At last, the Scottish Tories seem to be moving in the right devolutionary direction

Nik Darlington 3.02pm

At long last, the Scottish Conservatives are moving in the right direction on devolution.

Nearly one year ago, when commenting on the launch of the unionist Devo Plus group, I wrote that the Tories have to embrace greater devolution if they are to make any meaningful inroads in Scottish politics. Ruth Davidson assumed the leadership with a supposed "line in the sand" and little more than lukewarm acknowledgement of the Scotland Bill (which received Royal Assent last May). That line in the sand had to shift.

Now it seems to be doing so. Ms Davidson is already undertaking an internal review of devolution, though that in itself is only encouraging in part. More so is the recent intervention by Scotland Office minister David Mundell, the sole Tory MP north of the border.

The Scotsman reports today on research compiled by the Centre for Public Policy for the Regions, calling for MSPs to take control of £22 billion worth of extra tax-raising powers. And indeed they should. I’ve long maintained that a Tory revival in Scotland is largely dependent on Holyrood becoming as responsible for raising money as it is for spending it. What’s more, greater tax flexibility could be the making of Scotland.

Mr Mundell appears to have embraced this position and claimed that the pro-union parties will have put a proper devolution offer on the table long before the SNP gets round to spelling out its own case for independence (the amateurish efforts over the past year frankly do not count - or at least Nat supporters should hope so).

Scots will vote to remain in the Union, of that I have little doubt. Yet without a compellingly pro-devolution case put in advance, many shall do so begrudgingly. That is why this is a crucial moment for the Scottish Conservatives. Remember, however Scottish he himself is, David Mundell is merely an ‘English minister’ in the government of an ‘English Prime Minister’. To resonate truly, the party in Scotland must follow his lead.

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Scotland’s unionists have to spell out what a ‘No’ vote means for devolution

Nik Darlington 11.25am

Today in Edinburgh, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, meets Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, to sign off the terms of an independence referendum to be held in autumn 2014.

Some are calling it historic. Not quite. The referendum itself shall be historic. Nonetheless, the occasion demands more gravity than it is being given. Britain’s summer of all summers has neutered the separatist cause; the polls consistently suggest a comfortable victory for the unionists. But with two years until the vote, the dangers remain.

Alistair Darling is right to favour next year. It is just one of the regrettable oversights of the Prime Minister’s negotiations. Though on balance, despite my criticisms of Mr Cameron on the radio yesterday (approx 1hr33’ in), presentationally speaking today has been well-handled. He has largely got what he wanted to achieve, and done so in a way that does not look like an overbearing Englishman - indeed, he has even permitted the appearance of his kowtowing to Mr Salmond.

Yet we are where we are. There shall be a vote, it shall be a straight ‘yes-no’ gunfight, and it shall take place approximately seven hundred years after the Battle of Bannockburn.

Over at the Spectator, Alex Massie worries about the absence of a second question - that outlet for the majority caucus of Scots who desire more devolution within the Union. This was put to me on the radio yesterday and I have to say that I agree. I’m not necessarily in favour of a second question because that could result in a close and indeterminate outcome, and subsequent re-match. However, like Alex, I worry about a unionist campaign that offers a bit more devolution if Scots vote to stay, but doesn’t spell out what it looks like.

Mr Cameron is guilty of making such a fudged offer; his Scottish party leader, Ruth Davidson, is guilty of making little such offer at all, as I have said on these pages before. Refusing to countenance further devolution within the Union is not so much drawing lines in the sand, as putting one’s head in it.

Principally here we’re talking about taxation. Holyrood currently spends money that it hasn’t raised. Until Scottish politicians have to raise taxes as well as spend them, there will be no fiscal impetus for a Tory revival. That much is simple. The Devo Plus campaign ought to be considered.

But putting party concerns aside, now that we have the terms of the referendum campaign, the unionists have to make a case for a better Union settlement once Scots have voted to stay.

Also putting party concerns aside, I do believe that there needs to be a more prominent role for Gordon Brown. Alistair Darling is an excellent choice to front the unionist campaign. Yet if the former Prime Minister desires a central role (and I understand that he does), one should be found. Fraser Nelson dismisses the notion entirely, though for reasons that seem to me discontinuous. Whatever his image down south, Gordon Brown retains a certain following and respect in Scotland.

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Why Scotland needs Devo Plus, and why Conservatives and all unionists need to support it

Alex Fergusson MSP 6.00am

Immediately following the recent launch of Devo Plus, a group on which I am pleased to sit, the Tory Reform Group tweeted:

"Devo Plus is a campaign that unionists would be worthwhile supporting."

Needless to say, I entirely agree, but allow me to explain why.

I must begin by saying that I am every bit as much a unionist and a Conservative as all of my colleagues in the party. From Ruth Davidson to Murdo Fraser, Michael Forsyth to Malcolm Rifkind, we are all Conservatives and we are all unionists.

But what I believe we need to accept, fundamentally, is that the very notion of unionism is a variable rather than a fixed point on the constitutional spectrum. However, it is fair to say that Michael Forsyth’s view of unionism is rather different to mine, in that I firmly believe that we need to embrace that notion, rather than simply try to hide it.

My vision of unionism is a decentralising one in accordance, I think, with basic Conservative philosophy. I want to see each layer of government, from Westminster to Holyrood to local authorities, broadly raising the money they are responsible for spending.

That is the reasoning behind Devo Plus, and it is based quite simply on the principle of financial accountability - a principle that is sadly lacking in our current constitutional structure. It is practised in other strong unions throughout the world, including those of our transatlantic friends in Canada and the United States and, frankly, it is ‘beyond bonkers’ (to pinch a phrase from another former Presiding Officer!) to suggest that it cannot work here.

So for me the unionist box is firmly ticked. What about the Conservative one?

Firstly, localism is a key part of David Cameron’s overarching agenda, and Devo Plus is simply localism in action.

Secondly, it’s hardly a secret that the Scottish Tories have not exactly enjoyed increasing popularity since devolution, and a big part of that problem is our perceived unwillingness to give the Scottish people what opinion poll after opinion poll tells us they want: a more responsible, autonomous and accountable Scottish Parliament within a solid United Kingdom.

Our party - indeed, all parties - are now talking about this issue, and that is encouraging. In my view the end point is clear. The seeds of a Conservative comeback can be sown by embracing the principles of Devo Plus. We should make it clear to the Scottish people that a “no” vote in the referendum does not mean a continuation of the status quo, but that it means a journey towards Devo Plus.

Alex Fergusson is the Conservative MSP for Galloway & West Dumfries and was the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament from 2007 to 2011.