Miliband and Cruddas’ English nationalism could be a stroke of genius

Nik Darlington 11.58am

The Telegraph's chief Labour party cheerleader, Mary Riddell, heralded his appointment as one to make David Cameron feel very nervous. The Indy's political editor, Andrew Grice, wrote that it was the act of an “emboldened” Ed Miliband. Gaby Hinsliff, former political editor of the Observer, asked if his radical thinking could be the key to getting his party re-elected.

Jon Cruddas, the enigmatic MP for Dagenham & Rainham, assumed his new role as Labour’s policy chief burdened with heavy expectations and high praise from left, right and centre.

Cruddas’ intellect is undoubted, though his ideology is hard to pin down. Very much a man of the ‘Left’ and of the union movement, and a regular rebel against New Labour, he still managed to maintain a close relationship with the Blair camp and was a prominent supporter of David Miliband’s leadership bid. Though his own thinking is typically more restrained than Lord Glasman’s, he is seen as a torch bearer for ‘Blue Labour’. He has advocated a referendum on EU membership.

He is also frustrated, passionately so, by the emasculation of Labour’s traditional working-class vote, above all in England. And this theme is writ large across Ed Miliband’s speech today on the subject of Scottish independence and the Union.

"We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We’ve concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"But some people in England felt Labour’s attention had turned away. That something was holding us back from celebrating England too. That we were too nervous to talk of English pride and English character. Connecting it to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease…

"Now more than ever, as we make the case for the United Kingdom throughout the United Kingdom, we must talk about England."

It might at first glance seem a peculiar strategy, to try to win over the Scots by championing English nationalism. Yet though the independence referendum will take place in Scotland, the most profound battle could be fought south of the border, in English hearts and minds. Polling regularly suggests the English are more open to Scottish separation than the Scots themselves.

It is saying to people in England that the Union is worth campaigning for. That all corners of the United Kingdom have something to gain from being together, rather than apart.

I have always been one of those people, as Mr Miliband describes today, who has found English nationalism a touch unsavoury. On any questionnaire, in particular on immigration cards, I stubbornly insist on being ‘British’, rather than ‘English’ or even from the ‘UK’. As someone with something of a mongrel heritage (aren’t we all?), of English, Scottish, Irish (even Czech) descent, the catch-all convenience of being British has always felt more natural and proud.

But I also believe in the local, the small, and the distinctive. The United Kingdom is nothing if it is not able to celebrate unique histories, cultures, flags and faiths. That includes the English.

Ed Miliband’s speech today is smart on two levels. First, it starts a debate about what it means to be in the Union from an English perspective, for if the English can’t be bothered with it, why should the Scots? Second, it is an attempt by Labour to re-connect with its soul.

And it has Jon Cruddas’ fingerprints all over it. The man isn’t hanging about.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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.

Scottish Tories won’t advance until they support more devolution for Scotland

Nik Darlington 10.32am

If unionists in the Conservative party - and I presume, perhaps too romantically, this means most people in the Conservative party - want to win the Scottish independence debate, they must see the necessity for further devolution.

Resistance to devolution fuels the perceptions of English prejudice and arrogance on which the SNP feeds. It runs contrary to the party’s localism agenda, and the innate Tory values about freedom and ‘little platoons’, about power being best exercised the closer to the people it affects. And it ignores the basic fact that the surest route to a Conservative renaissance in Scotland is by forcing Scottish politicians to raise as well as spend Scottish taxes.

Yet frustratingly, resistance seems to be the default position for many Tories, most worryingly so in Scotland itself. Prior to being elected leader of the Scottish Conservatives, with minority support among her own MSPs, Ruth Davidson vowed to draw “a line in the sand” and oppose any further devolution beyond the Scotland Bill. This intransigence might have won the favour of the party faithful (though I wager Scottish party members were more scared by Murdo Fraser’s radicalism than wooed by Ms Davidson’s obduracy). But it won’t win Holyrood seats, nor will it win the impending independence referendum.

