Like everyone else, I’ve often been mean about the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. I recall suggesting they were the worst, most useless political party in the world. Fushionless and quite possibly beyond redemption.
But hark this shipmates, something is afoot and there are, titter ye not, modest grounds for modest optimism in Tory circles. After what was, I think it fair to say, a steep learning curve in her early days as leader Ruth Davidson is coming into her own. She has a poise and a stature that was not apparent even a year ago. The party’s recent conference in Edinburgh was a success and her speech her best since becoming leader.
Why, the Tory vote has even been nudging upwards in local council by-elections. A thin reed upon which to trust your life, perhaps, but drowning men have few options and must make the best of whatever’s available.
But, actually, the Tories are not drowning. Not any longer. They have not made much progress but they have made some. Not, true, in national elections but they are better positioned now than at any point in recent years.
Thanks to Alex Salmond, with an assist from Johann Lamont. The independence debate has galvanised the Scottish Tories. That’s the subject of my column in The Times today.
Nearly twenty years of craven self-abasement won the Conservatives few friends and little respect but they need no longer, like Uriah Heep, be “ever so ’umble”. They have a cause to fight for and a chance to be part of the national conversation. They can be out and proud at last. This is progress. Real progress.
Next month Lord Strathclyde’s commission will deliver the Tory response to the independence gauntlet thrown down by the SNP. It is a chance the party cannot afford to miss. Labour’s reluctant, half-hearted, half-baked proposals for further devolution have helped to forge an opening for the Conservatives. “This is such an obvious opportunity,” warns one senior MSP, that “it would be a calamity if we decided not to be bold.” No pressure, then.
The Tories have been functionally irrelevant for so long that it is dizzying to think that they now risk raising expectations too high. Lord Strathclyde must deliver a package offering real change that satisfies Scottish ambitions while cementing its place within the Union. The party is at last ready to accept meaningful reform. Anything short of that will be a lamentable failure made worse by it being so easily avoidable.
That means offering what might be termed “real home rule”. Labour’s response to the nationalist challenge was transparently self-serving. Granting the Scottish parliament power to increase income taxes but withholding the power to cut them is utterly illogical and a good way to drive wealth from Scotland.
Hence the Tory opportunity to offer something better. Not, insiders insist, as a “tactical ploy” or an attempt to “buy off voters” who might otherwise vote Yes but because it is a chance to make Holyrood a real parliament at last.
A parliament that can spend but cannot tax is only half a parliament. No wonder it lacks accountability. The answer to every problem is only and always more money. And when the Tartan Money Tree fails to produce enough cash it is easy to blame London, not Edinburgh, for Holyrood’s shortcomings.
Whole thing here. Strathclyde’s proposals are an opportunity to bring adult politics to Holyrood. Which, in turn, would allow the Tories to offer a proper centre-right, tax-cutting alternative. And that leads, at last, to talking about something other than the constitution. It means making better use of the powers the parliament enjoys now as well as those to come. It means we can have proper arguments and perhaps, if we are lucky, some proper solutions too. Everyone else in the parliament offers an echo, the Tories can offer an alternative. A real choice. We can do better than this.
Sure, they’re not going to win an election any time soon. That’s not the point. But winning arguments is the first step. Seats may follow. Even if they don’t, there’s value in owning your own Overton Windows.
In truth, the death of Tory Scotland has always been somewhat exaggerated. True, one Westminster MP is a feeble state of affairs but there remain several hundred thousand Tory voters who have stuck with the party at a time when doing so was neither popular nor profitable. But everyone, I think, accepts there are many more Tories out there than people actually voting Conservative at election time. They just need some good reasons to return to the fold.
Salmond, Lamont and Davidson are each in their different ways helping create some of those reasons. Recovery will still be a long, slow process but there is an opportunity here. Moreover, it is one the party is minded to grasp. Never forget that at the last leadership election 40% of voting members were prepared to euthanise the party and start again. The party is a little more imaginative, even progressive, than sometimes thought.
But this is an opportunity they cannot afford to miss. This is the first time in god knows how long they have the chance to help set the agenda. It would be nice if they didn’t make an almighty, Van Vossenesque, hash of it.