Ruth Davidson's stoking up a political disaster

Ruth Davidson's stoking up a political disaster

by Alex Massie
article from Tuesday 9, October, 2012

THERE ARE MANY ways by which you may measure the decline of the once-great Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. But among them is this: the leader of the Scottish Tories rarely does or says anything that will command a place on the front-pages of the newspapers. Worse still, on those rare occasions when the pressmen grant the Tory leader such prominence you can bet it's because there's been a calamity.

In politics, you see, it's not always true that there's no such thing as bad publicity. On the contrary, in fact, that's about the only type the poor wandering Scottish Tories ever get. Which, of course, makes it more, not less, important that they pay some attention to the message they wish to send to the electorate and that some small moments of reflection are devoted to pondering how this message may actually be received by people who, though not members of the party, might yet be persuaded to endorse Conservative candidates at the next election.

Ruth Davidson's suggestion, made during an appearance at a fringe event in Birmingham this week, that, in effect, most Scots spend their lives suckling on the government teat is not, I'm afraid, a helpful one. According to the Tory leader: “It is staggering that public-sector expenditure makes up a full 50 per cent of Scotland’s GDP and only 12 per cent of people are net contributors, where the taxes they pay outweigh the benefits they receive through public spending."

It is not clear from press reports - and since Davidson's remarks are not, at the time of writing, available on the party website, the common man only has press reports to go on - whether she meant only 12% contributed more to the state than they received over the course of their lifetime or whether she meant that at any given point 88% of Scots are dependent, to one degree or another, on the state. In any case, neither accusation reflects very well upon the Tory leader.

If nothing else you'd think someone - anyone! - close to the Tory leader might have paused to ask if it's really such a good idea to suggest - fairly or not - that the public are hopelessly addicted to government and, worse still, probably a bunch of work-shy, dependency-junkies. We hate you but vote for us! is, all things considered, an unpromising political slogan. But that, alas, was the message conveyed by Davidson's remarks.

She would doubtless complain that this is an unfair and partial representation of what she said. Perhaps it is. She might have paused, however, to wonder how her remarks might be received. The evident failure to do so amounts to a kind of political malpractice.

And that's the charitable reading of her remarks. It is much worse if she actually believes this sort of thing: “Only 12 per cent are responsible for generating Scotland’s wealth. I wonder how many of them work on public-sector contracts. It’s not just staggering, it’s frightening.”

It is staggering and perhaps also frightening if the Tory leader really believes the public can so easily be divided into the Bad (88%) and the Good (12%) in this fashion. If nothing else Davidson - whom I suppose I should disclose is an old friend-cum-acquaintance of mine - might have remembered that her own career has hardly been a model of private-sector entrepreneurial vigour. The Tory leader has drawn pay checks from the Territorial Army, the BBC, the Conservative Party and, now, of course, the public purse as an MSP. None of these - not even Holyrood - are wholly disreputable places in which to work but, by her stated standard, none are "responsible for generating Scotland's wealth".

Moreover, what does it mean anyway? Once you account for schoolchildren and pensioners, neither of whom can reasonably be expected to pay taxes to cover the cost of the services they receive, the figures begin to look rather difficult. Add the sick to the mix and you are left with the banal observation that healthy workers "subsidise" the young, the old and the infirm. I presume Davidson does not actually think there's something wrong with that (this being the way of the world in every developed country) but she has given her opponents licence to suggest she does.

It is true that Scotland needs a healthier private sector. This is hardly a novel observation either. Nevertheless, the argument is not as simple as Private Good, Public Bad. It may be that the size of the public sector crowds out room for growth in some parts of the country; it is manifestly not true that it does so uniformly or in every part of Scotland.

Moreover, the actual number of public sector workers has actually been in modest decline recently. Ignoring the exceptional cases of the publicly-supported banks, public sector employment in Scotland actually decreased by 2.7% in the last year. Public sector workers (including the banks) accounted for 23.5% of all employment in Scotland in the second quarter of this year. By contrast, in 1999 when, of course, the financial institutions were not part of the public sector workforce, the state accounted for 24.3% of all employment in Scotland.

Again, one may think these figures higher than might be considered ideal. Nevertheless it is implausible to pretend that matters are getting worse when, at least according to the government's figures, they are not. Indeed, with public sector employment now falling faster than private sector employment the kind of "rebalancing" the Tories seek is actually happening, albeit perhaps in a more modest fashion than they might desire.

In any case, does it need to be said that government-paid workers also contribute to national prosperity? Do they not spend their money too? Of course they do. A pound spent by a teacher or a local government official is no less precious to its recipient than a pound spent by the director of a private sector company. A new house purchased by a civil servant is no less useful to the construction industry than a new flat bought by a fund manager in Edinburgh. This too is so obvious that one wishes it did not need to be pointed out to the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party.

The Scottish Tories are in a different place to that inhabited by their brethren south of the border. Since they are so far from power it is all but inconceivable they will form part of the next government at Holyrood there is space for them to be an ideas-driven party more concerned with identifying and then winning the long-term arguments that will matter most to the country's future prospects than with making the compromises necessary to win power in the short or even medium term. That would be a bold but honourable approach that, though fraught with risk, would at least offer some way forward as a kind of souped-up think-tank-cum-lobby-group.

I am not sure that's what the party really wants, however. And so we endure the sight of a Conservative leader latching on to simplistic and fashionable nonsense about Makers and Takers and contriving to send a message that, whether it was meant this way or not, 88% of Scots are part of the problem, not the solution.

That's not good politics; it's a disaster. 

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