AN irony of Scottish politics is that the Tories, who opposed devolution, have been responsible for the biggest transfer of powers to the Parliament in recent years.

David Cameron’s coalition beefed up Holyrood’s tax-varying abilities after implementing the recommendations of the Calman commission.

A majority Conservative Government then accepted the post-indyref Smith Commission findings which gave the Parliament new tax and social security powers.

The Tory politician who was involved with both sets of reforms was David Mundell, who in a twenty-year career in politics has served at Holyrood and Westminster.

He was a junior Minister in the Scotland Office for the Calman legislation, and was Cameron’s Secretary of State of Scotland when the Smith proposals were turned into law. He has been in the same post for nearly four years and is in Prime Minister Theresa May's Cabinet.

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Sitting in his office in the west end of Edinburgh - two pillows nestle on the sofa, one with a saltire and the other emblazoned with a Union Jack - the MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale is keen to mention his role in post-devolution politics.

However, achievements of the past cannot mask problems of the present. Mundell is at the centre of two constitutional storms that show little sign of settling down.

We met twenty four hours after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for another independence referendum, a policy he vigorously opposes.

He is also the Scottish Tory face of May’s troubled Brexit deal, which has been rejected by MPs on three occasions. Brexit has been delayed and voters will have the opportunity to vote in the European elections next month. The Tories are expecting a drubbing.

“It’s inevitable now,” Mundell says of the elections, wearily. “We’ve run out of time. The reason we are having it is one of the reasons I think many people voted to leave the EU, in the sense that ‘rules are rules’.”

Asked if he expected the election would be difficult for his party, he replies: “All the evidence would suggest that it is going to be a challenge, but we’ve had challenges before.”

The Government’s focus is on producing an alternative set of proposals that could command the support of MPs. With Tory right wingers opposed to May’s deal, the Prime Minister has turned to Labour, who are demanding a customs union.

Mundell has previously said the Government would be “willing” to discuss such a proposal. However, would he be willing to discuss having a confirmatory vote, which would pit May’s deal against Remain in another referendum?

“The Government doesn’t support a confirmatory vote. I don’t support a confirmatory vote. We’ve had two attempts to bring that forward in the House of Commons,” he says.

“My personal view is that there is not a majority of MPs in the House of Commons for a confirmatory vote. I don’t think there is a logic to it.”

Mundell campaigned for Remain in 2016 and is known to have a disregard for some of his more bloody-minded Brexiteer colleagues.

I have three shots at asking him how he would vote in the event of a second referendum, if the choice was between May’s plan and Remain.

“I want to respect the outcome of the referendum we’ve had, so I don’t want there to be another referendum,” he says. That was a dodge.

I press again. Would he back May’s deal in another referendum? “I’m not trying to evade the question. I’m clear that her deal is the best deal that is on offer for us to leave the EU. I’m clear that we need to respect the outcome of the initial referendum.”

I ask a different version of the same question. Is it possible you could vote Remain?

“No, “ he says firmly. “I would find it difficult to vote Remain in a future referendum because it would not be respecting the outcome of the previous referendum.”


Picture of David Mundell by Gordon Terris

I read him recent comments by Scottish Tory MP Stephen Kerr, who said that Tory hardliners displayed the same sort of “romanticised” and “sometimes xenophobic” attitudes as some Scottish nationalists.

Mundell appears to concur with his colleague’s assessment. “There are a group of Conservative colleagues whose entire political approach is driven by Brexit,” he says.

“They are as obsessive about Brexit as Nicola Sturgeon and some of her colleagues are about independence. Brexit matters to them more than any of the circumstances around it, or other things that are happening.”

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George Osborne, the former Tory chancellor, was revealed recently to have argued against holding an EU referendum before it became Government policy.

I ask Mundell, who has always had a pragmatic view on the EU, if he was also privately sceptical at that time.

“I felt that we had committed to doing it and I felt there wasn’t any way of not doing it, having committed to doing it,” he says, cryptically.

