Tuesday’s Herald carried a piece implying a cooling of relations between Alex Salmond and David Cameron. This is partly an issue of spin (by Cameron if not the Herald); Cameron is trying to frame the UK general election campaign, in Scotland as in other parts of the UK, as a straight Tory v. Labour battle, so anyone fed up with Labour will be encouraged to vote Tory. This would maximise the Conservative vote, at the expense of such parties as the SNP in Scotland, and the Lib Dems elsewhere.
But there is a more particularly Scottish dimension to this, I think. There has for some time been a tendency in some circles (particularly but not only pro-SNP ones) to assume that a Conservative UK Government would be ‘generous’ to Scotland, and be more willing than Labour at Westminster has been to make the sort of deals that increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Government. Cameron’s talk of ‘respect’ for Scotland and Scottish devolution is a key part of that. The Tories are certainly more likely to be willing to agree bilateral deals with Scotland without being so concerned about their implications for other parts of the UK. But this insouciance comes at a price, or at two prices.
First, the Conservatives are actually probably more concerned about the Union as such than Labour is, partly because of its totemic place in Conservative thinking and partly because of its importance to a committedly Eurosceptic party. So an assertion of ‘Britishness’ and its commonalities on the symbolic level is to be expected – probably revolving around such symbols as the armed forces and external threats, and maybe the Pound.
Second, while the Conservative vision of the Union now seems to embrace devolution, it means devolution in what is seen as its proper place. That place is emphatically within the Union, and the quid pro quo for greater autonomy in practice may also be an assertion of the constitutional supremacy of the UK level over the devolved one. That would mean the trade-off for greater devolved powers (if the Tories do go for that – there is clearly division on the point in the party in London) would mean also the drawing of clearer lines between UK and devolved functions, so that the UK Government can do UK business without the Scottish Government creating problems for its plans, either politically or practically. Another part of that is likely to be ending the perceived financial subsidy from England to Scotland, thanks to the generosity of the present funding arrangements. From that point of view, a Conservative government at Westminster is unlikely to be simply ‘good news’ for a devolved Scottish government – of any likely complexion.