Last week’s Scottish Tory Conference virtually frothed with discussion about what they were going to do for Scotland—once their deluded countrypersons had seen the light and consigned Independence to the bin for toxic waste, come September. Ruth made a competent speech, outshining Cameron who was nonetheless in sincere mode and completely leaving a very plodding Hammond in the dust. Those people watching not already hardened Tory might have been impressed, even swayed.
My favourite was an interview from retiring MEP Struan Stevenson (not a phrase I have used often in his case) advocating complete tax devolution and leaving nothing but defence and foreign affairs to Westminster. Given that his colleagues are busy trashing the prospect of using the £UK in both countries, I don’t see how this radical “devo-max” avoids all the pitfalls Osbo et al are listing against sharing currency but perhaps he’ll blog and enlighten us. I’d certainly consider reblogging it because if he’s cracked the problems for such a radical move, then he’s also undermined the unionist arguments too.
If there’s something that underscores the bankruptcy of Tory political philosophy, it’s the selectivity with which they approach the very concept of ‘union’. While I’m sure they would dispute this, their various simultaneous positions can only be seen as coherent if seen through the prism of the Home Counties in general (the very phrase speaks volumes) and London in particular.
Let’s start with their name. “The Conservative and Unionist Party” does not refer to union with Scotland but with Ireland. This goes some way to explain their dalliance with Ulster Unionists for much of the 20th century and their dogged insistence on retaining Ulster in the UK, despite civil mayhem for decades. And, perhaps, their ongoing support for an open border with Eire, despite Tory Pavlovian paranoia on immigration and security.
But it does not explain their silence on Eire—from 1801 an integral part of the union sending MPs to Westminster, since 1922 fully independent and for all that time behaving as a much more constructive partner than their recalcitrant neighbours to the North. And after the burst of prosperity there in the 1980’s into the noughties—when Dublin built a tram system 3 times the size but half the price of Edinburgh’s—they have been suffering heart-stopping austerity to recover from a speculative property bubble. Yet they have not come, cap-in-hand, begging to be let back into this (according to Tories) robust, stable fly-wheel that is the UK. What is weirder yet: Tories have made not a peep to persuade them and so recover the lost chunk of empire so dear to them 100 years ago that they named their part in its honour.
But there is more to the British Isles than UK and Eire. Both Man and the Channel Islands enjoy a relationship eerily close to that which Scotland aspires: their borders are open; they raise their own taxes; they use the £UK freely; they are not IN the UK and send no MPs. Yet our Tories are not only supportive of this state of affairs but positively encourage it as friends who are ‘something in the city’ make millions banking ‘offshore’ in Jersey. How can such tax havens be exempt from unionist cant while Scotland is not?
We’ll leave for another (longer?) blog in which we discuss the tortured policy stances that rend the Tories over Europe, except to say that their whole argument that Scotland would prosper better folded in Nurse UK’s ample skirt pleats is reversed totally when it comes to being at the core of the 500m-and-counting market that is the EU. Illogical, captain.
Even in the simple issue of devolution Tories have been all over the place. From centuries of opposing all devolution, Heath sprung the possibility for Scotland (as an antidote to Tory decline and the coming of oil) at a conference in Perth in 1970. That led to the Kilbrandon Report and (indirectly) to the 1979 ‘40% threshold’ referendum swiz. By that time, Douglas Home and Thatcher were promising a vague ‘something better’ if Scots would only vote ‘no’. They voted ‘no’ and were rewarded with Thatcherism and the febrile 1980’s.
It might be simpler (and certainly more honest and true to their roots) if the Tories simply decried all attempt to take any power away from Westminster; their protestations at being the party of small government seem borne out by Tories having been responsible for most reductions in the Civil Service—from 3/4m in 1977 to 1/2m now. But while the odd Sir Humphrey has got his jotters, decisions continue to be centralised as control freaks like May and Gove wade into their brief with autocratic gusto. And whether on trunk roads, houses or HS2, local opinion and/or government is swept aside whenever ‘the national interest’ is cited.
This bodes ill for the English provinces. At least the other three nations have some forum in which to mount counterattacks on over-centralisation. But pity the NorthEast or Cornwall—both provinces that the Tories largely regard as inhabited by recalcitrant ne’er-do-wells who never vote Tory and are therefore lost causes. The Geordies got a sniff of an assembly back in 2004 when Two-Jags was peddling his wheeze. An Ipsos poll at the time found that three out of four people surveyed in the North East of England believed they got a worse deal from the Government than those living in London.
But Tories were dead against. And when you saw the sickly creature to be spawned—all councillors, business and the voluntary sector but none directly elected—you have some sympathy with their view. And as the first one went down in the flames of a three-to-one vote against, Labour and Lib-Dem supporters ran for cover and the idea has not been heard from since.
Which is a shame for places like Kernow (a.k.a. Cornwall), where the rudiments of an Assembly, if not a full-blooded independence movement are coming together. The complete and long-term isolation of the county from the storm-wrecked rail line at Dawlish has recently highlighted their tenuous links with the rest of England—not to mention their historical privileges.
Since the Charter of Pardon in 1508, Cornwall has enjoyed rights to its own parliament and veto over acts, statutes and laws passed by the Westminster government. These powers were granted in perpetuity and cannot lawfully be rescinded. They were confirmed as valid in British law in 1977 by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones. Mebyon Kernow was formed in 1951 and describes itself as a Centre-Left party. It now regularly fields candidates in elections to Westminster and currently has four elected councillors onto Cornwall Council.
The Tories take a jaundiced and dismissive a view of all this, much as they did towards eqwuivalent Scottish aspirations—until they had their heads handed to them by the Scottish electorate. It seems the Tories have limited scope for loyalty. Their culture is so embedded in things English that they cannot entertain any other hub in their universe; theirs was the mission in the decades of empire-building to “make the world England”; they were behind the early 19th century fashion for Scots to become “North British” that spawned a hotel and railway company of that name. Curiously, there was never any move to name anything “South British” and in this can again be seen a certain consistency of attitude.
Perhaps the reason there has never been an English National Party is that the job has been filled for a long time by a quite indefatigably single-minded Tory Party who have long proved inexorable.