It’s been a pretty terrible fortnight for the Liberal Democrats: seats lost in Europe, seats lost in the UK and party in-fighting. It’s not all bad though: Liberal Democrat members can console themselves with the prospect of a long-cherished policy actually becoming law – all thanks to the Conservatives.
The Scottish Conservative plans for devolving more power to the Parliament in Edinburgh, including over the setting of income-tax rates, are radical. This is particularly the case given that the Conservatives have been sceptical over the merits of limited devolution, never mind the extended powers for Holyrood that Ruth Davidson MSP, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives (Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, to be precise) outlined this week.
More remarkably, these proposals came with the blessing of David Cameron and with barely a hint of opposition from a party that is partly defined by its suspicion of most constitutional change. This was good politics from Ms Davidson, who unveiled plans that had been formed by a commission headed by Conservative grandee Lord Strathclyde. There is symbolism in a Conservative hereditary peer thinking the Scottish Parliament should have more power and responsibility over VAT, income tax and welfare, but it is also clear that the commission had consulted widely enough for the party to have felt its voice had been heard.
The radicalism of these proposals does of course come partly because the Scottish Nationalist Party and the campaign ahead of the referendum on staying in the Union, to take place in September, have pushed debate along. Whether or not Scotland has a devolved Parliament is not up for discussion anymore (it probably hasn’t been since 1999); what this Parliament can and cannot do is the question now. With just one Scottish MP in Westminster and fifteen MSPs in Holyrood, the Scottish Conservatives don’t have much to lose.
Tucked away at the end of their paper is one of the more interesting proposals that the Conservatives have come up with: a “Committee of Parliaments and Assemblies” of the UK should meet to discuss respective powers, representation and financing, another pretty radical step forward in defining a more settled constitutional framework for the UK.
What all this starts to look like is the beginning of a federal structure, which the Liberal Democrats have been somewhat fruitlessly urging for years. This all comes with a caveat: even presuming the nationalists don’t win the independence referendum, it is unlikely that the Conservatives will be in power in Scotland any time soon. But who would have thought that they’d be so keen to help their Coalition partners out and steal one of their defining policies.