This article is from the December issue of Total Politics
Dover House is a quiet, soothing place. The security guard at the entrance has to turn the lights on even though it is already mid-morning. The Scotland Office does not initially appear a hub of activity. But through an elegant Georgian rotunda, Michael Moore has one of the loveliest offices in Whitehall, a long rectangle overlooking Horse Guards Parade. Lord Byron visited the building to conduct a notorious affair in the early 19th century. Although the current Scottish secretary and former accountant is hardly Byronesque, Moore does enjoy talking about the building’s unofficial “exotic history” as he sits on a sofa in his office.
It is a brief respite from more pressing matters. Moore is probably the last ever Scottish secretary, a point he tacitly admits: “At some point in the future, the time is likely to come where ‘the secretary of state for the nations and regions’, or however it might be described, will be the right thing to do in the circumstances.” It is a policy that he previously supported, and which could come soon, because while Moore works at “showing Scotland off to the rest of the country”, the former accountant declares that his country faces “a historic moment”.
The Liberal Democrat cabinet minister is tasked with promoting his country, liaising with cabinet colleagues to tackle its deep-rooted social problems, and, together with the prime minister, face down the threat to the United Kingdom from a majority Scottish National Party (SNP) government.
On that last responsibility, Moore refuses to label himself as a unionist − “I don’t use that term to describe myself” − but his main concern is to stop the SNP winning an independence referendum, mooted to take place before 2015. Moore is promoting a ‘third way’. The alternative to the black-and-white choices of unionism or independence is a “modern United Kingdom”. He says unionism is dead. “Every one of the UK-wide parties, whatever journey they’ve been on, has recognised that the old-fashioned, centuries-old version of the UK is horribly outdated and we need to develop it. It’s been done asymmetrically. Wales was done at a different pace, but is now considering what its future might look like. Northern Ireland has special circumstances. England, over time, will find its own voice and how it wants to see that develop, too. Devolution is where it’s at, and nobody is thinking in terms of old-fashioned unionism any more.”
The government’s Scotland Bill, in the committee stage of the House of Lords at the time of writing, provides the framework. The Bill provides Holyrood with £12bn-worth of financial powers, including the ability to set rates of income tax. “It is the single largest transfer of financial powers from London to Edinburgh since the Act of Union,” says Moore. “That is a huge thing. We’ve got Treasury officials working out for the first time, probably in living memory, how to dis-apply a tax in Scotland and pass over half of the income tax arrangements to Scotland. This is a massive change, not just culturally for people in HMRC and the Treasury, but also a major statement from the government, based on ideas that we as Lib Dems were central to developing.” But can this culture change see off the SNP?
As perhaps the cabinet minister with the lowest public profile, Moore knows he cannot compete in the personality stakes with Alex Salmond. So he wants to dispel the idea that this is about focusing on one man who has, so far, seen off many opponents. “This isn’t about personality,” says Moore. “This is way bigger than that. No individual can expect or hope to stitch up the debate for one side or the other. That’s not the Scottish psyche.” He adds: “I certainly don’t think the debate on independence will be won by a couple of politicians slogging it out.”
In fact, Moore is keen to explain that he works well with the SNP. “The Scottish people expect us to be working together on their behalf, not getting in each other’s way.” However well the Scottish secretary and the Scottish first minister get on in their professional relationship, Moore has also been working with his former special adviser and the new Lib Dem leader north of the border, Willie Rennie, on their vision of a future Scotland. Their plan is for a ‘Home Rule Commission’ that will develop the next round of devolution once the Scotland Bill is introduced.
If this all sounds like another dull process rather than a dramatic move to political freedom, Moore seems comfortable with that. “We’ll come up with a set of proposals, but we don’t expect them to be implemented absolutely right away because we will want again to find common ground, develop consensus and then implement.” Details are sketchy at the moment, but Moore attacks Salmond’s “damaging” dangling of the referendum carrot without setting a specific date. “It’s very damaging in terms of the uncertainty it creates. It’s not helpful for business and actually not helpful for lots of other people, either.”
The future for Scotland heralds further political change. Its current reality is a struggling economy. The October figures showed unemployment in Scotland rising by 7,000. What can Scotland’s secretary do for his nation? Moore speaks of his role being about “getting people talking to the right people” and that he is an “activist” for his country. In the spring of 2012, Moore is co-hosting a national convention on youth unemployment in Dundee alongside work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and the Scottish Parliament’s secretary for finance, employment and sustainable growth, John Swinney. It casts Moore as a facilitator between Scotland’s two governments to ensure there is progress on its social issues. He explains: “These issues [of unemployment] are deep-seated, and range from the education system to family background – and the experiences of those families – to skills, to the support we provide from a Westminster perspective, and the general health of the economy.”
The Scottish secretary is regularly in contact with Duncan Smith. Scotland’s challenging issues over the high number of people on incapacity benefit has seen Moore focusing on changes to the Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseekers’ Allowance. He wants to act as the early-warning siren for any “particular aspects of the situation in Scotland that they may need to be alerted to”.
Although he shares Dover House with his coalition partner – the only Scottish Conservative MP David Mundell – and the Lib Dems have been reduced to a mere five MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, Moore is emphatic that he is helping his nation. He says: “We’re certainly doing everything we can to make it straightforward for people to make it through difficult times. By next April, we’ll have 91,000 Scots out of tax altogether. We have increased the state pension substantially and simplified it. We have made much fairer arrangements for helping people through the challenges of rising fuel prices.” He claims that “people get that it’s tough and challenging, but it’s a five-year programme. It’s not something which can be done by a week on Thursday.”
Born in Northern Ireland, Moore grew up in the Scottish Borders town of Jedburgh, attending the local grammar school. He now represents the area as the local MP. As attractive a working environment as Dover House is, he only spends Tuesdays and Wednesdays in London; the rest of the time he is up in Scotland. Half of his ministry is based in Edinburgh.
His experience gained during five summers working in Jedburgh’s tourism office will need to be implemented on a bigger scale when he leads a trade delegation to Brazil in November 2011. The aim is to show Scotland off, so the party will include, among others, whisky, golf, oil and gas industry representatives.
Brazil is a growing economic power and has proved popular with Lib Dems. Nick Clegg led a previous trip in June. What does Moore achieve by heading down there? “As the Scottish secretary in the UK government, we have the entire government infrastructure of the Foreign Office, the UK Trade & Investment and other bodies at our disposal. I’m going there standing on the shoulders of the Foreign Office and using Britain’s presence around the world to open the doors to senior officials and politicians in Brazil, to leading industries in others, and providing the route in for Scottish businesses that would not otherwise get that level of access.”
If he does prove to be the last ever dedicated Scottish secretary, Moore wants to leave behind a constitutional settlement. But he remains in a strange position. He criticises Salmond and the SNP for failing to come up with “hard facts” on how independence will work in practice and details of the referendum’s contents and timing.
But while talking about leaving a legacy of securing Scotland’s place within the UK, the Scottish secretary can’t offer anything concrete on what devolution, post-Scotland Bill, will look like. He is left “making sure Scotland gets its voice”. That voice is still defining itself.