Making recovery sustainable
By Peter Duncan, Director
Times have changed for the Scottish Tories. Gone are the days of peripheral public and civic interest in their activities that prevailed for much of the last political generation. Gone are the days of broad irrelevance and media interest based more on attending an ill-disciplined and prolonged funeral. Last May’s seismic Scottish Parliamentary election result has changed all that, and suddenly what happens over the next couple of days as the Tories gather in Glasgow really matters.
For some, that will be a source of consternation. Senior Labour figures will look on at the events in Glasgow with consternation and no small level of envy. How could they have surrendered so quickly and meekly the territory of Scotland’s force of opposition, they will be reflect. How could they have allowed the “toxic Tories” to run rampage over the Scottish political rule book over the past three years. How could they have become so irrelevant, so quickly.
They are right to be self-critical, for their misjudgements have contributed significantly to the radical change in climate that has made a recovery in Scottish Tory fortunes possible. But they are not responsible for its entirety.
Many, myself included, severely doubted the decision to appoint Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Tories. Yes, she was talented, different, unconventional and broke the mould when elected in 2011. No one doubted her talent, but many doubted her ability to make the changes required to deliver sustainable recovery in Conservative electoral fortunes.
Clearly, that recovery has been delivered, the doubters have been silenced, and the only question now remaining is over sustainability.
Let’s get the obvious truth out of the way. The election of over 30 MSPs to the Conservative benches in Holyrood last May was not delivered out of a sudden and dramatic conversion of middle Scotland to the cause of conservatism. I wish it was so, and it may yet be, but that was not the basis of the dramatic outcome. It was built on the Conservatives seizing control of the defining issue in Scottish politics, the constitution. Ruth has done well to position the Party as the main beneficiaries of lingering uncertainty over our national sovereignty.
For the Tories are clearly established as the natural home for anyone resolutely opposed to another independence referendum, and for those more specifically and resolutely opposed to independence. They have two main challenges – continuing to secure that territory, and in the longer term making conservatives out of those unionists.
In the short term, the political environment is playing directly into the hands of conservative strategists, in the same way as nationalist strategists are also content with the high level political playing field. Like two football teams settling for a draw, each is content with the position of the other.
For the SNP’s seemingly unstoppable move towards indyref2 is adding fuel to the fire of Tory warnings about a government that seems obsessed with the constitution and distracted from the day job. Conversely, the rise of the Scottish Tories to the opposition party in Scotland is playing right into the hands of the SNP who relish a political climate dominated by the option to vote Tory or SNP. They see that as a political optic that will sustain them in government. They may be right.
However, that simple analysis overlooks the reality that unionists are genuinely fearful of a second referendum. Indyref2 has all the makings of a very uncertain affair. For the last five years, people around the world have been making ever more radical, some would say inexplicable, decisions in elections and referenda. All over the unionist side, there is genuine fearfulness that the outcome of another referendum in Scotland just cannot be predicted with certainty.
Yes, the economic backdrop is fundamentally worse now that it was in 2014, all the experts tell us that, but as Michael Gove said in the run up to the EU referendum, people are a bit fed up with experts telling them what to do. It is that uncertainty that weighs down unionist thinkers. The coming referendum, for it is now certainly coming, thus presents very high stakes for the Scottish Tories. Win it, and Ruth Davidson and the Tories will be lauded as saviours of the Union – lose it, and they will bear principal responsibility for the loss of the United Kingdom. High stakes indeed.
However, the greater truth is that an early second referendum may rob the Scots Tories of the time they need to move their supporters from unionists to conservatives. As things stand, they look set fair for a decent 2020 general election result propped up by opposing another referendum; if that referendum has been and gone (whatever the result) then their prospectus, and their prospects, look distinctly weaker. They need to build a conservative narrative outside of the prism of unionism, and do it quickly, to build that sense of sustainability that is required for a credible challenge at the top in Scottish politics.
That means deciding what the Conservatives are for in Scotland, outside of opposing independence. In the spotlight of public and media attention, Tories can (in my view) no longer get away with behaving like the minor party of opposition they have been for so long. No longer can bandwidth be taken up with criticising how much has been spent on ministerial cars, when you are now for the first time contemplating being offered a couple of those cars in the foreseeable future.
It’s also high time to reflect on the perception of a party that professes financial discipline, yet which advocates higher spending at each and every turn. The time has come to make the transition from a tactical opposition, opposing court and library closures, transport cuts and restraint on health spending towards a party that can credibly claim to have the best interests of our nation’s finances at heart.
As the SNP continue to fear being outflanked by Labour on the left, Conservatives should have the self-confidence to be responsible, be disciplined and act like the party that could credibly play a part in running Scotland within the next two parliaments.
The prize is significant, but the spotlight on Glasgow will be unforgiving. It is time to make that Scottish Conservative revival truly sustainable for the long term.