Since Camilla Cavendish makes some points in her Times column today that are similar to some I made about David Miliband's leadership challenge yesterday, I obviously think she's written a fine, penetrating piece. As she says,
In policy terms, it is the Conservatives who have so far seemed optimistic about the ability of people to make decisions for themselves, and Labour that has made devolving power to a few hospitals and headteachers look like an am-dram production, involving more histrionics and agonising than Racine. The irony is that where it has devolved most power - to Scotland and Wales - it has let nationalists hollow out its core vote.
This last point - about devolution - is not quite right. I was discussing this with my father the other night, as we recalled that it's often forgotten that the Tories were devolutionists before Labour were converted to the idea of Home Rule. Now, of course, the Conservatives retreated from Ted Heath's Declaration of Perth while Labour slowly - very slowly in fact, once you remember that the 1979 referendum was effectively killed by a Labour amendment - moved in the opposite direction.
But Labour moved, not because it wanted to do anything in Scotland but because it wanted to stop things from happening. Labour's support for devolution was essentially negative: a parliament in Edinburgh would spike the nationalists' guns and, just as importantly, protect Scotland from the supposed ravages of Thatcherism. In that respect, Labour stood athwart the constitution and yelled "stop". Out of power at Westminster and menaced by nationalist snipers, the Scottish Labour party cut itself off from its allies south of the border (presuming, arrogantly, that the English had no say or interest in constitutional matters) and retreated into its compound with no clear idea of what it wanted to do in power but very firm convictions as to what it was against.
This being the case, it's hardly a surprise that the party's performance in power proved so disappointing. (Not helped, of course, by the fact that most of Labour's A-List talent resided at Westminster not Holyrood). Labour seemed more interested in office for the sake of office. Power predicated on a negative programme for government can only be sustained for so long before the voters lose patience. And that is exactly what has happened.
The Tories, of course, were slow to realise that, no matter how much they disliked the idea, devolution was here to stay. But localism and subsidiarity should be Tory principles, leaving the door open for a revival of centre-right politics in Scotland. They blew that opportunity, of course, leaving the door open for the SNP to advance.
Then again, as I've written before, outside the constitutional question, there was an opportunity for the Tories to form a de facto alliance with the nationalists that could have, if they had been bolder or more imaginative, revived centre-right politics in Scotland while also limiting the nationalists room for manoevre. But it wasn't to be, though of course it may yet come to pass in the future. At some point conservatives in Scotland may have to ask whether the Union is more important to them than a centre-right revival. That's a matter for another day, however...