So it is hugely encouraging that yesterday some Scottish Tories lent their support to a new unionist devolution campaign that aims to challenge the SNP’s desire for total separation.

Devo Plus is headed by Jeremy Purvis, the former Lib Dem MSP. It has cross-party support from the likes of Tory MSP and former Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson; Tavish Scott MSP, the former Scottish Lib Dem leader; and Labour MSP Duncan MacNeill.

National Insurance, VAT and smaller levies like TV licences would be retained by Westminster, but most other taxes, including income tax and corporation tax, would be transferred to the Scottish Government. There would also be a geographic settlement of oil revenues.

As I wrote for Total Politics last October, lower taxes could be the making of Scotland, turning it into a kilted Asian tiger economy. Devo Plus offers this prospect, the chance of a new Scotland ‘on the make’, and the imposition of fiscal responsibility on Holyrood’s politicians, who in simple terms just spend other people’s money. Falling short of ‘devo max’, Devo Plus ought to look an attractive option for Conservatives in favour of local accountability and critical of the fiscal deficit between England and Scotland.

But what happened yesterday? The SNP quickly endorsed ‘devo plus’ as their preferred third option on the independence ballot paper. The nationalists’ conversion from ‘devo max’ to ‘devo plus’ was as speedy as it was cynical. But it has, for now, left opponents still treading water.

We have reports of the Scottish Tories being “at loggerheads” over the new campaign. Alex Fergusson hinted at a dangerous divide between Ms Davidson and many of her MSPs.

David McLetchie, the Scottish Tories’ constitution spokesman, called Devo Plus a distraction that is “playing into Alex Salmond’s hands”. This could not be further from the truth. Devo Plus may not end up being the right answer, but the Scottish Tory leadership should at the very least be trying to ask some questions.

Scots want more devolution. Ignoring this simple fact is what plays into Mr Salmond’s hands and perpetuates the assumption that the Conservative party is an English party, first and foremost. It amounts not so much to drawing lines in the sand, as sticking one’s head in it.

When the Prime Minister visited Edinburgh to make his powerful, emotional case for the Union, he promised greater devolution for Scots if they vote to stay. But in the process of publicly refuting the leader of his party in Scotland - “blurring the line in the sand”, according to Mr Fergusson - David Cameron failed to say what this greater devolution might look like.

It might, just might, look like Devo Plus.

A federal UK can save the Union

Alexander Pannett 11.15am

It is a strangely multilateral metaphor, the Union Jack.

It is one of the oldest flags in the world, formed from the constituent symbols of the United Kingdom, one of the first and arguably one of the most successful supra-national political unions in the world.

Sketch: Edward tells porky about railways in dull PMQs

Jack Blackburn 2.29pm

With Edward very much on the back foot, he needed to be able to claim something from the first PMQs of 2012. Given that, his tactics were baffling, even if it is fair to say that his performance skills showed signs of improvement.

It was notable that Edward had calmed down a bit and was less irritating than is habitual. He was more measured, less whiney, though he still had a righteous earnestness about himself that remains deeply irritating. Still, an improvement is an improvement.

The choice of questions was bizarre. The last two were about Scotland, on which he agrees with the Prime Minister, but the first four were about train fares. Now, I have spent a lot of time on trains. I think that the rise of fares is utterly extortionate. I would love to see it discussed more at the national level.

However, we didn’t get a discussion, so much as a squabble. Edward stood up and demanded to know why some fares had risen by almost 11 per cent. The Prime Minister said, clipped and curt, it was because the Labour government had given train companies the power to do so.

The remainder of the exchange on this topic can be neatly summarised thus:

Edward: No, we didn’t.

Dave: Yes, you did.

Edward: No, we didn’t.

Dave: Yes, you did.

Edward: No, we didn’t.

Dave: Yes, you did.

