By James Mitchell, Chair in Public Policy,
Coalition with the Liberal Democrats has proved particularly helpful to the Conservatives in Scotland. In 2010, the Tories would have had to appoint their only Scottish MP to the post of Secretary of State for Scotland or provoke a predictable outcry by either abandoning the post as a separate entity or appointing someone from outside Scotland. The Scotland Office describes its remit as, ‘We ensure the smooth working of the devolution settlement in Scotland. We represent Scottish interests within the UK government and we represent the UK government in Scotland.’ This has been a controversial remit since devolution with some turf wars, especially between John Reid at the Scotland Office, and Donald Dewar as First Minister for Scotland. When the SNP came to office in Holyrood in 2007, successive Labour Scottish Secretaries were criticised by opponents for using the office as a platform in party political battleground.
With 11 of Scotland’s 59 MPs and having served in coalition with Labour in the Scottish Parliament from 1999-2007, the Liberal Democrats were a useful detoxifying agent for the Tories north of the border. Mr Cameron essentially devolved responsibility for Scotland in Whitehall to the Liberal Democrats. Danny Alexander was appointed Scottish Secretary. Mr Alexander was a well-known figure in Westminster at the time but hardly known in Scotland outside his Highland constituency. He replaced David Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after the latter’s resignation. He was replaced at the Scotland Office by long-time rival in the small world of Scottish Liberal Democrat politics by Michael Moore.
The return of the Scottish National Party with an overall majority in Holyrood raised the Scottish Question up Whitehall’s agenda. Mr Moore’s style has been described as a ‘bit too chillaxed’, by Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, reflecting a common view that a more combative style was needed in the year running up to Scotland’s independence referendum. Alistair Carmichael’s appointment is expected to mark a shift towards a more aggressive style of campaigning from the Scotland Office to match that adopted by the Better Together campaign group on the ground in Scotland.
In 2010, Alistair Carmichael, the new Scottish Secretary, told Holyrood magazine that there would be no Scotland Office if his party got into power. It would be replaced by a Department of the Nations and Regions, ‘I think there is a job to be done but having the Scotland Office is not the right way to do it because it should be the clearing house between government in Edinburgh and government in London but now it is just a focal point for conflict.’ He now finds himself holding an office he recently argued should be abolished with the task of leading the attack from London on the SNP and its goal of independence.
Professor Mitchell originally contributed these thoughts to an LSE blog on the government reshuffle, which can be found here. We gratefully acknowledge their permission to republish.