To preserve the Union, we need greater separation – not divorce

With Scotland's Parliamentary election looming on May 5th, Conservatives must take advantage of localism to maintain the Union

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Inside the Scottish Parliament
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Ewan Watt
On 26 April 2011 14:13

It wouldn’t be too difficult to pick out the UK Labour party's economic mismanagement as their most devastating legacy to the British people.  However, if the British public were not so used to the disastrous state of Britain, the unanswered questions surrounding the integrity of the Union would be pretty high up the list as well.

As we have seen over the last couple of weeks on The Commentator, arguments continue over Labour’s devolution reforms in 1998 – especially when they pertain to Scotland.  Scotland’s continued influence on exclusively English affairs has built resentment south of the border and coupled with free prescriptions and university tuition it’s not hard to see why. 

But that being said, although it’s pretty easy to find critics of the devolution settlement, as well as Scotland’s bloated public sector, any real discussions surrounding the future of the Union appears have gone wanting.  Sure, those of us on the right want smaller government in Scotland and would prefer to see greater creativity and innovation in the private sector.  And yet, it would appear that through preserving the Union in its current form actually prevents this from happening.

Although I’m all for cutting – no, slashing – the size of the state, London’s role as both the political and economic hub of the United Kingdom makes it simply unrealistic that Scotland will suddenly transform itself into a bastion of private enterprise if Westminster decided to roll back the state – especially when you can take a short ferry to a 12.5% corporation tax rate.  Thus, if we really want to see less reliance on the state in Scotland, representatives from all parties must take a stand for further radical change.

Unionism in its current form is simply tired, rudderless.  It goes without saying that devolution, rather than halting nationalism, has provided separation with an additional electoral opportunity.  But unlike the other parties, the SNP have been able to convey “that vision thing” to the electorate.  No matter how ludicrous or opportunistic, the SNP’s support for independence and the “what could be” utopia is something that a plurality of the electorate understands and, by the sound of it, will endorse. 

The other parties have simply fallen short because they have failed to answer the fundamental question:  why do we need the Union and what has it done for us?  The interesting thing here is that the Scottish Conservatives are actually best placed ideologically to capitalize.

It’s often highlighted that only half a century ago conservatism dominated in Scotland.  Those that make this remark do so often under the presumption that their friends in the north embraced the very same ideology that saw the ascendency and thumping victories enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher.  Simply put, this is ludicrous.

Scottish conservatism triumphed primarily because it was fiercely nationalistic.  The Unionist-National Liberal alliance was synonymous with the Kirk and its constitutional role as the Church of Scotland.  The Union – and the threat of the red (one might also include Catholic) menace – provided safe harbor for Presbyterianism, and thus a robust showing at the polls for conservatism.  However, with time and secularism, conservatism has had no home in Scotland, and fundamentally, failed to renew itself.

Which is where the opportunity lies. 

If Conservatives are serious about staying competitive in Scotland (and some are not), the party needs a radical ideological overhaul in its stance towards the Union.  Without this shift, Conservatives will simply continue to moan about Scotland’s preferential treatment without offering any serious policy solutions.

For instance, at present, the SNP are the only party with a real policy towards business, proposing a radical cut in Scotland’s corporation tax.  The Scottish Conservatives should too embrace this.  The second is complete fiscal autonomy from London.  If people continue to whine from the bleachers about Scotland’s Sovietised state sector, then surely we should let Holyrood have ownership over its own sins? 

It should really come as no surprise that when the SNP’s critics continue to complain about the “deal” that Scotland gets, Salmond et al so easily outmaneuver them.  It’s become sorely predictable.  For rather than putting up a robust defense of the Union and why its preservation is so integral to the aspirations of the Scottish people, the SNP’s opponents are really doing the exact opposite, displaying how stale it’s becoming and really offering very few reasons why it matters.   

Scotland’s devolution settlement – which should have consulted English voters as well – has created such turmoil within the Union that without acting, the marriage itself is in peril.  For the greater threat to Union may not be Scotland’s decision to leave, but the deep seated resentment emanating from England. 

Freeing Scotland to make its own decisions on fiscal issues obviously creates a greater fissure between Edinburgh and London, but may be the only opportunity to prevent total divorce. 

Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based public affairs consultant.  He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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