Skip to main content

In Scotland, we are no strangers to constitutional referenda.

Two in as many years, with the threat of a third still lingering, albeit much more weakly of late. This has made Scotland one of the most politically engaged societies in the world.

However, the referendum that awoke Scotland’s political clout is often forgotten. In almost a mirror image of what would come on IndyRef results night 2014, in 1997 Clackmannanshire was the first area to declare if Scotland should have a parliament, and if that parliament should have tax raising powers.

Seventy-five percent of Scots backed the creation of a Scottish Parliament. Sixty-three percent wanted tax raising powers.

In 1997, the Scottish Conservatives were the only major party against devolution, and found themselves on the wrong side of the argument. The party misread the political climate; to many it seemed that the Tories had no faith in their own country, and were rightly punished for it.

The Scottish Conservatives of that era are far cry from today’s party, travelling on a journey from devo-sceptics to devo-champions.

Immediately after the 1997 result the Party set about pushing forward with the will of the Scottish people, but remained cautious. Ruth Davidson stated in her leadership bid in 2011 that the transfer of more powers to Holyrood was “a line in the sand”. Why? Because Davidson recognised that Holyrood elections had become a battle over how to spend the same pool of money, and that was a battle Tories could never win. By giving the parliament more teeth in the form of revenue-raising powers, the Party could provide a unique centre-right offer to the electorate.

A year later, the independence referendum was the ultimate test of our belief in more powers for Scotland. In stark contrast to 1997, we stood on a cross-party platform, that would not only keep Scotland in the United Kingdom but also devolve huge swathes of powers to Edinburgh.

The Smith Commission, set up following the ‘No’ vote to fulfil the famous ‘Vow’, adopted the Scottish Conservatives’ proposals for further devolution set out in the Strathclyde Commission. And, importantly, it would be the Conservative Government in Westminster that would legislate for these new powers in the 2016 Scotland Act.

Already responsible for areas such as health and social care, education, transport, the environment and housing, new powers over social security, income tax and VAT receipts were added to Holyrood’s remit.

It is no coincidence that the Scottish Conservatives’ positioning as the champions of devolution, and for a strong settlement for Scotland within the UK, coincided with an elevation to the official opposition in Holyrood.

By embracing devolution, the Scottish Conservatives gained room to make different decisions. The party has a standalone policy unit in Edinburgh, and election campaigns are run entirely from north of the border. On issues ranging from grammar schools, to prescription charges to social care, Scottish Conservatism treads a distinctive path.

How ironic that, after 20 years, the roles of the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives on devolution have reversed. The Scottish Conservatives, championing devolution from the UK and from Brussels, wanted to create the most powerful devolved assembly in the world.

But the Scottish Government, after arguing for more social security powers, was granted them, then asked for their transfer to be delayed. Rather than maximising Holyrood’s powers to improve and reform public services, they are left to stagnate and wither, as the SNP focuses on its only priority – independence. As the UK Government works to get the best Brexit deal for the nation, the Scottish Government seeks to twist it into an excuse for another divisive referendum.

While the SNP not only doesn’t want to use the powers it already has, it wants to hand back all the powers it will gain straight back to Brussels.

The problem which Scotland faces is not how many powers Holyrood has, but how they are used. It is not a new settlement that is needed, but a government that is willing to maximise the potential of the current one in the best interests of the Scottish people.

In 2021, Scotland will have the opportunity to elect a Scottish Conservative Government, led by Ruth Davidson, championing a modern, inclusive, open, dynamic programme of One Nation Conservatism to do just that.

Paul Masterton is the MP for East Renfrewshire. This is an article from Bright Blue’s latest magazine ‘Capitalism in crisis?