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Davidson makes a devolution U-turn

As befits Burns Day, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson opened her speech yesterday with some lines from the bard: "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us."

Since winning the leadership in November 2011, she has had to learn that lesson the hard way. In that contest she beat Murdo Fraser, the favourite for the job, after he proposed reforming the party in Scotland under a different name and disposing of what was widely viewed as a "toxic brand" since the Thatcher era. Ms Davidson vowed to stick with the old name. On the constitution, she spoke of drawing "a line in the sand" and said she opposed the devolution of any further powers from Westminster. That was the platform on which she was elected.

Yesterday the Scottish Tory leader exercised as neat a 180-degree turn as she has ever demonstrated in her favoured sport of kickboxing. Mr Fraser can be forgiven for his mischievous tweet, suggesting it was a speech he could have written himself. Belatedly, it seems, Ms Davidson has realised it was not the marketing and communication of the Tories' message that was at fault but the message itself.

The uncomfortable truth she has been forced to confront is that the people of Scotland may not overwhelmingly back independence but they do want a stronger voice. A party that almost always argued against more powers for Scotland was seen as "London's party in Scotland". As a result too many Scots "simply don't trust our motives", she admitted, opening the way to the possibility of a new constitutional convention, should Scotland reject independence.

Though some may complain Ms Davidson was elected on false pretences, others will surely admire her pragmatism. The latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey shows emphatic public support for further devolution, while suggesting that backing for outright independence is waning. Whether she can take her beleaguered party with her in backing further powers for Holyrood is another matter. Her apparent overnight conversion to American-style federalism does not look entirely credible.

The Tory leader's problems do not end there. Regardless of how hard she works to portray the Scottish Tories as a separate and self-governing part of the UK party, for both Labour and the SNP she will remain the Aunt Sally for the UK Government's welfare reforms and public spending cuts as well as tax cuts for the rich which appear both heartless and against Scotland's interests. From this week Ms Davidson will also take pelters as the face of the party that could take the UK out of the EU.

In one respect she deserves credit. The referendum debate is reducing Scotland's constitutional future to two dimensions. Sooner or later, both sides must suggest what could happen following a No vote. The outright devolution of personal income tax, as recommended by the Institute for Public Policy Research yesterday, could be politically useful to the Scottish Tories, who could then promise tax cuts at future Holyrood elections.

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Local government

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