In Scotland, Labour flounders as the centre right rises

In a damaging move for its future prospects in Scotland, Labour has vacated the main battleground from which it should have been able to rebuild support: devolution.

Ed Miliband speaks to the Scottish Labour Conference in Perth in March 2014. Photo: Getty
“With the lonely exception of Alistair Darling. . .the Scottish Labour Party often seems lost.” Photo: Getty

The phrase “The Scottish Tories are having a good campaign” was one that could not have been written – other than in jest – for two decades. The party had been in the doldrums in Scotland since it was wiped out in the Blair tidal wave of 1997: irrelevant, ignored, unloved. But no more. In the campaign to save the Union, the Conservatives are on the right side of the argument. They are confident and comfortable in their unionism and have had important and distinctive things to say. In Ruth Davidson, they have a young, dynamic leader who is quietly building a powerful team around her, attracting new people into the party.

At the same time, under the intense scrutiny that has accompanied the coming referendum, we are learning more about what Scots really think. It turns out that the country is far from a repressed social democracy held back by the English yoke, as imagined by Caledonia’s dreamers, and that Scottish so ial attitudes are not so different from those south of the border. One poll in May found that over 68 per cent of Scots favour stricter controls on immigration, that 49 per cent favour leaving
the EU or are “neutral” about doing so and that 62 per cent support making benefits available only to those who have lived in Scotland for more than five years.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised by the election of Scotland’s first Ukip MEP, David Coburn, in the European elections in May. With polling evidence such as this, there is no reason to think that parties of the centre right could not thrive in Scotland.

By contrast – with the lonely exception of Alistair Darling, who has exuded a calm authority even through the rockiest moments of the campaign – the Scottish Labour Party often seems lost. It is in denial about the scale of its defeat to the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish election and in torment about how or, in some quarters, even whether to fight for a No vote in September’s referendum. This was exemplified by Margaret Curran, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, who, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time, could offer as a reason for voting No to independence little else than that no one hates the Tories more than she does.

Labour’s job in the independence referendum campaign is to get people voting. That is why the battle bus and soapbox of the party’s East Renfrewshire MP, Jim Murphy, are important and it is why old-school figures such as Frank Roy have been brought in to direct the ground campaign at Better Together HQ. Yet Labour has left it to others to do the thinking as to why we should vote No.

More damaging to its future prospects in Scotland, it has vacated the main battleground from which it should have been able to rebuild support: devolution. Devolution is overwhelmingly popular in Scotland and it was Labour that delivered it. Yet it became clear long before Alex Salmond’s electoral success in 2007 that,
having delivered the Scottish Parliament, Labour had no idea what to do with it. It is as if devolution was entirely instrumental: either to “kill nationalism stone dead”, as George Robertson, the former Nato secretary general, fatuously declared, or to protect Scotland from the worst misdeeds of Tory rule. (“What about the bedroom tax?” the SNP retorts.) Its instrumental worth having crashed, what is devolution for?

This is the question on which Scottish Labour has foundered: it does not know the answer. The Scottish Tories, on the other hand, have finally realised that devolution will not go away. So why not try to make it work? Fortune is smiling on them because how you make devolution work if you are on the centre right aligns perfectly with what Scots say they now want when it comes to “more powers for Holyrood”. With the Scottish Parliament budget approaching £36bn, the share of public expenditure for which it is responsible is on a par with the German Länder. But even after the fiscal provisions of the Scotland Act 2012 come fully into force in 2016, Holyrood will be responsible for raising only a fraction of its budget.

Scots say they want taxation to be controlled by Holyrood as well as by Westminster. The Tories have seen that if you want to move the conversation in Scotland from “What shall we spend it on now?” to “How do we act responsibly?” you need a parliament with its own tax-raising powers. There is little point being a tax-cutting politician in a parliament with no tax powers. Labour gave birth to devolution but the Conservatives are best placed to nurture it to maturity.

Adam Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow