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Henry Hill

Henry Hill: Gone are the days when Scottish trade union leaders stood firm against independence

The bedroom tax unites the kingdom... against it

The government’s new welfare measures, greeted with such decorum by the left-leaning national press, have made waves in the devolved regions too.

The ‘bedroom tax’ - or spare room subsidy, if you prefer - was front and centre in most coverage. Both the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations have criticised the new policy, as has the Scottish government – although they have stopped short of a Labour proposal to outlaw evictions stemming from the new rules. Opponents of the measure in Cardiff, Glasgow and Edinburgh joined others from across the UK in a series of coordinated public demonstrations.

The long term political implications aren’t clear yet, but people are already trying to capitalise on the visible anger provoked by the new rule. I wrote in a previous column about Welsh politicians using it to make the case for the devolution of welfare, whilst the New Statesman carries a piece about how such measures – and Labour’s inevitable commitment to some form of austerity if and when it returns to office – are apparently driving Scottish trades unions towards supporting independence. Long gone, it seems, are the days when Scottish NUM leader Mick McGahey said: “Scottish workers have more in common with London dockers, Durham miners and Sheffield engineers than they have ever had with Scottish barons and landlord traitors.”

From the perspective of three months writing this column, what has struck me most about the bedroom tax response is that it’s one of the first truly “British” stories I’ve encountered that hasn’t been some form of constitutional angst. It is very rare to encounter in the news a Westminster policy, certainly a domestic policy, which actually affects the entire British people in this way. Normally, Westminster features either as the sparring partner of a devolved politician or group, or in the ‘rest of the UK’ section. This, hopefully, is something that pro-union politicians will reflect upon when they’re dreaming up their vision of the “next stage” of devolution.

An all-Catholic final for Northern Ireland Conservative Future Chairmanship

Most of you will likely be happily unaware that Conservative Future had their leadership elections in the past week. CF is the youth wing of the party everywhere except – in a piece of mystifying Murdoism – Scotland, and I’d like to draw attention to the interesting and heartening fact that two of the four candidates for the Northern Ireland regional chairmanship were Irish Catholics. Stephen Goss and Eimhear Macfarlane apparently not only topped the poll but tied the vote, with Goss’ name being picked out of a hat at CCHQ (and by Macfarlane’s campaign manager, no less!).

It strikes me that with sectarian tensions simmering in Northern Ireland and the ‘McUnionists’ declining the NI Conservatives red (blue?) carpet welcome in favour of a new party, this is exactly the sort of thing the local party needs more of. What better way to demonstrate that they’re a genuinely new force in centre-right, pro-union politics than having Catholics duking it out for senior leadership positions?

Sadly, such things appear confined to the youth wing for the moment. The NI Conservatives still don’t have an official leader, elected by the party membership. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case – perhaps they wanted to leave such a position vacant as an additional lure to a potential MLA defector – but since that eventuality is now looking remote it seems like something the party should set about rectifying.

In the meanwhile, that burden will have to be shouldered in part by their new youth chairman. Goss, from Andersonstown in West Belfast, has enjoyed a media profile in the province since he addressed the Ulster Unionist Party conference back in 2008. He’ll doubtless be a useful asset for a party that desperately needs to find a direction before the McUnionists take all their political oxygen. But no serious party can have its media fronted by its youth wing. Northern Ireland’s young Conservatives have chosen a leader – it’s about time their elders did the same.

Cameron's choice: Salmond challenges PM to independence debate

The SNP, you will be amazed to hear, are not very keen on English Tories. Many aren’t hugely keen on our Quisling cousins north of the border either, of course, but compounding Conservatism with Englishness is a sure-fire way to put yourself on the wrong side of the Yes campaign.

Indeed, so concerned were they about the referendum being “bought and sold for English gold” (a line based on old but questionable claim that the Treaty of Union was secured by mass criminality] that they campaigned hard to impose tight spending limits on the race. When the staunchly unionist Sir Alex Ferguson accused them of trying to close down the debate, the Yes camp specifically raised the spectre of “Conservative Party fundraisers held in England” to justify their stance.

In light of this, the SNP’s newfound enthusiasm for getting David Cameron, just such a dastardly Angle, more involved in the Scottish independence debate might seem rather surprising. Yet the SNP are now set on having the Prime Minister go head-to-head with Alex Salmond in a television debate on independence. Indeed, according to Better Together they’ve even gone so far as to snub Alistair Darling, the Scottish unionist leader.

Once you set aside the sheer inconsistency of it, of course, the SNP’s thinking becomes perfectly clear. Despite his surname David Cameron is the English leader of a mostly-English party with a very English accent. In any debate the SNP’s subliminal message will likely be along the lines of: “Look at this strange and alien fellow. Do you really fancy him ruling over you again?” Such a debate would also allow Salmond to frame the clash as between “Scotland” and “Britain/England”, rather than as between two groups of Scots with divergent senses of identity. For the SNP, trying to side-line the many capable and articulate Scottish unionists makes perfect sense.

Does all this mean that Cameron shouldn’t speak? Probably not. For starters, polls show a strong majority in favour of the Prime Minister stepping up to the plate, so ducking the challenge might well do more harm than good. The best way to avoid marginalising Better Together is probably for Cameron to publicly make his debate appearance conditional on Alistair Darling also getting one.

Moreover, there might be much good to be wrung from it, for party and country both. Cameron is a strong media performer and a man whose unionism is wholehearted and completely sincere. His speech on the matter last year went down rather well – indeed, Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman described it as “the strongest explicitly Unionist speech made in Britain since the 1950’s”, claiming that Cameron was one of the most effective voices on the pro-union side.

So by appearing, Cameron could bring his formidable talents as a debater and rhetorician to bear on the First Minister, who remains unchallenged in Scottish domestic politics, and do much good for the pro-Union cause. If he is to limit his appearances in a fundamentally Scottish debate to a few key interventions, this seems a good one.

It could also be good for the Conservative Party. Cameron strikes me as one of those political phenomena that are easy to demonise in the abstract. Going head-to-head with Salmond would give Scottish voters the opportunity to get to know Cameron as he debates Scottish issues (unlike the pan-UK general election debates). It might afford many who have not seen or heard him speak before the opportunity to see him and our party in a different light.

And in a campaign where people are using the prospect of future Conservative governments to try to raise support for independence, he can rise above such attitudes by arguing, as he clearly believes, that country comes before political difference and that Tory or not, Scots are our countrymen. With any luck, he’ll convince at least a few more Scots to feel the same way about him.

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