These days, alas, the only time the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party makes it onto the front pages of the nation’s newspapers is if she’s made some almighty blunder. Sadly, Ruth Davidson’s speech to a fringe meeting in Birmingham this week was a calamity. That’s the subject of my latest Think Scotland piece:

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.

[...] 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, suggests 88% of Scots are part of the problem, not the solution.

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

Really, it’s not difficult to appreciate that We Hate You, Now Vote for Us is not a winning political message. Moreover, when Michael Forsyth – not always a man in tune with Middle Scotland – suggests you’ve blundered it is reasonable to think you may have made one hell of a mistake.

Whole thing here.

*UPDATE: Actually, I’m reminded that Ruth’s spell as an aide to Annabel Goldie may have been paid for by public funds too.

Tags: Ruth Davidson, Scotland, Tories, UK politics