Mundell believes the problem was in the EU reform package Cameron negotiated with European partners ahead of the referendum.

If the EU had given more ground, particularly on freedom of movement, Mundell believes this could have shifted the dial.

“If David Cameron had been able to secure a different package, a better package...that might have ended up differently.”

Mundell was an early supporter of Cameron. He backed his leadership bid in 2005 and warmed to his social liberalism. However, Cameron’s stock has plummeted after becoming the unwitting architect of a policy - Brexit - he never wanted.

He says he has “no regrets” about voting for Cameron, but concedes the former Prime Minister may have a problem with his legacy.

“As at this moment, he is defined by that referendum and the result,” he says.

“In ten years time, we will be able to make that judgement, as to whether that is entirely the dominant feature, in the way that the Iraq war has become Tony Blair’s legacy.

“Whether we see David Cameron solely in that context or not, I don’t know. I hope not.”

Tory MSPs are becoming increasingly restless about the Brexit farce. Their party made impressive gains at the last general election and are focused on trying to win the Holyrood poll in 2021. Does Mundell believe Brexit is harming Ruth Davidson’s chances of becoming First Minister?

“I don’t think it is, because Ruth will very clearly in the 2021 election set out to people what the clear choice in that election is, which is Nicola Sturgeon continuing as First Minister, independence and a threat of a referendum never going away, compared to Ruth’s offer,” he says.

Mundell is also taking an interest in who will succeed May, given that she won’t contest the next general election:

He wants the next Tory leader to have a strong commitment to the Union and be socially liberal: “I want somebody who has a modern outlook and who is in touch with modern life, and how people live their lives.”

Boris Johnson, who has caused major problems for May, will not be his choice. Mundell has already ruled out serving in a Johnson Cabinet and aims a few more darts in his direction:

“I don’t think that he is someone who does particularly gel in Scotland.”

Mundell says Johnson has not had many dealings with Scotland, other than an “ill-fated” tilt at becoming Edinburgh University’s rector:

“He has not dipped his toe significantly into the Scottish political scene. He is not necessarily somebody who has an obvious affinity with Scotland.”

Mundell’s analysis on the attributes of the next leader may be persuasive, but his comments on social liberalism niggle.

In the very early days of the Scottish Parliament, when Mundell was a Tory MSP, his party launched a nasty campaign opposing the repeal of anti-gay legislation relating to schools.

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Mundell, who later came out as gay, voted against the repeal of what was then called Section 28. Does he regret how he voted?

“It was a point in time. To me, now, it does very much look like history, the way in which that unfolded,” he says.

Can he see why the LGBT community would be bitter about this episode?

“I can understand why people can turn their focus backward, but I think it’s better to think of actually what has been achieved in that period. What has been achieved in that period of twenty years has [been] a wholesale change in attitude, here in Scotland and across the UK,” he replies.

Back to the day job, his Cabinet colleague David Liddington last week ruled out a second independence referendum - by way of sanctioning a Section 30 order - before 2021.

Mundell goes further. Asked if he could ever imagine a Tory Government agreeing a section 30 order, he says:

“No, I can’t envisage that circumstance.”

He then softens slightly: “We’ve had a referendum. It was to be a once-in-a-generation event. Now we could have a debate about how long a generation is, but not in the forseeable future.”

His view is a minority Labour Government, led by Corbyn, is the biggest threat to the Union.

“Corbyn is Nicola’s route to a referendum. It’s the only route to a referendum.”

Mundell, as the longest-serving Scottish Secretary since Ian Lang in the 1990s, is a canny political operator who has helped add to the powers of the Parliament. Whether his legacy survives the winds of Brexit and independence remains to be seen.


1999 - 2005: Tory MSP for South of Scotland

2005 - present day: Tory MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

2005 - 2010: Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

2010 - 2015: Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

2015 - present day: Secretary of State for Scotland