The Tories put party before the Union

As the Holyrood elections get closer and closer, I have become increasingly bemused that Ruth Davidson and others have sought to claim that the Conservatives are somehow the authentic opposition to the SNP.

It jars starkly with my experience when governing alongside the Conservatives in Coalition in Whitehall for five years.

In that time, I witnessed an odd ambivalence in the Conservative Party towards Scotland: indifference one minute; confrontation the next.

My party frequently disagreed with the Conservatives on Scottish issues, which was perhaps unsurprising since the only Scots around the Coalition Cabinet table were Liberal Democrats.

Whether it was over the negotiations with the SNP on the referendum bill; the conduct of the government during the campaign; or the approach to devolution both before the campaign and in the weeks and months that followed the vote, Liberal Democrats consistently stood up for Scotland when it was of little interest to English Conservatives. Not a single senior member of the Conservative Party represented a Scottish seat.

My Lib Dem colleagues and I – in particular Michael Moore, Alistair Carmichael, Danny Alexander and Jo Swinson – had to go to great lengths to deliver real powers for Scotland.

My Lib Dem colleagues and I had to go to great lengths to deliver real powers for Scotland.

David Cameron and George Osborne are brilliant tacticians – the general election result in England is evidence of that – but sometimes they can be too cunning for their own good.

Whenever Scotland was on the agenda I saw time and time again how they sought to secure short-term political advantage before the long-term interests of Scotland and the Scottish people.

Shortly after the Holyrood elections in 2011, when the SNP won a majority and therefore the mandate to hold the independence referendum, the Conservatives wanted to push ahead with it on their terms and their timescale, sending a clear message that the UK Government, and not the Scottish Government, was in charge.

In the Conservatives’ hands, the referendum would have become a confrontation between Holyrood and a beligerent Westminster government that refused to respect their mandate or accept the need to relinquish powers in any meaningful way.

It was the Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary Michael Moore who stopped them, insisting that it was for the Scottish Government to put forward their plan and for the two governments to then work together. Michael was diligent and respectful throughout the negotiations over the referendum and made sure it would be fair, legal and decisive.

It was also Michael who oversaw what at the time was the greatest devolution of power – especially tax raising powers – to Scotland since the formation of the United Kingdom as part of the Scotland Act, something the Conservatives had previously displayed little interest in doing. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, have argued for the devolution of power and for a federal United Kingdom for decades.

And don’t be fooled by what has happened since the election: the new Scotland Act was drafted by Liberal Democrats in the Scotland Office before the election, based on the cross party work of the Smith Commission.

the new Scotland Act was drafted by Liberal Democrats in the Scotland Office before the election, based on the cross party work of the Smith Commission.

During the referendum campaign itself, it was Danny Alexander who co-ordinated the Government’s efforts. In particular, he did a huge deal to expose the weakness of the SNP’s economic case and to encourage businesses to speak out about the impact independence would have on them and their employees.

It was the morning after the referendum when the mask really slipped. As the result became clear, David Cameron and George Osborne’s first reaction was to genuflect to their English backbenchers and antagonise Scottish voters by turning the debate immediately towards the divisive issue of ‘English Votes for English Laws’.

In doing so they gave the SNP the grounds to cry foul and helped to foster a sense of grievance among some English voters that the Conservatives would harness very successfully at the subsequent general election with their spine chilling warnings of what would happen if a weak Labour government was pushed around by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

Once again it was the Liberal Democrats who stood up for Scotland.

We vetoed their plans for a government commission on English Votes for English Laws and instead insisted that any commission should be cross-party and look at all aspects of devolution, not just the divisive issue of votes in Parliament. And it was the Liberal Democrats who insisted that the ‘Devo Max’ reforms that we, the Conservatives and Labour had promised in the vow made shortly before the referendum would go ahead with no strings attached, instead of making them contingent on English votes as the Conservatives initially wanted.

On the afternoon of the referendum itself, I told David Cameron that while I understood he had some restive English MPs on his backbenches whom he had to deal with, big constitutional changes should be made on a cross-party basis, not just to suit the political needs of one party.

I was dismayed at the prospect that the politics of grievance in Scotland, exploited mercilessly by the Scottish Nationalists, could so quickly be supplemented by the politics of grievance in England, exploited mercilessly by the Conservatives.

Far from opposing the SNP, the Conservative party has alighted on the SNP as the perfect whipping boy to stir up their English voters, just as the SNP have always used the Conservatives to whip up their own voters in Scotland. The SNP and the Conservatives, whatever they might say about each other, now have a strong interest in talking each other up, not down.

The attitude I repeatedly found myself coming up against from senior Conservatives was that the politics of Scotland were ‘Labour’s problem’, not theirs. In fact, a situation where the SNP rules the roost in Scotland suits them just fine as it makes it virtually impossible for Labour to win a majority at a general election.

So don’t buy Ruth Davidson’s nonsense about the Conservatives being the real opposition in Scotland.Time and time again the Tories have put their own interests before those of the Scottish people.


This article originally appeared in the Times on April 29th.

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