Conservatives divided on referendum strategy

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By a Newsnet reporter

The Scottish Conservatives are the latest of the anti-independence parties to split over the referendum with former MP and Chairman Peter Duncan calling for the party to pursue a third option of devo-max, not to try and dictate the terms of the referendum from London, and to avoid London leaders taking prominence in the campaign.

In an article published on the Conservative Home website, a site for members of the Conservative party hosted by the party, Mr Duncan puts forwards ten “tartan rules” for the party to win the forthcoming independence referendum.  Mr Duncan ranks as the top priority the need for the Conservatives to put forward a “positive case for the Union”.  

However such a call risks being dismissed by many in Scotland as merely ritualistic, as the three anti-independence parties have been promising for months that they would put forward a “positive case for the Union”.  Other than issuing a few platitudes, all have signally failed to do so.  Instead we have witnessed a constant barrage of negative stories and scaremongering, led and directed by the very top levels of the Coalition administration and the Westminster Labour leadership.  

Contrary to the claims made by some in the Coalition government and the Labour opposition that Scotland is a “subsidy junkie”, Mr Duncan advised:  “Scotland is perfectly capable of operating successfully as an independent country and Unionists should not be afraid to say so.”

On the timing of the referendum, Mr Duncan criticises his Conservative colleagues saying:  “Alex Salmond won a massive victory in May 2011.  He and the rest of his 68 MSPs elected to Holyrood have the right to hold the referendum they want to hold – at the time they want to hold it.”

On more powers for the Scottish Parliament, Mr Duncan says the Scotland Bill is insufficient, adding:  “Our aim should be to move towards something like Devolution Plus. This could be as a third question.”  In this Mr Duncan is contradicting Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently expressed his belief that the provisions in the Scotland Bill would satisfy Scottish demands for greater self-rule.  

However by stating the need for an additional question on the ballot Mr Duncan goes much further, and is also placing himself in direct opposition to the position adopted by his party leaders, who are refusing to countenance any such move and insisting on a simple yes-no to independence.

On the campaign being led in Scotland he adds: “I suspect London will have concerns that its Scottish offshoot does not have the expertise or experience to run this campaign unaided, but it will have to suck it and see.”

On the terms of the referendum he argues, “Don’t let these arguments originate in Westminster. We’ve been doing this for decades, and look where we are now!”

However Mr Duncan reserves his most devastating criticisms for Conservative statements on Scotland’s economic and financial position.  The Scottish Conservative chairman describes Tory arguments about Scotland’s position as “more patronising than I’m able to put into words.”

Responding to Mr Duncan’s comments SNP MSP for Angus South Graeme Dey said:

“This will be uncomfortable reading for the Tories in London and in Edinburgh.

“This is a devastating critique of the Conservatives current policy toward Scotland and their inability to present a coherent campaign against independence.

“Peter Duncan adds to the increasingly hostile response to David Cameron’s ill thought out intervention and his criticisms of the Scotland Bill will strike a major chord in Scotland.

“With members of Labour, Lib Dems and the Tories now supporting more powers for the Parliament the anti-independence parties have to explain why they are determined to prevent the people of Scotland having that choice.”