Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Can Conservatives solve the Scots' Nat conundrum?

Two unionist bloggers, O’Neill and Scottish Unionist, interpret Conservative attempts to foster a ‘constructive’ relationship with Scotland’s minority government quite differently. O’Neill, arguing from the perspective that devolution weakens the Union, is adamant that cooperating with the SNP merely bolsters the nationalists’ popularity. It should be Scottish Conservatives’ task to oppose separatism in Scotland; and by helping the minority administration to govern effectively, Annabel Goldie, and her party, are abdicating that responsibility, encouraging support for the SNP and simultaneously damaging both the Union and their own long term electoral prospects. In contrast, Scottish Unionist implies that devolved government, if it is popular and is perceived to be responsive to the public, can actually diminish the urge to independence. An emasculated SNP administration, its worst excesses curbed by a requirement for cross party support, can flourish without a commensurate fillip for its nationalist aspirations. Indeed, if the SNP demonstrates that devolution works, it is, to a degree, undermining its own case for independence. Conversely, if it is seen to be a failure, voters will return to the main unionist parties. By seeking to steer the Scottish government in directions which they choose, Conservatives are accruing benefits, for themselves, and for the Scottish people.

Clearly I am painting these respective positions in broad strokes. I would be delighted if either commentator, or both, wishes to offer a more refined rendering of their views in the comments zone of this post. Indeed if have misrepresented O’Neill or SU, I profusely apologise, and stand to be corrected. If I have understood the thrust of their arguments correctly, I have a degree of sympathy for both.

David Cameron has, this week, reaffirmed his intention to work as amicably as possible with the First Minister, in order to foster a better working link between Westminster and Holyrood, should he become the UK’s next Prime Minister. It is an approach which ‘Three Thousand Versts’ has endorsed, on the basis that it is unionist in impulse. If one accepts, and I do, that devolution is not reversible at the present time (in fact an attempt to reverse it would actually damage the Union), but if one also believes that defending the Union is vital, then fostering a more engaged working relationship between the national government and its counterpart at Holyrood is imperative. More contact between London and Edinburgh is an impeccably unionist project, even if Alex Salmond is the First Minister. O’Neill, a sceptic about cooperation with the SNP, enjoyed David Cameron’s quote,

“I will be fully engaged with that bit of Alex Salmond's brain that wants to do the best thing for Scotland rather than break up the United Kingdom.”

More controversial than possible intergovernmental contacts between Tories and Nationalists, is the existing relationship between the two parties at Scottish parliamentary level. “What exactly now is the point of Scottish Conservatism?” asks O’Neill, upon learning that Annabel Goldie, the party’s current leader, had likened minority government to a “gust of fresh air”. In contrast, on the Guardian politics blog, it is suggested that the Scottish Tories might be on their way out ‘of the political wilderness’. Despite the current, fractured nature of Scotland’s politics the party has risen to 21% in opinion polls for a Westminster General Election. Although part of this rejuvenation is attributed to David Cameron’s nationwide popularity, it is also suggested that devolution, and the leverage a minority government has allowed Conservatives to guide political debate, have also contributed.

There might be a degree of truth to this analysis, but in 2010 Conservatives’ interaction with the Scottish government is likely to become substantially more complicated. Insofar as the SNP defines itself in opposition to the British government, its interests have converged, to an extent, with the Conservatives, whilst Labour has been in power. The difficulty is that it does not matter which administration presides over the United Kingdom, it will attract equal opposition from Scots’ nationalists. It is going to be excruciatingly difficult for Tories at Holyrood to enjoy the same relationship with the SNP, whenever Conservatives nationally form the next UK government.

Equally, David Cameron will find it much trickier maintaining civil relations with Alex Salmond in practice than it seems in theory. A nationalist First Minister will not want cooperation between his government and Whitehall. He will want attrition. A nationalist First Minister will not welcome regular meetings with officials in London, whether it fosters better governance for his region or not. He will demand that Westminster keeps its nose out. It is not in his interests to promote cordial, multilayered government which works well for the people of Scotland. It is in his interests to present a devolved administration at odds with its national equivalent.

If the Conservatives can solve this conundrum, at regional level, as well as at national, the prize will be a more functional United Kingdom. My instinct is that Cameron, and Goldie, must be seen to be scrupulously reasonable and willing to work with Salmond. Although the surest means to demolish the SNP has always been ‘give ‘em enough rope’, such a strategy could have baleful consequences for the Scottish people. Cooperation cushions the impact of nationalist government on Scotland, but Conservatives must be careful and wary in the years to come. Appealing to Salmond’s better nature is scarcely sufficient to still the yearnings of a fanatic.


Anonymous said...

"Indeed if have misrepresented O’Neill or SU, I profusely apologise, and stand to be corrected."

No, you've got it right 100%.
Although it's much easier for me pontificating about the idealist solution, Cameron will have the actual job to do.


sm753 said...

Again, speaking entirely unofficially, I think there is method to the Scots Tories' apparent madness.

The goal for the next GE is to maximise the number of seats won. Both to maximise the UK majority, and to start to make credible the idea that they are returning from the wilderness in Scotland.

The winnable target seats are either Labour or Liberal.

There are people who vote SNP (and also those who furthermore really want independence) who are actually right-of-centre on economic and social issues.

The Scottish electorate have proved that they understand the difference between Westminster and Holyrood elections, and will vote differently in the two.

So, with a Westminster election coming up first, why not play nice with the Nats and bash the parties they can win seats from?

Doesn't conflict at all with voting down a referendum bill - everyone knows they are Unionists (although there is some confusion whether that is still in the offical name).

And doesn't conflict with the likely position for the 2011 Holyrood election, which will be again not to enter a coalition but to seek to influence any govt in the "right" direction.

The contamination of the Tory brand in Scotland was so lethal - much worse than in England - that there was really no choice other than the long-haul approach.

I think it will take a good few years of a moderate Conservative govt in London combined with a moderate constructive Conservative opposition in Edinburgh before you'll get many Scots happy to admit that they're Tories again.

I'm hopeful; there are some indications that the public finances may not be quite as bad as currently forecasts, so hopefully the Cameron govt will be able to announce some pleasant surprises around 2012-14.