An extended version of a speech and Herald interview with David Mundell, Shadow Scottish Secretary
Sometime over the next few weeks in an anonymous Whitehall room in London a Conservative vision for Scotland will be mapped out in detail.
Suma Chakrabarti, the Permanent Secretary at the UK Justice Department, will meet with David Mundell, the Shadow Scottish Secretary and Francis Maude the Shadow Cabinet minister charged with implementing the Tory plan for government.
Formal talks between opposition parties and civil servants are part of the normal course of events in the run up to an election but this time around the Conservatives plan a step change in the relationship between Westminster and Scotland.
David Cameron has no intention of being the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He may well gain office as momentum for an independence referendum is gaining traction in Scotland. If he does win next year even the best bookies still guess that the Conservatives will have only have a handful of seats in Scotland.
Mindful that they may be accused of a democratic deficit Cameron’s Tories want to lock down the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood to deny an SNP government the grievance that they are not listened to and that a Westminster majority has no legitimacy in Scotland.
In a constitutional first David Cameron, as a UK Prime Minister, will offer to address the Scottish parliament on annual basis. He has already announced that he would come to Scotland within a week of taking office to meet the First Minister but this is taking Cameron’s “respect agenda” for Scotland to a new level.
“As Prime Minister David Cameron would be happy to address the Scottish parliament annually and he would be pleased to take any questions from the Scottish parliament on any issues in relation to the British government,” said David Mundell, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, yesterday.
Similarly the Conservatives intend that Treasury Ministers and officials will be available to appear before the Scottish parliament’s Finance Committee at the time of the Pre-budget report and the budget itself.
“At the moment at budget time everyone stands up and makes assumptions about the budget and the one group of people we don’t hear from are the Treasury themselves,” says Mr Mundell, who will make a speech to the Manchester conference ahead of the leader’s appearance today (Thursday).
“We want to focus on co-operation in the national interest. This a great challenge for the Scottish government,” said Mr Mundell. “If it is serious about governing in Scotland’s interest it will respond constructively to our suggestions. It will have adult conversations to our faces not issue hysterical and increasingly unrealistic demands through the media.”
One of these “hysterical” rows is already brewing this week over whether the Conservatives would approve borrowing powers for the Scottish parliament, a Calman recommendation that Shadow Treasury Minister Phil Hammond appeared to rule out yesterday.
Part of the task for Mr Mundell and Mr Maude in their meeting with Mr Chakrabarti in the coming weeks is to map out the legislation that a Conservative Scotland Office
“We will bring forward plans to implement the Calman Commission recommendations - but only when those have been fully evaluated,” said Mr Mundell, mindful that he does not fall into the megaphone diplomacy that he condemns the SNP government of indulging in.
“David has also made it clear that we will not bring forward legislation solely for Scotland that does not command widespread report,” added Mr Mundell, in an acknowledgement that there will be no repeat of the poll tax, introduced in Scotland first to avoid an unpopular domestic rates re-evaluation.
Though the Tories intend to tread carefully in Scotland whether Holyrood accepts Mr Cameron’s offer of an annual tet a tet will be up to the Scottish parliamentary bureau. Unlike the Welsh Assembly, where the Welsh Secretary has the right to address AMs each year, no mechanism exists in Holyrood to facilitate a formal engagement between the Westminster leader and the Scottish parliament.
Of course that won’t stop the Conservatives from extending an open hand. The Tories also intend to offer a formal monthly meeting between the Scottish Secretary and the First Minister. In addition Mr Cameron is to call a council of devolved government once a year, inviting the leaders of each of the devolved assemblies and the Scottish parliament together for formal talks.
“We will conduct dialogue through appropriate channels and not just through the media,” said Mr Mundell, who thinks Alex Salmond ought to reciprocate by making his Cabinet ministers available for interview by select committees at Westminster.
“My challenge to Alex Salmond is to put his national interest before party political interest,” said Mr Mundell.