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Jonathan Galbraith: Scottish or British – time to decide

Jonathan_galbraith_2Jonathan Galbraith was born and educated in Scotland, joined the Conservative Party while at Strathclyde University, and now works in the pensions industry in Birmingham. He proposes several constitutional policies including calling for a referendum on Scottish independence but not taking a side.

Almost six months have passed since the May elections to the Scottish Parliament, which gave the Scottish National Party their first ever taste of power at a national level.  After having dominated Scottish politics for over fifty years, Labour were finally kicked out in their heartland.  The Conservative Party have recently regained their lead in the UK polls, and now expect to defeat Labour at a general election (expected in 2009).

The contradictions of devolution have become ever more apparent in the last week or so, with the SNP minority administration in Edinburgh promising ever more “goodies” (free prescriptions, ending bridge tolls, scrapping university tuition fees, etc.).  I also refer to the Platform article written by Murdo Fraser MSP.

Murdo eloquently explained that the SNP’s promises must be met by savings elsewhere in the Scottish Executive budget, and that much of what is written in the press about “the over-subsidised Scots” is untrue.  I agree with this.  Instead, I would like to leave economics and focus on the democratic implications of Scottish devolution.  Where I disagree with Murdo is that I feel it is time for the Conservatives to consider some bold and radical constitutional with regard to Labour’s devolved settlement in Scotland.

In summary:

  • The Conservatives could form a government at the next general election, but with only a small number of Scottish MPs (or none at all);
  • Even post-devolution, the “democratic deficit” of the 1990s would come back to haunt us;
  • The current (devolved) set-up was designed solely as it suited Scottish Labour – now it doesn’t even fulfil that role;
  • The Conservatives should offer the people of Scotland a referendum on full independence, then decline to campaign for either side;
  • In the event of a ‘no’ vote, the Scottish Parliament should be closed and Scotland’s political institutions then integrated fully into the UK’s (and not a return to the pre-1999 status quo ante);
  • This would be to the benefit of Scotland, and would present tactical and political advantages for the Conservatives nationally;
  • The Scottish Conservatives are wrong to join Labour and the Lib Dems in opposing a referendum on Scottish independence.

When the Conservatives lost power in 1997, they lost all their Scottish (and Welsh) constituencies.  Our party went from having eleven Scottish seats at the 1992 election to none at all.  Some of the target seats needed for the Conservatives to regain power at Westminster do lie in Scotland, but given that we are polling less than 15% north of the Border, and hold only one seat (David Mundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale – where I grew up!), it is quite possible that none of the gains that the Conservative Party expect to make at the next election will come from Scotland.  Indeed, the worst case scenario for us would see Labour winning DCT from David Mundell, returning us to our 1997 position.

Thus, it is entirely possible that the next Conservative Government will have no more than, say, five seats out of a possible 59 in Scotland.  Even post-devolution, many issues affecting Scotland are dealt with by Westminster (defence, social security, foreign policy to name but a few).  Our opponents will argue, as they did in the early 1990s, that the Conservatives have no mandate to govern Scotland with so little representation there.  It is time to give some thought to how the Conservative Party might proceed under such circumstances.

Despite much pious nonsense being talked in the late 1990s by the pro-devolution lobby, the real drive behind the campaign was the fact that Scotland had elected a majority of Labour MPs in 1979, 83, 87 and 92, and yet had still wound up with a Conservative government.  The solution, devised by the Labour / Liberal Scottish Constitutional Convention to this “democratic deficit” was a devolved administration based in Edinburgh.  This was put to a referendum in September 1997, and was voted for convincingly by the Scottish people.

However, a referendum on devolution should never have been held.  It was wholly inappropriate to allow a minority of the British electorate to secure a special deal for themselves, granting “home rule” over a number of issues, while remaining part of the UK.  I believe that the Scottish people have an absolute right to vote for full independence if they so wish it, but this was not what was offered in 1997.  Devolved government for Scotland has had implications for the rest of UK (be it on funding, levels of public expenditure and the extent to which the welfare state has been extended), and yet the people of England were not consulted about this.

Devolution was Labour’s big idea for Scotland in the 1990s, and was intended to secure a Labour-led administration in Scotland in perpetuity.  All the energy in Scottish politics is concerned with how devolution can be extended, with more powers for Holyrood, and fiscal autonomy is an idea that has been touted by politicians from both sides of the debate.  Conservatives must realise that devolution as a concept is wrong, as it creates democratic anomalies throughout the rest of the UK (the West Lothian question).  Hence the need to make some changes when we return to government.

My solution is simple: upon winning power at Westminster, the Conservatives should hold a referendum on full Scottish independence. In the event of a ‘yes’ vote, Scotland would cease to be part of the UK and the Scottish Parliament would then become a proper national parliament.  The 59 Scottish MPs (including the Rt Hon member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) would then be redundant.  Scotland would then be free to follow whatever path the people might choose.  The Scottish electorate would be sending a signal that they see themselves as Scottish, rather than British.

