TODAY I shall be expressing some views that others may find controversial, disagreeable or give cause to question my humanity or my right to have a forum for my views. If you are one of that charming group of people who consider it a victory when a political party which holds views well within the mainstream of society (no, don’t argue, they are) is forced to postpone a small regional conference for fear of being overwhelmed by an aggressive protest then the rest of this article is not for you. Before you go though, I would like to congratulate you on making it to the end of this distinctly polysyllabic paragraph.
It’s beyond disappointing that the Scottish Conservatives have been forced to postpone their West of Scotland Regional Conference until they can locate a suitable underground bunker in which to hold it. (Actually that would be fun even if would be a disaster from an image standpoint.) That though, isn’t the main thrust of my article, and if you really find the idea of there being something wrong when the likes of Solidarity and other miscellaneous elements of the Scottish left exposing the dark heart of Scotland’s depressingly tribal politics controversial, then clearly you don’t get out much.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to challenge some of the received truths of Scottish politics with particular reference to the 2016 Holyrood election.
Let’s start with a fairly uncontroversial one – barring spectacular calamities, the SNP is on course to be the largest party after next year's election. This doesn’t sound particularly earth-shattering when polls consistently put Nicola Sturgeon’s party at higher than 50 per cent but increasingly there are signs that the victory may not be on the scale some imagine. While a post referendum bounce carried them to near-total dominance in the Westminster election, the SNP’s ability to farm grievance while its Scottish Government cries impotence will be sorely tested in the face of significant devolution of powers over tax and welfare. Beyond that, the long cultivated image of the SNP as a competent and reforming party of government is being sorely tested in the face of problems across higher education, Police Scotland and the NHS.
Mind you, they’re still almost certain to win even if it’s less to do with their own ability to govern and more that the current main party of opposition is suffering a major identity crisis. Scottish Labour is in serious trouble. Internal strife as Corbynistas and realists jockey for position combined with schisms over Trident, interventions in Syria and, well, everything else, really have left Kezia Dugdale with the prospect of running an election campaign while juggling hand grenades.
It’s already been observed by others but bears repeating here, that her own plans to reverse any cuts to tax credits made by George Osborne – while rejecting his plans to cut the thresholds for the higher rate of income tax risk and increasing the tax paid by “top earners” – risk alienating many middle class voters at a time when she desperately needs them. More significantly, the policies make little sense for the wider economy. Scotland is a country in deep need of inward investment and here we have a party whose plans would make it the most highly taxed part of the UK. There are already suggestions this will push more mobile members of the workforce to relocate, but more than that it will put Scotland at a serious disadvantage next to the Chancellor’s “Northern Powerhouse”.
So, if the SNP’s victory is all but a forgone conclusion, then maybe it’s fair to say that the most interesting part of the Holyrood election is likely to be the battle between the 2nd and 3rd parties. Scottish Labour’s loss could well be the Scottish Conservatives gain. The Scottish Tories go into this election with a more realistic chance of making headway than at any time since devolution. As the only pro-UK to have come out of the referendum looking stronger than they went in, the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson’s leadership are increasingly seen as the most credible party of opposition to the SNP as Scottish Labour struggles to find a way to justify opposing a left of centre social democratic party by being a slightly more left of centre social democratic party; the Scottish Conservatives have become a distinctive alternative.
Much of the credit for the Conservatives being able to see this election not merely as crunch time but a golden opportunity lies with Ruth Davidson. A moderate, compassionate, one-nation conservatism combined with Davidson’s talent for connecting with sections of the public who might have once instantly dismissed any idea of voting Conservative, could well appeal to those voters more interested in stable credible government than party dividing lines, not to mention Labour moderates seeking an escape to sanity.
There was a time when commentators would have advised Ruth Davidson in her early days as leader to look at the performance of politicians like Boris Johnson for a model of how to broaden her party’s support. Now it seems that it might be time for Boris to start looking to Ruth if he’s looking to revitalise his leadership ambitions, (or sharpen up his rugby skills).
It’s unlikely the Tories will push Scottish Labour into third place at Holyrood, although stranger things have happened, but there’s a realistic prospect of the parties groupings being much closer in size than is the case now.
When you remember that so much of the rhetoric from both Labour and the SNP in recent decades has boiled down to presenting politics as a battle between good and evil in which they are good and the Tories are evil, the idea of the Scottish Conservative vote increasing suggests that the Scottish political sands haven’t stopped shifting yet.
As Scotland gains more powers and with it more responsibility for its own affairs, voters will become less tolerant of parties who rely on fear of the alternatives to justify themselves. In doing so, they are bound to ask whether these “hated Tories” really are evil or are, in fact, simply people with different ideas about how to get to the same destination – a better Scotland.
Better nations aren’t built through intolerance of those who challenge dogma but by the debate such challenges spark. The prospect of a Tory revival isn’t a threat to Scotland, it’s a threat to a toxic, tribal narrative that’s crippled our ability to have a mature conversation about the country’s future. It’s hard to see what’s controversial about moving beyond that.