A New Direction for the Conservatives on Devolution?

Alan Convery, University of Edinburgh

Alan Convery, University of Edinburgh

Alan Convery responds to the Strathclyde Report produced by the Scottish Conservatives, an important moment for the party.

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.

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? 

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 (http://www.devoplus.com/) and the IPPR (http://www.ippr.org/publications/funding-devo-more-fiscal-options-for-strengthening-the-union)), 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.

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1 Response to A New Direction for the Conservatives on Devolution?

  1. Thanks Coree for an insightful post on whether or not there is indeed a new direction for the Scottish Conservatives on the Scottish case and potential for further devolved powers. The Academic Entrepreneur agrees that there is apparent recycling of English policies for a Scottish agenda. However, through reading the reports of the other major political parties, he is convinced that the larger problem is that the bigger picture to be concerned with is the recycling of industrial age policies. The leaders of these parties, most of them baby boomers and beyond, are stuck in the mindframe of the glory days of the factory model and use it as an underlying assumption unbeknowst even to themselves. This is of major concern for the progress and economic growth of not only Scotland, but also the United Kingdom as a whole. The opportunity of policy should start with the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the creatives, the artists, the knowledge translators. For example, when it comes to tax policy, as the Tories are given credit for addressing now, policies that would increase the flow of entrepreneurs into Scotland, and the leveraging of knowledge assets should be considered. What about giving the Scottish Parliament the right to not only lower taxes and spending, but to create tax free zones in and around universities for startup companies and innovative branches of firms that wish to open up new subsidiaries in the country? This might seem really liberal, or conservative, depending on which historical meaning of these terms you wish to use in this context. Sound wild? Not really, especially as New York State has done just that very thing, as the Academic Entrepreneur highlights in a recent blog post “Triple Helix Power Play: Cornell University and others in New York State to Provide Tax-Free Zones for State Start-ups” http://academicentrepreneur.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/triple-helix-power-play-cornell-university-and-others-in-new-york-state-to-provide-tax-free-zones-for-state-start-ups/. Now this is tax policy for an innovation economy.

    These and other innovation policies for the Third Wave economy should be prescribed, and the powers that enable them under consideration for further devolution. The greatest lever of policy amongst them all is immigration. It is immigration policy that holds the most promise for liberalisation that will lead to knowledge gain, innovation, creativity, and new venture creation including born global organizations. However, this is the one area that none of the parties want to give up much control of to a devolved Scotland. Interestingly, it is also this policy that is being exploited as the most compelling lever of influence by the UKIP. Surely liberal immigration policy raises other issues such as a more stringent border, but the cost -benefit analysis of such I have yet to see or even hear discussed.

    The empowered Triple Helix in Scotland can leverage knowledge resources and create economic goodwill and growth without minimal ecological impact. The days of the industrial revolution are long over. What is needed is a complete re-visitation of stale policies and institutions that are getting in the way of creativity and innovation .

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