The changing Tory story of Scotland and the Union

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by Gerry Hassan, the Scotsman, July 16th 2011

While the British media and political classes have obsessed over the mega-story of the crisis of the Murdoch empire and parallel state within a state, the constitutional debate about Scotland has quietly and yet profoundly moved on.

The Conservatives have a long and proud tradition in relation to the politics of the union.  This doesn’t mean they haven’t made serious errors of judgement at points, whether in Ireland or post-war decolonisation.

Taking a wider view there has been a potent Tory account of Britain, of progress, then Empire and post-Empire, and a land getting supposedly better for everyone ‘managed’ by those who know best.

To be a Conservative Unionist doesn’t make one anti-Scottish.  Just as being a Labour Unionist doesn’t.  And there is more to Toryism than Mrs. Thatcher’s abrasive Unionism.  You could even argue that there was more to Thatcher than that, but you wouldn’t get far north of the border.

It should come as no surprise then that something is happening in senior Tory circles about Scotland and the nature of the UK.  This was signalled most recently by former Prime Minister John Major’s fascinating speech to the transatlantic Ditchley Foundation.

Major, the man who went to the polls in 1992 to ‘save the Union’ laid out the case for greater Scottish self-determination, a different kind of Union and UK, while acknowledging the slow decline of the once great ship of HMS Great Britain.

His vision was one with Scotland controlling ‘all responsibilities except foreign policy, defence and management of the economy’, going well past the half-measures of Calman and the current Scotland Bill.  There was a price for this: the abolition of ‘the present block grant settlement’ and reducing Scots representation in the Commons.

There was some level of coherence in Major’s analysis, conceding that the present arrangements across the UK were ‘unsustainable’.  Yet there was an element of curmudgeonliness, of a tolerance being stretched to breaking point by an errant child.  ‘Scottish ambition is fraying English tolerance’ said Major sounding like a ‘Daily Mail’ editorial, proclaiming that, ‘This is a tie that will snap – unless the issue is resolved’.  ‘The Union cannot be maintained’, he went on, ‘by constant aggravation in Scotland and appeasement in London’.

These are deeply revealing words showing the nature of how a large part of the British political class see Scotland and the nature of the UK.  Scotland’s constant harping and pushing is not welcome and going to lead somewhere unpleasant unless we watch ourselves.  No reflection after the banks, political expenses and Murdoch, let alone Iraq, that there might be a wider crisis of British democracy.  Oh no, everything is fine apart from those pushy Scots!

Major did go back over old ground stressing that he still held to his pre-devolution ‘Battle of Britain’ view that all of this was a ‘stepping stone to separation’.  He then put forward the case that explaining the consequences of independence such as the loss of funding and end of things such as free prescription charges and absence of tuition fees would fatally undermine support for independence.

This is a significant intervention and moment in the evolution of Tory statecraft.  David Cameron, bruised and diminished by Murdochgate, has made an equally illuminating set of comments, while playing a long game on the constitutional question.

He has clearly indicated the limits to his tolerance and the so-called ‘respect agenda’.  If the SNP Government does not play fair and spends the next few years in Cameron’s words and judgement, ‘tussling rather than governing’, then there may be a moment when ‘we need to answer this question properly’.  That would be his ‘Bring it on’ moment!

Elsewhere thoughtful Tory MPs such as Rory Stewart, newly elected MP for Penrith and the Borders, are talking about ‘the bigger picture’ and what would be ‘lost to all of us’ by Scottish independence.  The tone and the language here is worth noting: reflective, contingent, almost with an element of an elegy for a passing Britain.

The Tories are doing what they have always done: adapting, evolving, responding while maintaining the character of Britain which so aids and reinforces Tory power.  Ultimately Tories are pragmatic and believe in the UK, a political union which can and has come in many different forms.

They are happy to offer piecemeal, incremental reform which aids the continuation of the British state in its current form: a diminished public realm and partial, disconnected democracy.  It is what they have done through the ages, seeing the interests of the British state and their partisan self-interests as one and the same.

This isn’t as some have seen north of the border just a discussion about Scotland, and its place in a weaker or stronger Union.  Instead, it goes to the heart of the political nature and where power sits in the UK, who exercises it and how.

Major’s speech touched on this, addressing the diminished state of Britain, post-crash, after the years of hubris and grand designs.  Britain might still be in Major’s words, ‘the sixth most wealthy country in the world’, but ‘we are no longer an Empire’ and are ‘a shrinking military power’.  Rather tellingly, he noted that we may find ourselves in difficult waters, not prepared to be a fully committed European country, while our traditional ally, America, turns its focus on China and the East.

This will pose significant challenges for Tories and for all our mainstream British politicians.  There is a sense of malaise and decline about in public life, after the hype and bravado of the Thatcher and Blair eras which now seems even more misplaced and delusional.

One part of this crisis is what happens to Scotland.  For all their effortless public confidence and self-belief, the Tories have been deeply irritated and feel provoked by Scots opinion and our journey to self-government.  They feel this is not part of the script, changing the terms of debate and threatening their rule of this half-democratic political order.

We should not glibly write off the Tories.  They are not the simple caricatures of some of our hoary old tales, nor reducible to the stereotype of an ‘alien’, anti-Scottish force.

The Tories have for nearly a century and a half proven themselves adept at shaping much of British public life, democracy and the institutions around it.  They have been a self-preservation society, of conservatism and change which has maintained their power and place.  None of us should underestimate their capacity to keep the Union together, Scotland’s position in it, and their long-term dominance of British politics.

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan – http://www.gerryhassan.com