As you can imagine this was thrilling stuff. Edward didn’t make much of a point other than that excessive fares are bad and Dave didn’t say much more than it’s all Labour’s fault, which presumably he now says whenever he is in doubt, though, to be fair, in this instance, the House of Commons Library shows that he is correct. Furthermore, in 2009 the Labour government announced a cap in fares for 2009, not from 2009 (h/t Joe Murphy, Evening Standard).

It was a dreadfully dull PMQs, and Edward came out of the exchanges with nothing other than an agreement with the Prime Minister about Scotland. Hardly earth shattering.

While I applaud Mr Miliband for taking two of his questions out to discuss this important issue, thereby sacrificing two further opportunities to make political capital, I’m not sure that his political opponents within his own party will see it like that. He lives to fight another day, yet his tricky start to the year continues.

Follow Jack on Twitter @BlackburnJA

Ruth Davidson’s biggest challenge is tackling Tory irrelevance

Nik Darlington 6.00am

The comedian Billy Connolly said there are two seasons in Scotland, “June and Winter”.

If that’s the case, it’s been a bloody long June. Temperatures in the high teens have made Edinburgh feel veritably toasty this weekend. Gloves and scarves remain unpacked.

And in Holyrood the heat is on for new Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson (I’m awfully sorry, typing on a phone renders you impatient and bereft of anything but the most miserable clichés).

Ms Davidson had to face the embarrassment of not being able to name a full frontbench team in time for last week’s First Minister’s Questions. Her deputy leader is decided as the defeated leadership candidate Jackson Carlaw but only after Murdo Fraser turned the job down and quit the frontbench.

Allegedly Alex Fergusson, who publicly backed Mr Fraser, also declined to serve, though the former Presiding Officer has denied the claims.

The majority of Tory MSPs supported Murdo Fraser, along with senior figures such as Sir Malcolm Rifkind, which puts young Ms Davidson in a bit of a bind. At least this is the line taken by Scotland on Sunday’s Duncan Hamilton:

"A win is a win, but let’s be clear: 47 per cent of the Tory party was prepared to sign up to effectively packing up and starting again. That is remarkable. Add into that mix the fact that most MSPs backed Fraser, that some donors are openly questioning their continued commitment and that the new leader struggled for several days to put together a frontbench team because her colleagues refused to take the positions offered, and a picture emerges of an unsustainable political entity."

Mr Hamilton is wrong on that score. Ms Davidson’s leadership is not unsustainable. Colleagues will come into line, not least because a strong perception exists that a number of MSPs actually regret playing their hand too early and supporting Mr Fraser.

But where Mr Hamilton has a valid point is in praising Murdo Fraser’s “candour and honesty”, which set alight a political leadership campaign that most Scots wouldn’t naturally give the time of day.

For a couple of months, the Tories were the talk of the Scottish media. No one had the slightest idea who the Labour party candidates were, even Edward Miliband.

Now that the contest is over, to many people it’s just the same “bloody Tories”. Even the fact that the winner is a young lesbian kickboxer couldn’t excite people for long. The talk is still about Murdo Fraser.

Duncan Hamilton says he can “sit tight” because “many don’t believe that the new leader will be there for long”. Or he can “leave the Tories now and start a new party” with the “bulk of MSPs and some serious donors”.

Except there is not a shred of credible evidence to support either of those claims. The only thing of note offered by an otherwise insight-free article in the newspaper’s ‘Insight’ section is this: after a summer in the spotlight, Ruth Davidson’s biggest challenge is to prove that the Scottish Tories are not irrelevant. That means taking on the SNP in the area they are strongest - standing up for Scotland. And in policy terms that means redrawing that line in the sand that Ms Davidson calls the Scotland Bill.

Craig Barrett’s open letter to Ruth Davidson

Craig Barrett 6.00am

Dear Ruth,
 
First, congratulations on an excellent campaign and a notable victory.

As you may know, I publicly backed you during the leadership campaign and my reasons for this are set out here.

Yet it is clear that to some extent my support was more based on the opinions of your other supporters, rather than what I knew about you.
 
