RUMOURS OF LIFE within the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party are the kind of whisperings in which veteran observers of Scottish politics have learned not to place too much faith. Grim experience teaches us that these occasional stirrings of something interesting are generally followed by a relapse into stultifying ennui. This is as depressing as it is predictable.
So we should be wary of assuming that hints the party is finally prepared to consider making itself relevant for, really, the first time in nearly 20 years will actually come to anything. Like fans of the Scottish football team, we have been here before and we know better than to waste too much energy on hope.
Nevertheless there are signs that – at last – something may be stirring inside the Tory party. This time it may even be something that resonates with people who might, in normal circumstances, actually consider voting for Conservative candidates.
Since I have had occasion to criticise Ruth Davidson sharply in the past, it is not only fair but also necessary to note that the speech she will give today marks a welcome step forward. The Tory leader will argue that it is time for the Scottish parliament to enjoy significantly greater revenue raising powers. The "principle is clear" she is expected to say, "if you spend the public's money then you must be accountable to the public, both for how it is spent and how it is raised".
Just in case that message is insufficiently clear, Davidson will repeat it: "A parliament with little responsibility for raising the money it spends will never be properly accountable to the people of Scotland".
Well, there are few things so joyful as the sound of a sinner's repentance. Better a late conversion than no conversion at all. Some of us have been making exactly this point for years and wondering why a right-of-centre party should be so blind to - or perhaps afraid of – such a crushingly obvious conservative principle.
Davidson herself has needed some persuading. She was elected as the Continuity Candidate after Annabel Goldie stepped down and it sometimes seemed as though her youth and biography was expected to compensate for a lack of fresh ideas and persuade voters that the Tory party had "changed" or "moved on".
That dog never showed any signs of hunting. Instead, Davidson has slowly – too slowly for some – inched her way towards some of the views espoused by her erstwhile rival Murdo Fraser. She cannot go as far as suggesting the party dissolve itself and start again (as Fraser recommended) but her apparent embrace of more devolution is a welcome step in the right direction.
It is not just that some form of fiscal autonomy – the details of which still require some working out – is a sensible idea that might yet help revive the right-of-centre cause. Better still, it makes an argument in favour of better government.
As for the constitutional question, it suggests that the Tories are edging towards a position from which they may actually trust the Scottish people. Not before time you may say and you would have a point. Nevertheless, though they have waited until the party is on the brink of extinction they do seem, at last, to have recognised the full extent of their predicament.
At last, however, it seems there has been a recognition that the party's dismal predicament required action. It is a testament to the party's ossified state that a move that seems so obvious to so many others still merits being considered radical in the context of the Conservative party's recent history. Such is life.
Fiscal autonomy – or something like it – finally gives the Tories the chance to campaign on financial matters. Holyrood elections have tended to be competitions to see whether Labour or the SNP can offer more sweeties to the general public. They have been giveaway contests. But if Holyrood must court unpopularity by raising revenues for itself there is, at last, a chance for the Conservatives to offer a coherent vision for a lower-tax, smaller-state future. There will, finally, be some need to match spending to revenues. And that means "normal" politics, so long absent from Scotland, will have arrived.
The Tories may not win many more seats – at least not yet – but devolving tax raising powers means they can be a meaningful part of the conversation. Even better, they can offer an alternative to a Scottish consensus that prefers to focus on inputs at the expense of outputs. This too is worth a cheer or two.
It may be true, as the SNP has suggested, that the Tories have only reluctantly reached this point. Moreover the nationalists may be right to suggest it is only the threat of independence that has prodded the Tories into action. Be that as it may, there is at last some sign of intellectual life on the Tory benches.
Not only that, Davidson's move – in conjunction with comparable shifts by Labour and the Liberal Democrats – give the lie to the idea, tenaciously held by nationalists, that a No vote in the referendum ends the discussion about Scotland's future. It suits the SNP to pretend that is the case but, despite their apparent certainty on this, the nationalists are, I think, mistaken. A No vote does not end the story. If Ruth Davidson and the Tories can recognise this so, I fancy, can the electorate.