A New Direction for the Conservatives on Devolution?

Published: 3 June 2014
Author: Alan Convery

For the Scottish Conservatives, the publication of the Strathclyde Commission report on further devolution marks another significant moment in a long journey for the party. Having passed from strident opposition to a Scottish Parliament to the Calman Commission and lines in the sand, they now have their own set of proposals on devolution. This is significant in two main ways: the Scottish Tories appear to have found a path through the competing ideological demands of their Conservatism and Unionism; and for the first time since the 1970s they have something authentically Tory and positive to say about devolution.

Firstly, the Scottish Conservatives have found it extremely difficult to reconcile two facets of their ideology: a belief in the Union and a Conservative belief in fiscal responsibility. Their interpretation of the demands of Unionism in the 1980s and 1990s led them to oppose the creation of a Scottish Parliament. However, when that Parliament came into being, they then found it difficult think about how a Conservative might improve it. In principle, it would be difficult for a Conservative to support an institution that had so little responsibility for the taxes that it spent. It would surely have been better from the outset to try to reform the Parliament in order to move the political debate in Scotland towards the more natural Conservative territory of the proper balance between taxing and spending. However, many Conservatives still continued to view every new power for the Scottish Parliament as a concession to the SNP and a betrayal of the Union. The Conservatives spent many years trapped by this unreformed ‘Unionism of 1995’. This report may mark the point when the Scottish Conservatives finally free themselves from these ideological knots and start to think for themselves again about devolution.

Secondly, pushing their position beyond their support for the Calman Commission and the Scotland Act 2012, the Conservatives now have their own unique devolution offer. Although none of what they propose is strikingly original (having been foreshadowed to varying degrees in the other parties’ commissions and in reports from Devo Plus and the IPPR, it is the first time since 1999 that they have deliberated internally and produced their own blueprint. Crucially, the Conservatives have now arguably outflanked Scottish Labour on the issue of more devolution. It will be interesting to see if their thinking has moved on sufficiently to try to take explicit advantage of this position by portraying themselves as the main Unionist party of devolution.

The headline proposal of the report to devolve all income tax fits with the other parties’ reports on further devolution. Indeed, some form of devolution of income tax is the common thread running through all of the proposals. Specifically, the Liberal Democrats also propose that all income tax and air passenger duty should be devolved. The proposals for some welfare devolution also chime with the other parties’ ideas. However, there is one omission that stands out: the report is silent on the issue of the future of the Barnett Formula. Labour propose to retain it; the Liberal Democrats want a reformed system.

Although the party is now armed (finally) with an ideologically coherent position on devolution, there is still more to be done. Can the party now match this devolution agenda with an authentically Scottish policy agenda? If kneejerk Unionism was a 1990s Tory habit that needed to be ditched, then so is recycling English policies for a Scottish context. While most Scottish Tories (and those on the Scottish centre-right) will acknowledge the significance of today’s report, others may feel that it has only taken the party as far as the logical position it really ought to have adopted in 1999.