Are Scotland’s true Tartan Tories finally finding their voice?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, February 14th 2016

For years the Scottish Tories have been in retreat and decline. Until now.

A succession of Scottish Tory leaders from David McLetchie to Annabel Goldie have gained numerous plaudits, but not changed the political weather.

Ruth Davidson has looked to be mining similar ground: gaining good press notices, but none of it changing the fundamentals of the unpopularity of her Tory brand.

The Scottish Tories are seen by many as toxic and a pariah party. Even worse, Tory is widely used as an expletive and term of abuse, to the extent that David Cameron in the last week of the indyref acknowledged that they were seen here as ‘the effing Tories’.

The Tories are bereft of a strategy. Davidson doesn’t yet have one. She defeated the candidate Murdo Fraser who had one. Instead, she embodied the Blairite conceit of being the change: young, modern and different.

In the first set of polls of the New Year, the Tories have been closing the gap on Labour for second place. Indeed, one poll has put them just ahead of Labour by one percent (20% to 19%) on the Scottish Parliament constituency vote, tied on 25 seats each and vying to be the main opposition to the SNP.

This is a product of a small Tory rise and steep Labour decline. It has been aided by Ruth Davidson’s positive press translating into positive personal poll ratings. In the previous week, YouGov found that 40% rated Davidson’s leadership positively, and 36% negatively, putting her well behind Nicola Sturgeon, but well ahead of Kezia Dugdale, Willie Rennie and David Cameron in Scotland. Davidson has impressive ratings amongst Labour supporters – with 46% thinking she is doing a good job and 29% a bad job.

A significant factor in this turnaround has been the referendum and its aftermath. Labour were disorientated by the indyref, and have been in chaos and meltdown since. The opposite is true for the Tories. They, like the Nationalists, reveled in the campaign, found their voice, and haven’t been the same since.

Of course, the extent of Tory transformation during and since the indyref isn’t of the same scale as the Nationalists, but when you go from being spurned and spat at for years, to the prospect of becoming the main opposition, something has changed.

The Tories found the referendum campaign ideal for putting over for the first time in decades an unapologetic and clear unionist message, something neither Labour or the Lib Dems could do. And given the pro-union side won the vote, this gives them the opportunity of claiming part of the winner’s dividend as theirs.

Ruth Davidson and her Scottish colleagues were shocked by Cameron’s post-referendum manoeuvrings, first, on English votes for English laws, but even more explicitly, in the 2015 election, feeling they were being left out on a limb, with the rise of the SNP used as an excuse by Cameron to delegitimise Scottish MPs and thus, weaken the union.

Yet, tactical politics has for the moment played into Davidson’s hands, allowing the Scottish Tories to effortlessly differentiate themselves from the detested Southern brand. This gives the party a rare opportunity to seize the ground, and cease being completely defined by its problem past: Thatcher, the poll tax and 1980s.

The Tories haven’t been known for ideas in Scotland since they came up with the poll tax, with disastrous consequences. They seem to have learnt from this not to suggest new ideas or policies, but now is the time to be imaginative.

A fresh Tory agenda will address the traditional centre-right terrain: less taxation, reducing the burden on business, decentralism, and more individual responsibility. But that is what they are expected to say. What can they add that is new?

The Tories need to challenge and puncture the SNP and soft-left consensus on its own ground, namely, fairness. They should scrutinise Scotland on the values and ideals it likes to believe it champions, and find that it has fallen short.

In what ways do the council tax freeze, ‘no tuition fees’ or free care for the elderly amount to aiding fairness? However, for the Tories to have the gumption to do this, they will have to get over the fear that all of these supposed ‘fairness’ policies actually aid affluent and elderly voters, and disproportionately, Tory voters.

After a long lean period, prospects for the Tories look better than anytime since John Major’s brief honeymoon in 1992, and arguably, since Thatcher was elected in 1979, winning nearly a third of the Scottish vote.

The Tories like everyone know the SNP will win the May elections comfortably. The real battle is for second place and to be the main opposition. And that releases the Tories to be tactical and bold: to appeal to Labour and Lib Dem voters for their ‘second’ regional votes, and to dare to be different. Ruth Davidson looks up to it, but is the rest of her party?