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Governing from afar

Brian Taylor | 12:04 UK time, Wednesday, 1 October 2008

A little light relief today from the grim economic news. Let's consider the future of a once great (OK, moderate) office of state, that of Scottish secretary.

If faintly discomfited with the notion of stepping aside momentarily from the topic of finance, I can comfort myself with the thought that I posted on the economy yesterday.

The early responses dealt with . . . Belgian federalism and conspiracy theorising. What are you guys like?

To Scotland then - and talk on the Tory fringes here in Birmingham.

Firstly, they say they would retain the post of Scottish secretary. Perhaps combined with another office of state, such as transport - but not combined with Wales and Northern Ireland in a department for the territories.

Specifically, if Labour combines liaison with the three devolved governments into a single post, the Tories will shadow that at Westminster - but would restore distinct representation, if returned to power.

For why? For the same reason that the Scotland Office, once near moribund, has found itself somewhat reinvigorated by the election of an SNP government.

Scottish 'ambassador'

The UK Government, of whatever colour, wants to keep a close and constant eye on Edinburgh.

That may not be particularly elevated statespersonship. It may contain partisan elements which should play little role in public funding. However, it's a fact.

The office of Scottish secretary now partly resembles that of an ambassador, scrutinising the SNP government and reporting back.

Equally, there is a role in advocating Scottish interests within the UK Cabinet, particularly on reserved matters like taxation, welfare and defence.

But how could the Tories govern Scotland? They currently have just one MP north of the Border, David Mundell. They might gain one or two seats.

Their absolute best hope is a handful. A lower figure is more likely.

So how to govern? The answer is: they won't, at least not in those areas devolved to Holyrood.

Respect parliament

Ironically, devolution - which they opposed - saves them from the impossible prospect of attempting to impose a domestic agenda upon Scotland with, perhaps, a single Scottish seat.

So they seek, inevitably, to make a virtue out of their continuing relative weakness in Scotland.

They say they will respect the right of the Scottish Government and parliament to control the domestic, devolved agenda.

Specifically, they will not invoke the powers contained in the Scotland Act to legislate from Westminster over the heads of Holyrood.

Big deal, I hear you say. What else could they do, given relative electoral strength and the pre-existence of a devolved parliament?

Well, yes, that's true. But bear in mind history and instinct here. Some Tories are tempted to say: let Scotland go hang, focus on England, focus on "English votes for English issues".

David Cameron is deliberately cooling such thoughts. He is playing down angst over West Lothian.

His team are backing Calman Commission reform - but privately playing down the notion this might be dramatic: for example, I hear Tories backing assigned tax revenues for Scotland but not big new powers to vary that taxation.

Which leaves the deal on offer as this: a Tory UK Government would respect the right of the Scottish Government to control the Scottish domestic agenda.

In return, they would demand respect for their own right to govern Scotland in reserved areas.


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