Day Five of my icy internment and it’s starting to get to me.
I have not succumbed to cabin fever but something much worse: reality television. The news channels are filled with images of the nation brought to a snowbound halt and updates on Brexit. I am no longer sure which is which.
So I have found new companions in US makeover shows, the ones where everyone insists they’ve been ‘on a journey’ when in fact they’ve just got a new bathroom fitted or learned how to cook risotto.
Americans are daft for self-improvement and rapt by image; even the slightest alterations in appearance are embraced as fundamental transformations. But the more I watched, the more I began to wonder if I was being too cynical; if shows like these are so popular because of what they symbolise: an effort to change yourself or your life, a sign that – whatever your problems or failings – you are at least trying to make them better.
It got me to thinking about the predicament of the Scottish Tories. It’s not an obvious leap, I’ll grant you, from Harlan and Bonnie-Mae in Trailer Park, Arkansas, melting down their extensive shotgun collection to make statues of the baby Jesus to Ruth Davidson’s campaigns for lower taxes and longer custodial sentences – but bear with me.
The conventional wisdom is that, even after impressive gains, the Tories are still inherently reviled in Scotland. The party should torch the whole thing for the insurance money and start again. Soften their strident Unionism, embrace high taxes and high spending, and tone down reactionary patter on crime and family breakdown.
In effect, relaunch as Not the Conservative Party, a hollow facsimile of their rivals and the cosy collectivist consensus that reigns at Holyrood.
What if this is wrong? What if the voters are not looking for the Tories to change everything about themselves but undergo a more modest makeover to show they have learned from their mistakes?
Yesterday, Ruth Davidson announced a commission to get more women and ethnic minorities onto the Tory benches. I’ve long been iffy about positive discrimination; people should get ahead on merit. Looking at the numbers, however, makes it clear the meritorious are not getting through.
Ethnic minority Scots are 4 per cent of the population but less than 1 per cent of MSPs. Women are more than half the country but only a third of parliament. If you sat all the women elected to Holyrood since 1999 in the chamber at once, they would only fill four-fifths of the seats.
Tories aren’t typically associated with egalitarian campaigns but here they could pick up votes by showing that they look more like modern Scotland – and believe in the opportunity for everyone to get ahead. Ideally, this should include folk from outside the Holyrood bubble, who know how to run businesses and speak English rather than Politicianese.
Another small way of showing the Tories have undergone renovation is to champion an issue that would otherwise be the preserve of the centre-Left but is being neglected.
Tory MSP Adam Tomkins has urged his party to take on poverty and social injustice unapologetically. He tells me: ‘We need to focus on issues where folk feel angry that they are being let down and nothing is being done. The mere fact we’re willing to talk about them will start to turn more people’s heads.
‘Drug and alcohol addiction is one of those issues but more broadly it’s health, social justice and education – and justice too. The three things voters most like about Ruth is that she’s pro-Union, doesn’t want to put up their taxes and she takes a firm line on justice. These are the things that matter to them.
‘It’s our task to be that alternative, a party of the centre-Right that’s obviously strong on the Union and strong on tax – those things are never going to change – but also tackling issues like poverty, addiction, and social justice too.’
It is by this approach that the Tories can present themselves as an alternative to the SNP. Right now, the prospect of Ruth Davidson in Bute House seems remote. Bear in mind, though, that it’s been done before. The SNP went into the 2007 election with 27 seats and came out the government.
I asked a Nationalist insider what Davidson’s party could do to replicate that feat. This source said: ‘What the Scottish Tories have going for them you can sum up in one word: Ruth. She’s given the party its own distinctive voice and is willing to disagree with down South – for example on the EU, though she’s playing that one very cleverly. She’s also pitched tax messages that are right for her base.
‘That’s not enough, though. A political party has to be more than a one-woman show. They need to take on and develop a social justice policy, something that shows them as compassionate but is also properly costed and, ideally, something that actually helps real people.’
After almost two decades of devolution, it is jarring that there are such issues still waiting for a party to champion them. Ironically, it might fall to the Tories, who opposed the setting up of the Scottish parliament in the first place, to restore voter confidence in the institution.
As Professor Tomkins puts it: ‘The sad reality is that in many respects devolution has not delivered social change. It’s been good at banning things and giving things away for free – though of course they’re not free – but that early promise has largely remained unfulfilled.’
Most people are not political animals. They do not monitor the ideological positioning of the parties. What they do notice is the world around them: failing schools, lengthy NHS waiting times and the scourges of addiction and crime. They are willing to vote for whoever will take on these problems and fix them.
It is the most unlikely makeover of all but one that could hold the key to Bute House: the Tories should turn themselves into the saviours of devolution.
Presiding Officer is the loneliest job at Holyrood. You have to quit your political party upon taking up the role – the very moment when you need all the support you can get.
You become, in effect, parliament’s MSP and as well as 128 demanding constituents you have to represent the public’s interests too. It is a daily balancing act carried out under the watchful eye of party business managers and cynical hacks like me.
Last week, Ken Macintosh ruled that the SNP’s Brexit Continuity Bill was ultra vires – beyond Holyrood’s authority. His decision was informed by legal advice and not taken lightly.
He has, however, come in for a predictable online backlash. There is even a petition impugning his objectivity and urging his removal from office.
The SNP should make clear it has no truck with such blaeflummery. Macintosh is a man of character and even temperament who jealously guards parliament’s integrity and reputation. He deserves respect, not reproach.
A lawyer for exiled Catalan president Carles Puigdemont decries Spain’s efforts to apprehend his client, saying it’s ‘as if the United Kingdom were to imprison Sturgeon or Salmond’. That would be unconscionable. Democracy assailed. Civil liberties undermined. Hue & Cry reunited for a cover of ‘Free Nicola Mandela’. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.