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.