As published in the Mail on Sunday, Scottish edition:
A leading English Tory makes a heartfelt plea to Scots voters
Scotland will soon decide whether the most productive union in history will come to an end. As an Englishman married by a Church of Scotland minister to a Scottish-born wife, I would feel more than political pain at such a schism.
It has been 15 years since the first meeting of the Scottish parliament. Many warned at the time that limited devolution for Scotland would only lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom. The Scottish independence referendum is now only a few months away and, with those advocating independence rallying in the polls, there is a risk that such predictions may become prophetic.
I argued during its introduction that the Scotland Act of 1998, which set up the Scottish parliament, would lead to friction between London and Edinburgh. But I argued not that we should stop it, but that we should treat the devolution of financial power more seriously.
Control of a nation’s finances is core to its governance. By giving the Scottish Government spending powers without also giving it the right to raise it own revenue; we sowed the seeds of conflict.
As chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, it was easy to show that fiscal responsibility could be passed to Scotland without creating a single new tax or increasing an old one. Of course, that did not happen. But this is not about seeking to fix the blame for the past. It is about accepting responsibility for the future. The block grant has allowed Scottish politicians to offer their voters free prescriptions, generous student grants and zero tuition fees. It is perfectly proper for the Scottish parliament to initiate such policies, but to make that possible without creating friction between the nations, it should have been based on the Scottish parliament’s own tax base. It is now clear that devolution did not go far enough and, as with all half measures, the problem has been exacerbated. Now the whole Union is under threat. For those who believe that the UK is not only a beacon of democracy and domestic harmony, but also a powerful force for good throughout the world, now is the time to put forward the real philosophical arguments for the Union. Scotland and the rest of the UK have sailed the currents of history together for 300 years. British soldiers have fought shoulder to shoulder for three centuries against our enemies, defending the UK and the world from those who would do evil.
We have a shared culture, shared bloodlines, a common language and a noble tradition of parliamentary democracy. We are also in an enviable position today. Our influence and reputation are greater than any nation of 60 million has a right to expect. Britain has always exerted considerable clout far beyond our own borders.
The UK has the world’s sixth largest economy and fourth largest military budget. We are members of the G7, G8 and G20. We sit as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and belong to Nato, the OECD , the Commonwealth and the World Trade Organisation. And why is this? Because of the joint genius of all the nations of our Union. The rest of the UK needs to be honest about Scotland’s cultural, economic and military contribution.
Like Britain to the world, Scotland has contributed far more to the Union that its size would warrant. Robert Burns is still celebrated worldwide. Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan and Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle have shaped generations and are more widely read today than ever before.
Adam Smith is the father of modern economics. The inventions of James Watt, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird changed the world.
David Livingstone is Africa’s most celebrated explorer. Field Marshal Douglas Haig commanded the British forces in the Great War.
But every aspect of modern Britain has been shaped, in some way, by every one of its constituent nations, not least, but not only, by Scotland. All the nations in the Union have made significant contributions. It is greater than the sum of its parts. Our history is a shared history. Our best future is a shared future.
Looking to our future, we need to consider the position of the UK after the referendum. If the vote is No, as I hope it will be, it is clear that the current position of limited devolution is untenable. There is no reason why Scotland shouldn’t have full control of taxation and spending. Full fiscal freedom for Scotland would be better for Scotland, as it would mean greater democratic control; and better for the UK, as there would be fewer sources of conflict.
The move towards increased localism and stronger democratic control is something the UK Government should be actively pursuing. After all, the Coalition Agreement explicitly states ‘the Government believes that it is time for a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people’ and ‘the Government will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government’.
This approach is not without its hurdles. Reform of Westminster and attempts to devolve power always meet resistance. But a constitutional restructuring of the UK is long overdue. Alex Salmond has, at least, begun this crucial debate.
The other option, Scotland leaving the UK, would be heartbreaking. Despite the practical difficulties of separation, the economic consequences to both parties of separation and the inevitable lessening of our global position and security, it would be the end of the most auspicious union in history. Both sides would lose.
This is not a problem of Scotland’s making; and Scotland’s desire for greater freedom to express itself is understandable, perhaps even laudable.
But we could be on the brink of turning our backs on our joint history. The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten. We are sister nations, bound together, but suffering from the narcissism of small differences. To divide now would be a diminution of both our great nations.