This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

They call it swiftboating in American politics. Attacking your opponent where they appear strongest rather than weakest. Because if you can undermine their best asset, you can sow doubt about everything else they have.

The first recorded victim was the Democratic US presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.

His heroic war record in Vietnam as commander of a Swift Boat was seen as a key asset against George W. Bush. Then a number of veterans set up Swift Vets and POWs for Truth (SVPT) and began questioning his military record and subsequent opposition to the war.

As well as TV adverts, SVPT produced a bestselling book, Unfit for Command. But the charges were unsubstantiated, SVPT was fined by the Federal Election Commission for misusing its status to attack one candidate, and swiftboating entered the political lexicon.

Alister Jack’s speech to the UK Conservative conference in Manchester this week reminded me of the swiftboating episode. Not because a Kerry-like figure was being traduced, but because of the sheer gall.

“I will not stand by and allow Nationalist ministers to undermine, or abuse, the devolution settlement for their own political ends. Not now, not ever,” said the Scottish Secretary, adding that it was now the Conservatives who were “defending devolution”.

The Herald:
It was brazen stuff. The party that resisted devolution now claims to be its champion. 

It was a head-on attack on the SNP’s greatest asset. As regularly recorded in opinion polls, it is widely seen by voters as the Holyrood party which above all stands up for Scotland and Scotland’s ability to make decisions for itself.  

True, its ultimate goal involves replacing devolution with independence. But in the meantime it consistently argues for maximum devolution, with Holyrood having as many powers as possible so that as many decisions as possible about Scotland are made here.

Mr Jack argued in his speech that some recent SNP policy choices with which he disagreed were undermining devolution, but disliking a policy, or even shoddy legislation, does not undermine devolution per se. Difference is at the heart of devolution. 

Some of this was Mr Jack’s usual schtick. He’s a wind-up merchant who loves provoking the SNP. When he leaves the Commons next year for the Lords, one can easily imagine him in a curmudgeonly double act with Labour’s George Foulkes.

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But there is more going on than that, as another section of Mr Jack’s speech revealed.

“The United Kingdom has never been stronger,” he said. “The SNP are increasingly looking like a busted flush.”

For the Scottish Tories, who have long relied on the Union being in jeopardy to harvest votes, this is very bad news. Where is their fuel now that Indyref2 is parked and the SNP seems to have peaked? As my colleague David Bol reported this week, even Tory MSPs think they have hit a “dead end”. 

Mr Jack’s speech offers a clue. Those opinion polls also show that, unlike the Tories in Scotland, devolution is extremely popular. It therefore makes political sense to claim that (just like the Union before it) it is under grave threat and you’re best placed to protect it. 

It’s completely shameless, of course, given the Tories’ history, but the party has never been shy about shifting positions when votes are at stake.

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The SNP leadership, who have long known Indyref2 was out of reach, is already doing the same thing. They’ve been pitching the party as the defender of devolution in the face of Tory attacks for a few years. Mr Jack is now meeting them on this field of battle.

To help grab voters’ attention, the Scottish Secretary is splashing the cash. Millions are being sent directly from Whitehall to Scottish councils for regeneration and infrastructure projects, bypassing Holyrood’s budget, while Treasury funds also prop up new freeports and investment zones.

“I call that real devolution,” said Mr Jack. But the old distaste still seeps through. 

The Scottish Secretary complains that “too much [is] in the hands of the devolved administration in Holyrood”. The SNP and Greens “hoard decision-making power and resources” there, he reckons. If the Tories miraculously stay in power after the election, it seems clear that money today will become strings tomorrow, as the UK Government elbows its way deeper into Holyrood’s business.

Other than flapping it about as a campaign tool, the Tory approach to the constitutional settlement is that of Henry Ford: You can have any kind of devolution so long as it’s ours.