The pro-Union wheels are starting to turn in Scotland. But they could still come off the bus

Not before time, the wheels may be turning at last in the creaking pro-union machine  to craft an effective reply to the SNP’s delivery vehicle for Scottish independence.  The leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson has done a U-turn  (£) to explore the idea of more and greater taxation powers for Holyrood.  I wonder if  The Herald’s editorial  is right, that this is as much a problem as an opportunity for Ms Davidson?

The problem for the Tory leader is that the position she now espouses so passionately is diametrically opposed to that on which she stood for the leadership.

At least it sounds a new constructive note in the mainly negative opposition to independence so far. The Scotsman’s write-up  is more positive. A Tory working group is being set up under Lord Strathclyde an undoubted Scot but also one of the shrewdest Westminster operators around, as a former long serving Tory leader in the House of Lords in government and opposition.  This amounts to discreet London involvement by a Scottish back door.

The move has the blessing of the Prime Minister, Ms Davidson revealed in Edinburgh today. Former Scotland Office minister Lord Strathclyde will head up the new working group which will also include former Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie and ex-Holyrood Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson.

The prospect of more tax raising powers – which Ms Davidson backs – will be on the agenda, but it will also cover other areas such as welfare reform.

And the creation of a Scottish National Convention, which could provide a platform for all the pro-union parties to formulate their plans for more devolution, was also backed by Ms Davidson. The body is the brainchild of Labour MP Douglas Alexander and Ms Davidson said the the Tories “must have a voice” after boycotting the last constitutional convention which led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the 1990s.

I would guess that Ms Davidson’s U turn will do her little harm. The Conservatives have precious little support as it is. Her initiative has the virtue of  facing up to the fact that “ devo more “ is the current Scottish preference over independence- if only it can be given shape and substance. I see that Alan Trench will be advising the Conservative working group as he has advised other parties impartially – a good move there.

The Strathclyde  group should seize the chance to  try to say something definitive on whether Scots would be better off with independence, or “devo more” powers at the cost of a reduced bloc grant from Westminster, over and above the Calman proposals which are due to be implemented in 2015, assuming a No vote on independence.

Alan Cochrane, the ultra- unionist Telegraph correspondent is cool on the idea but can hardly afford to denounce it outright.

The problem with (Strathclyde’s) approach, at least as far as many of her Tory opponents are concerned, is that it will be seen as offering a handsome consolation prize to Alex Salmond in advance of what Unionists hope is his defeat in the referendum especially, as seems likely, the other Unionist parties also offer up some “Danegeld” to the SNP.

Greater taxation powers for Scotland could ease pressure on David Cameron in England over the West Lothian question. And it seizes an initiative from Labour whose “Scottish National Convention” is to operate only after the independence referendum. Surely the political logic requires bringing it on as soon as possible to try to arrive at a common unionist alternative to independence?

The McKay Commission has just returned an answer to the West Lothian Question for England, which so far has attracted almost zilch coverage so far.

The McKay commission suggests the answer to the question should mean that laws affecting England alone are no longer passed in the Commons without the consent of a majority of English MPs.

That consent could be gauged during early stages of the legislative process; non-English MPs would still be allowed to take part in final votes on laws affecting England after a majority of English MPs had given their consent.

This formula could pose bigger problems for Labour than the Conservatives if they won a small majority, relying on Scottish and Welsh seats to form a government but unable to vote on key English measures. The alternative is to let the hare sit, as  it’s often difficult to unpick what are exclusively English measures and it is English measures which often crucially affect the shape of and expenditure on measures in Scotland,  Wales and Northern Ireland.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London