Tories to advocate it would be seen as to be taking the side of English dominance at Westminster (again, real or imaginary).  The choice lies in finding a solution for Scottish devolution that works or moving to independence and the break up of the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately the Scottish Conservatives have been unwilling to confront this reality but have preferred to offer a tartan version of whatever was on the menu in London. Throughout his time as leader David McLetchie longed for that extra lift of five percentage points to add to his flat line of sixteen percent that he believed a resurgent Westminster Tory leader would bring.  One after another, be it William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard it never came.  This coat tail approach has, if anything, been more pronounced under Annabel Goldie, but even with the popularity of David Cameron there has been no political bounce.

Still they will plough on, regardless of the messages the public are sending to them, claiming to be the real opposition in Parliament, believing they are punching above their weight.  I’m sorry, but it is political self delusion.

What then can be done?  The history of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party gives a clue.  It is often said that the Conservatives are the only party to win a majority of seats and vote share since WWII – as if to suggest there is a latent vote waiting to come back to us. This is untrue. In 1955 the party was actually called the Unionist Party and it stood with unabashed orange credentials. It was also common to find only two candidates from the Labour and Unionist parties contesting elections, with no nationalist or Liberal to split the votes.

With its vote already declining the Unionist Party merged in 1965 with the Conservative Party whose whip it had always taken and whose name in the 19th century it had actually used (until Irish Home rule caused splits in all parties).  It now became known as the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.  The vote continued to decline apart from when it was briefly arrested by Margaret Thatcher (1979 and 1983).  It declined again from 1987 until it reached its nadir of less than 16% in 1999 where it has flat-lined ever since.

All polling and research by academics over the last ten years shows that the Scottish people now feel more Scottish than British and that they want more powers for the Parliament even though its performance has disappointed them. In such circumstances for a political party to emphasise its Britishness is to limit its appeal to a declining market.   Indeed, until very recently all historical polling has shown a majority of Scots in favour of maintaining the Union and yet the most recent poll in a quality Sunday reversed this, putting independence slightly ahead 42%/40%. 

It is my contention that for the party to save the Union from the Scottish end of the bargain then it must be seen, like it was in the mid 50s, to be defending Scotland’s interests.  Paradoxically, to do that now requires it to make the new Parliament work whilst developing and defending the concept of a new looser union.  This should not necessarily lead to independence as Canada, Spain and others have shown.

I naturally write from a Scottish perspective, but I have complete sympathy with many of the grievances that English people now believe the Union, with one-sided devolution, has delivered. 

While it is not for me as a Scot to say what England’s solution should be I can say that just as I believe that Scottish unionists should challenge the nationalists head on by offering a referendum about continuing with the Union or breaking it altogether, so too do I believe that the English electorate should be offered a referendum of its own.  The questions should be for English MPs to decide, but when I tell you that in Scotland it should be a three way referendum with a transfer, offering Holyrood’s abolition, a financially responsible Holyrood with no Barnett subsidy or complete independence, you can see that I do not think that an English referendum should be a simple pro or anti status quo proposition.

The dying Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party must rediscover and prove its Scottish credentials, without which no policies, no matter how attractive, will take root. It has to become fully autonomous from London, able to have it own identity, maybe a new name, certainly a new logo of its own choice, appointing its own Party Chairman and raising its own money. The highly successful Christian Social Union in Bavaria has such a relationship with the Christian Democrat Union in the rest of Germany and it is one Scottish Tories could learn from. By so doing they will again be taken seriously by the Scottish people and can offer a genuine alternative to the Old Unionism of Labour ensuring the United Kingdom can continue and prosper.


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