In the event of a ‘no’ vote, however, it must be made clear that this will be taken as a rejection of Scotland’s post-1999 political structures, and an acceptance that, politically at least, the people are British first and Scottish second.  Thus, the Scottish Parliament will be abolished, the 129 MSPs will be redundant, and moves will be made to integrate the areas over which Scotland has hitherto been politically distinct from the rest of the UK (health, education, justice, etc) into the relevant UK government departments.

I propose not returning to the old “Scotland is distinct within the UK” approach pre-1999, with a Scottish Office and a Secretary of State. This was the system that created the resentment from the Conservatives governing with so few MPs in Scotland in the first instance.  Under these proposals, there would be no “Scotland” in the political sense. The West Lothian question would be solved once and for all – all MPs would have exactly the same rights and voting entitlements as any other.  There would be no “Scottish seats” and “English seats” under such proposals.  Indeed, future constituency boundary reviews would no longer need to respect the border between Scotland and England.

Either way, we should organise the referendum then take a back seat. The Conservative Government should present this as a straight choice for the Scottish people and not endorse either campaign.

I believe that Scotland would gain under either set of proposals; on the one hand, from a UK Conservative administration dedicated to slimming down the state and encouraging free enterprise.  There would be no more arguing for increases to the (former) Scottish Office budget to “buy off” the Scottish Nationalists. Otherwise, the realities of independence would hopefully cause the land of Adam Smith to re-affirm those traditionally Scottish values of hard work and fiscal prudence that predate Labour’s electoral hegemony.

I argue that such a move is necessary to secure a mandate from the Scottish people for a Conservative government, as it is likely that one would come to power but with such minimal representation in Scotland. The SNP would support such a referendum (as independence is their raison d’etre), and so the usual accusations that we are “anti-Scottish” would be silenced.  However, by happy coincidence, such a policy would put Scottish Labour in a bind.  They would tear themselves apart deciding over whether to support full independence (at the expense of the PM’s seat) or see the dismantling of their entire policy towards Scotland since 1997.  We may be known north of the border as the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, but is Labour, and not us, that have benefited from playing the Union card in the last ten years.  Under a ‘yes’ vote, the Scottish Conservatives would emerge as a truly independent force (shaking off the “English party” jibes once and for all); under a ‘no’ vote, there would be no “Scottish parties” as Scotland and England would enjoy a uniform political system with entirely common institutions.

One way or the other, such a policy is likely to prove popular in those parts of England that believe themselves to be disadvantaged by the present funding arrangements.  There may well be electoral opportunities for the Conservatives places such as Tyneside and Cornwall.  Either way, an unnecessary tier of politicians in Scotland is removed.  Who says we are no longer the party of small government?

I have glossed over a few difficult points, some of which I list below.  I’m hoping that we can enjoy a lively discussion about these in the comments section!

  • Oil.  While I have said little about economics, this is an important point.  The exact position of who subsidises who between Scotland and the rest of the UK hinges partly on whether Scotland can claim that all the North Sea oil revenues are hers.  My own understanding is that this is not the case, and that any claims of a “southwards subsidy”, as hypothecated by the SNP, have been undone by the soaring public expenditure of the Blair years.  This issue would, of course, need to be fully clarified before a referendum could be held.
  • The Queen as Head of State.  Would an independent Scotland become a republic?
  • Wales & Northern Ireland.  I have a more limited understanding of the other devolution settlements in the UK, but perhaps similar arguments would apply?  Welsh Conservative MP Stephen Crabbehas written a powerful article about his “devo-scepticism”.
  • Scotland’s membership of the EU.  I’ll leave it to the EU experts to say what would happen in the event of Scottish independence!
  • “Where would the Scottish Parliament’s powers go in the event of a ‘no’ vote?”  I would like to see real devolution, as proposed by the excellent Direct Democracy, with most powers passing to local councils, and the rest being restored to Westminster.  The same should be done throughout the UK.  Keen to know what others might think on this issue.
  • “What would we do with the Holyrood building?”  At best, a conference centre; at worst, a monument to the ineptitude of letting politicians control expensive capital projects where Joe Taxpayer foots the bill.  Case closed.

The Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party’s otherwise excellent leader, Annabel Goldie, was misguided in signing up to an agreement with the two parties who had just been thrown out of office at the May election to oppose a referendum on Scottish independence.  It looks especially bad when the party is campaigning nationally for a referendum on the EU constitution to dismiss one on Scottish independence as “squandering taxpayers' money”.  It smacks of Labour’s “we know best” approach.

I appreciate that my proposals involve tearing up ten years of party policy in Scotland.  However, I believe that Conservatives have nothing to fear from such a change.  Labour has everything to fear.  Let’s stop fighting elections in Scotland on Labour’s turf.  It’s time to be bold and radical.


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