Can Ruth Davidson persuade us to listen to the Scottish Tories?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, February 22nd 2015

Two of Scotland’s established parties had a good independence referendum: the SNP who are now prospering in the polls and the Scottish Tories who have been gathering this weekend in Edinburgh.

For once the Tories have something to cheer about. In Ruth Davidson the party have a personable, likeable leader who is comfortable and growing into the job.

Her Conservative video released this week was another talking point – modern, relevant, human, showing her with her parents – and her partner, Jen.

There is more. On several issues the Tories have been scoring hits. Take John Swinney’s stamp duty reforms. The Tories have hit a political home run and forced the Scottish Government to retreat.

They are making consistent noises on education standing up for parent power. And have given priority to the educational attainment gap which is one of the scandals of modern Scotland.

These then are better times than they have been for years to be a Scottish Tory. What is illuminating is that with all these positives, the underlying problems and state of the party remains the same.

The party has an aging, increasingly unrepresentative membership. It is seen in mainstream politics as a near-pariah: an entity defined by its past supposed crimes (for which read Thatcher, the poll tax, Ravenscraig, etc.).

Critically Scotland’s electoral landscape and geography does not assist the party. Since 1997 the party has been going nowhere electorally unable to get more than half a million votes in any Westminster election.

In the forthcoming election there are only nine Scottish constituencies where the Tories have a quarter or more of the vote. In only two seats (West Aberdeenshire and KIncardine and Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk – both Lib Dem), do they have any realistic chance of putting in a real challenge and possibly winning.

Even more profoundly, post-Thatcher, for the past twenty-five years there has been a sense of drift and malaise about the purpose and point of the Scottish Conservatives.

In the leadership contest which Ruth Davidson won in 2011 the defeated candidate Murdo Fraser offered a fully-formed strategy to attempt to answer this: with a newly created autonomous party of the centre-right. Fraser recognised how damaged the party had become for many people, becoming more or less a toxic tartan Tory brand.

People don’t listen to what Tory politicians say in Scotland because they hear it through their recollection of the past. In the 2011 Scottish Parliament election contest, then Tory leader Annabel Goldie – in a leader debate – referenced one of the party’s policies at that time to offer pensioners £200 of support. How did the studio audience react? One immediately decided to criticise Goldie for this ‘attack’ on pensioners, misconstruing it as the party wanting to take money from them.

What modern politicians need to do first and foremost is create the conditions to be heard and understood. Scottish Tories haven’t done this for a generation, and seem to have given up recognising this and wanting to do something about it.

Murdo Fraser didn’t win in 2011, and without a strategy and knowing exactly how to be heard Ruth Davidson’s consistently good notices will matter for as little as the affection many previously had for Annabel Goldie.

There is a place for a conservative minded centre-right force in Scotland.

In both Scottish Labour and the SNP historically and to this day, each has had small ‘c’ conservatives who have given expression to a very different politics to their centre-left official party aims.

The evolution of Scottish politics may ultimately assist the Tories. As the Scottish Parliament takes on more responsibilities for the monies it spends, politics will become more centred on the relationship between tax and spend. Such an outcome will make an agenda of cutting taxes attractive to some, particularly affluent, middle class, older voters.

That is a terrain the Scottish Tories could make their own. To seize this opportunity they need to be more, not less, daring – challenging the Scottish consensus and differentiating themselves from the prevailing mood of Labour and SNP competition.

Finally, they have to fight to be heard by eventually reforming and relaunching the Scottish Tories as a new force and political entity. Until they have the courage to do this, for all the plaudits Ruth Davidson is earning, the party is for the foreseeable future going to live and wither in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher for most Scots.