On these pages in November 2012, I predicted that the Scottish party leader Ruth Davidson would eventually reverse her ‘line in the sand’ position on devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament, namely powers over the levying and collection of taxation.
The concept of our party supporting the transfer of additional powers was first espoused by Murdo Fraser. Alex Fergusson - who endorsed Murdo Fraser’s leadership bid – has also set out his support for this move on Egremont and sits on the board of the DevoPlus campaign group to further that objective.
I had predicted that this breakthrough would come during Ruth Davidson’s leadership – and I use the term breakthrough very deliberately – but not until the ‘Yes’ camp were defeated at the Scottish Independence referendum, now fixed for 18 September 2014.
Put simply, the Scottish electorate needs a more compelling vision of exactly what Scotland they can expect to see after voting ‘No’ at the referendum, and they need that vision set out for them now, before the referendum.
Ms Davidson has stepped up to the plate and furnished a centre-right vision for Scotland’s constitutional settlement within the UK post-2014. No longer would the ‘tax and spend’ members of the Scottish Parliament be allowed to practice fiscal irresponsibility unchecked. No longer pursuing blanket policies of free NHS prescriptions and free concessionary bus travel for all - including fellow MSPs and millionaires - without suffering from the discipline of having to raise the necessary tax revenue to pay for those policies.
Whether the Scottish electorate decide policies such as universal free benefits during times of fiscal constraint, or not, is up to them to decide. Our role is merely to argue our case. We should not deny a legislature the democratic rights which a growing number of electors would like to see it gain because we fear the governing party would use those powers to the contrary of what we would do (i.e. they raise the burden of taxation whereas we would reduce it). We lost that basis of argument in 1997 on the referendum on Scottish devolution, and are still suffering from it. It is time to get ahead of the curve for once and all on this particular issue.
With greater fiscal autonomy, the Scottish budget would directly benefit from policies which help promote economic growth and simplify the tax system, thereby increasing tax compliance and collection rates. The Scottish Conservatives hand is strengthened because it is our message of sensible tax rates, a pro-enterprise economy, and cracking down on tax evasion which chimes perfectly with this type of devolution settlement.
Ruth may well have alienated figures such as Lord Forsyth, whose backing was instrumental to winning the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives in the autumn of 2011, but this is silly. We are all Conservatives first and foremost - our core values are the same. The reformist wing of the party should believe in reforming political institutions to further our beliefs of fairness, democracy and progress. Allowing a Parliament to determine its own taxation levels to pursue its own political priorities naturally follow from that belief.
The job of the TRG throughout the Scottish Conservatives’ review on greater devolution for Scotland must be to represent our grassroots members’ views and to ensure the process is not hijacked by figures such as Lord Forsyth, and some of the others who previously backed Ruth Davidson’s leadership bid, all of whom could potentially put the brakes on what has been a breakthrough announcement today.
Andrew Morrison is a member of TRG Scotland, serves as the current Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party West of Scotland Regional Council, and stood for election recently at the Local Authority elections in May 2012. Andrew previously stood for the Holyrood constituency of Glasgow Pollok, being ranked number three on the Glasgow regional list.