That could be your biggest advantage. However, as you now set out to define yourself and our party, I have some thoughts that I hope you will consider:
 
1. MSPs - Murdo Fraser managed to win the support of more than half of the Holyrood Party. That, combined with being a relative newcomer to Holyrood, means that your first task must be to ensure your MSPs are all on side. The secret weapon of the Conservative party is unity and we are all looking to you to take the fight to Mr Salmond and not to leave any unresolved issues within the grouping. I’m also sorry to say that some of our MSPs appear tired and complacent, relying on the list system to keep them in employment without any apparent desire for electoral success.
 
2. Councillors - I always view councillors as being front-line soldiers. Not only do they have the most contact with the electorate (thus being a much better barometer than parliamentarians), they are the ones who have the most to win or lose in terms of electoral fortunes without the ability to control national perceptions. It is no coincidence that poor parliamentary electoral performances for parties tend to come shortly after disasters at the local level. Next year’s council campaign is central to regenerating the party at both Holyrood and Westminster.
 
3. Party faithful - as the first leader elected by the whole membership, your decision to visit every constituency was a sensible and shrewd one.  If you have the energy, keep doing it.  We have a loyal but dwindling band of activists but they will be galvanised if they feel loved.
 
4. Party organisation - I genuinely believe that the party machine in Edinburgh is tired, lacks drive and lacks experience. You must appeal directly to CCHQ in London for much-needed funds but also for much-needed talent. Aspiring politicos should be offered the chance to be seconded to Edinburgh to earn their spurs in our campaigns. Whereas in London we are only fighting Labour, you have to fight Labour, the SNP and the LibDems - that is a wholly different type of campaign but my suggestion will ensure that campaigners are “blooded” must faster and harder than they would be south of the border. More campaign experience benefits the whole party so it’s not entirely one-sided. David Cameron is not, as you rightly protest, your “boss”, but don’t be afraid of asking London for help or for seeming to be dependant - we are all in this together, to coin a phrase, and sensibly remaining a united party means that we can share skills and support.  
 
5. Westminster - use the fact that we are in Government to your advantage. Highlight success. Insist that Ministers visit Scotland to ensure that the Scottish people are reminded that not everything flows from Mr Salmond. I don’t just mean those ministers who happen to be Scottish - it should be all of them, to emphasise the Union. It will also cut Mr Salmond down to size as, for too long, politicians appear to have been afraid of coming to Scotland. This has allowed him to stress divisions. If I were you, my first invitation would be to Eric Pickles, to talk campaign tactics, and my second would be to the Prime Minister, to make him agree to regular visits. He is the Prime Minister of Scotland too, after all.
 
6. Party Chairman - this is a key appointment because it needs to combine the skills of a Chief Executive with the verbal dexterity of a TV interviewer. The Chairman needs to be able to electrify Scottish HQ as well as to sell our position to the media. Nominate a unifying, heavyweight figure that the public can identify with. Do so, and create a formidable pairing.
 
It is trite (and arrogant) to suggest that Scotland is full of areas which should really have voted Tory; but it’s very clear that Scotland is full of people who are instinctively ‘conservative’.  That being said, you must re-affirm the idea that there are no untouchable areas for us in Scotland.  As a Glasgow MSP, you have a unique platform in this regard.
 
It is depressing to think that without Scotland there would have been a Conservative party majority at Westminster.  Much of Scotland simply doesn’t seem to understand the advantages that Conservative government can bring.  Partly this is a result of Gordon Brown’s epic expansion of welfare spending in Scotland; partly it is a result of a perception that we as a party don’t care about Scotland. That perhaps the Tories are merely a party for the English.
 
The irony that ours is the only party proud enough of its Unionist credentials to include the word in its name ought not to be lost on you.  Perhaps it is time to start reminding Scotland that patriotism doesn’t mean that you have to vote for the SNP.
 
I wish you every success in the months and years to come and I will be watching with interest, as well as trying to do my best to assist.
 
Yours sincerely,

Craig Barrett

Twitter @MrSteedUK