Can the Scots Tories ever have a better chance?

Can the Scots Tories ever have a better chance?

by Brian Monteith
article from Monday 2, March, 2015

THE TRADITIONAL view of conservative parties is that they seek to preserve what is considered to be the best institutions within a society and are supportive only of gradual evolutionary reform. That all changed in 1975.

When Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party that year, she and her mentors such as Keith Joseph (pictured) and Airey Neave had, through the salutary experience of being in government during the Heath administration, identified that to be conservatives in an economy moving ever-closer towards state domination meant they were doing the work of preserving the post war advances of socialism. 

This phenomenon was known as the ratchet effect, whereby a Labour government would introduce legislation that expanded the welfare state or nationalised large sections of industry, followed by a Conservative government that accepted those changes. This would then be followed by another Labour administration that would advance the cause of socialism a few revolutions further.

The new approach of Thatcher and her disciples meant that while she would concede tactical settlements (such as agreeing to miners’ wage demands in 1981) she would work towards a strategic goal of reducing the scale of state intervention, believing that greater personal freedom was not only morally just but would also lead to greater universal prosperity.

Given that by the late seventies Scotland had a larger share of state industry than most of the rest of the UK it was always the case that gradual reform would take too long in the parliamentary cycle to achieve the economic progress that could bring popularity across its seventy-two seats. This meant a more radical approach was required than that being tried in England – but the Scottish Conservatives were not philosophically committed to such a rigorous agenda. The party therefore endured the political price of necessary economic change without reaping the electoral rewards that the party enjoyed elsewhere.

Worse still, because of Scotland’s dependence on the state every attempt to achieve reform was portrayed by crypto-nationalists in the Labour Party and nationalist socialists in the SNP as being anti-Scottish, no matter the jobs being lost from similar policies in Wales, and all parts of England. This jingoistic squeeze by the opposition parties effectively demonised Tory governments so that even when any economic improvements came from the mid to late eighties onwards the party was never rewarded with the recovery it looked for and arguably deserved.

Adding to that the many damaging myths surrounding issues such as the poll tax and Ravenscraig, which I have addressed before but for brevity must pass over here, and it is surprising it took until 1997 for the Tory Party brand to reach its lowest ebb.

Since that Westminster wipe-out of all its MPs there has been a recovery of sorts, it has maintained a single MP since 2001 but it has never managed to breakout from the bridgehead it gained in the Scottish Parliament and since the high point of 2003 has since started to lose ground again.  

In part this is because of the lack of ambition of its past leaders. There was a moment in Scottish politics when – with John Swinney defeated and the SNP demoralised in the Holyrood election of 2003, and the Scottish Conservatives winning three constituencies in Ayr, Edinburgh Pentlands and Galloway – that the Tories should have aspired to become the second largest party in Scotland and the main opposition to Labour. this was not beyond the bounds of possibility. 

The then leader David McLetchie could have gone on the offensive with tax-cutting policies and a commitment to increasing Holyrood’s powers that would make it more self-sufficient and accountable. He could have outflanked the nationalists but instead relied upon a hoped-for Tory Westminster victory in 2005 that would bring an electoral “bounce” in 2007 – and waited for it to happen. Neither cause or effect arrived.

In two subsequent elections Annabel Goldie treaded water, relegating policy innovation behind becoming everyone’s favourite auntie, but it did not work even for her, never mind her party. In the Renfrewshire area she fought for a fourth time she moved from second to third and the party's vote share dropped to an all time low. Gaining plaudits for fighting a good campaign did not gain votes.

It is in this context that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is now operating. Talk of Tories winning three divisions in May is dependent primarily on holding ground and a collapsing Liberal Democrat vote turning to them rather than the SNP – while there are no winnable Labour-Conservative marginals in prospect. Meanwhile the likelihood of its sole MP David Mundell losing his marginal seat remains a possibility.

When the election for the Scottish Conservatives’ leader was held back in November 2013 I feared the Tories would end up with an approach of “one more heave” and hoping that by "shouting louder" people would start listening. An advocacy of old failed policies, or a distinct lack of relevant policies, coming from all candidates with the notable exception of Murdo Fraser, suggested this would indeed play out when he lost.

Thankfully the winner, Ruth Davidson, learnt very quickly from her introduction to Holyrood that if she was to become relevant and make a vote-shifting impression she had to build an attractive platform that appealed to the core right-of-centre vote in Scotland, not all of them Tories anymore. She began to change tack, acknowledging that for Holyrood to become truly accountable it would have to take responsibility for raising the majority of the funds its spends and, crucially, announcing that she aspired to use such powers as were already coming – as well as those that will come in the future – to cut personal taxes.

So we now go into an election where, thanks to her bold, open and honest approach, Ruth Davidson has done more than anyone in recent living memory to try and recast what being a Scottish Conservative means. She has bared her soul and been open about her lifestyle on matters that could have been said to be her own business, she has been radical in policy, offering tax cuts where McLetchie and Goldie would not tread and reviving the idea of childcare credits that empowers parents. She rode into the valley of death to defend unionism in the referendum and come out the other side mentioned justifiably in dispatches.

But is it enough for her to be shaping up as an able leader?

Together with a tangible economic recovery being delivered, a prime minister who regularly polls better in Scotland than Ed Miliband, with Scottish Labour in turmoil, the Liberal Democrats in disarray and nationalists humiliated in areas they thought secure – what better circumstances can the Scottish Conservatives want? 

If Davidson's party cannot advance now the question has to be asked what more can be done and what future lies ahead for the party's fifteen MSPs in Holyrood?


An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Scotsman of 23 February 2015.

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