How can Scots Tories capitalise on their success and win power at Holyrood?

How can Scots Tories capitalise on their success and win power at Holyrood?

by Tom Miers
article from Tuesday 12, February, 2019

AS THE PARTY considers its policy options well before the 2021 elections, in the first of three articles Tom Miers considers some ideas that would make a winning agenda for Scottish Conservatives.

Strategy, opportunity and the economy

Many politicians are intelligent and hard working, and most are honest (we are lucky in that, in Britain).  But only a few have that magical ability to get their ideas across to voters in a way that is engaging and persuasive.  To be able to shift voters views and get them to cross tribal boundaries once in the polling booth is a rarity. 

It’s difficult to put your finger on the exact qualities needed to be such a game-changer. You have to be articulate, to be sure. To have a mastery of the media. A pithy turn of phrase. Maybe a keen wit. Above all an instinct for when and how to tell it like it is. 

In Scotland less than a handful of active politicians possess these traits, and one of the best is Ruth Davidson. The relative success of today’s Scottish Conservatives is in large part large part down to her. She has rebuilt the party to a position where between a quarter and a third of voters are regularly putting a cross in the Tory box.

The Conservative strategy underpinning her success is twofold. To emphasise the party’s position in upholding the majority view on the great issue of the day, which is Scotland’s place in the UK. And to offer a moderate, centrist position on other policy issues that allows moderate, centrist Scots who might otherwise vote Labour or Liberal Democrat to come on board in a coalition against nationalism.

This is the right strategy and has worked well so far. Brexit poses problems, but most voters rightly consider the relationship with the rest of the UK more important than that with the EU.

So far so good. But how do the Conservatives build on this to challenge for power at Holyrood? The party needs to win over another 10-15 per cent of the electorate to bring it up into the 35-40 per cent+ range that would give it a decent chance of leading an administration. That must mean offering an attractive positive alternative to the SNP on domestic, non-constitutional issues. As the SNP starts to weaken, and the issue of independence fades in immediacy, voters on both sides of the constitutional divide will start to consider other motives for casting their vote.

This is a threat and an opportunity to the Tories. A great opportunity to put the deeply divisive and unpleasant constitutional debate to bed. But a threat in that their new centrist supporters might desert them again.

To win they must retain their current base and win over new people with an attractive programme. That means continuing with the centrist strategy, but offering a more imaginative policy programme.

The party is currently undergoing a thorough review of policy with exactly this objective in mind. What kind of approach could work?  Two broad areas of policy stand out in asking for a new approach. These are the delivery of public services, and the renewal of Scotland’s cultural sense of purpose and identity.

That the public sector is Scotland’s weak link and requires radical action is beyond serious dispute. Meanwhile the constitutional debate has torn great fissures on our public life that are deeply damaging to society. If we hope to restore a Scotland that is confident and at ease with itself, it is not enough simply to defeat the SNP at the polls. Conservatives ned to offer a powerful, patriotic alternative to nationalism that the bulk of the country can reunite around.

Before addressing these two themes, a word about the economy. Scotland has many economic strengths, but overall performance is disappointing and has been since devolution. Scotland lags behind the rest of the UK. There is no excuse for this: most of the policy levers that affect economic growth are now devolved. 

Those that are reserved would mostly stay so even under independence. Monetary policy would almost certainly be outsourced either to the UK or the Eurozone, so great would be the need to underpin the economy within a larger currency area.

Important areas of regulation are also held at the UK level. This is necessary for the smooth operation of the UK single market, and the system functions well. The labour market, for example, is delivering record levels of employment.

Meanwhile, although many individual taxes are still reserved, the overall level of tax and spend is controlled at Holyrood, which also has considerable borrowing and welfare powers. In Western democracies, tax and spend varies by only a few percentage points from country to country and over time. The Scottish Government has enough fiscal leeway to explore the realistic extremes in either direction.  

So there is certainly scope for adjusting the traditional levers of economic power – for example by simplifying tax rates or finding more imaginative and accountable ways of running public sector businesses.

But the underlying long term prosperity of a mature economy like Scotland’s depends as much if not more on its fundamental institutional make up. Its education system from nursery to university. Development planning. Transport and infrastructure. Healthcare and the delivery of state-funded services. 

That is why a focus on public services is essential not just in its own right but for our future prosperity as well.

Finally, there can be no doubt that the ongoing constitutional limbo and threat of a UK break up has damaged investment and economic growth. Healing our social and cultural wounds is essential in economic terms too.

So a successful economic policy, that is both radical but has broad appeal across the political spectrum must emphasise the whole range of political possibilities. Not just sensible reforms of tax and spend, but of the foundations of society as a whole.

Tom Miers runs a public policy consultancy and is a Conservative local councillor in the Scottish Borders.

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