I wasn’t around to see Titus welcomed back to Rome after the conquest of Jerusalem, Nelson hailed in Naples for sinking the French on the Nile, or the Lisbon Lions and their European Cup roared around Celtic Park in an open-top lorry but I got to witness Ruth Davidson’s reception at Conservative conference five months after she made the Scottish Tories the official opposition at Holyrood.
It was October 2016, Birmingham, and the annual Tory gathering did not belong to Theresa May. She was there, her speech was important, journalists hunched over their notebooks for any hints about her Brexit plans but the newly crowned Prime Minister was merely the warm-up act for the star of the show.
This wasn’t a party conference; it was a glorified victory lap for Ruth Davidson. She walked in mobs, her every step drawing throngs of party activists, backbench MPs and senior ministers. Hundreds were shut out of the annual Scots Night gathering, which was already rib-pokingly overcrowded, but still they waited outside to see her coming — and going.
Davidson’s own speech was stowed, the audience ecstatic. She may even have got the odd word in between the prolonged cheering and hollering. Her skill is thought to lie in making Tories of non-Tories but she can also make Tories behave in the most un-Tory fashion.
The Conservatives are back in Birmingham this year and this afternoon they will welcome Ruth Davidson to the stage of the city’s Symphony Hall. The mood will be nowhere near as ebullient. Brexit has the entire party on edge. Leavers consider Remainers treacherous sell-outs. Remainers think Leavers are downright nuts. May’s advisers hate the backbenchers, the backbenchers hate them right back, and everyone hates the Chequers plan.
Even so, Davidson will go down a treat with the delegates. A few well-placed digs at Nicola Sturgeon and some tough talk on independence and the blue-rinse matrons will toast her in the finest sherry the hotel bar has to offer.
There is, however, a more important audience: the voters back home. They are the reason Davidson is so beloved, for it is they who have lent her their votes in Holyrood and Westminster elections. There would be no Scottish Tory revival without them and there is a niggling sense that the party may have forgotten about them.
These are the electors of Middle Scotland. They are professionals, small and medium-sized business owners, and public sector managers. They are not ideologues and have previously put their cross next to the SNP and Labour, but they do hew to certain values. They believe in hard work, fairness, opportunity and personal responsibility. They want safe streets, schools that give their children the best start in life, but they don’t want to see their hard-earned money wasted by clueless ministers.
Middle Scotland likes the Tories because it likes Ruth Davidson and it likes Ruth Davidson because it believes she shares these values. Since 2014 she has been their champion against an SNP manic in its determination to re-run the independence referendum until it gets the result it wants. Middle Scotland will have cried a hearty ‘hear, hear’ last week when Davidson, asked what she’d say if Nicola Sturgeon tried to call another vote, replied: ‘Sling your hook, love’.
It is essential for the Tories to be the party of the Union but some of them have come to mistake it as sufficient. It is not. In their two years as the official opposition at Holyrood the Tories have a single major victory to their name: they stopped Indyref 2. An important achievement but a lonely one. Since then, the Tories have begun to drift, allowing Labour and others to take the lead on the Phil Gormley row and Shona Robison’s slow-motion car crash at the helm of the Scottish NHS.
The party has flip-flopped on standardised assessments for primary one pupils, which it backed in its last manifesto but ditched at the first chance to team up with the left-wing parties and embarrass the SNP government. Policy consistency was a casualty of gotcha politics. On both education and health, it is becoming more, not less, difficult to work out what the Tories stand for. Policy pamphlets come and go but seldom seem to last longer than any given news cycle.
We don’t have another Scottish Parliament election until 2021 (God be praised) and parties need time to come up with ideas, test them out, and form a coherent platform. No one expects the Tories to be at the end of that process three years out from polling day but it would nice if they gave the impression of having made a start. They certainly have the brains to hand in policy maven Donald Cameron but insiders complain of a lack of political direction, incapability in some parts of the MSP group and laziness in others.
If the Tories are to remedy this, they have to begin to make clear what they stand for and what a vote for the Scottish Tories will get you. The starting point is 29 October, the day of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget, his last one before Brexit. If he decides to cut taxes, Middle Scotland will feel little or no benefit. Derek Mackay believes we should be a higher-taxed economy and has legislated accordingly. What Middle Scotland wants to know is what the Scottish Tories would do differently.
They huff and puff about the SNP taxman who has made Scotland the highest-taxed nation in the UK but there’s barely a wheeze about how they would reverse the situation. What taxes would they cut? Where would they set the bands? And how would they pay for it?
There is a lightness where voters want firmness and vague themes where solid details are needed. The Scottish Tories consider themselves a government in waiting but we are still waiting to see them act like it. If they throw away this, their best opportunity, through complacency or laziness or ineptitude, those hero’s welcomes that once greeted Ruth Davidson will become a faded, bittersweet memory of what could have been.
A Sunday newspaper reports that Richard Leonard may reshuffle his shadow cabinet to remove Labour MSPs undermining his leadership. A somewhat elaborate way of handing in his resignation but fair enough.
Leonard, who leads the hymns from the Scottish pews of Jeremy Corbyn Ministries Inc., fell noticeably silent last week. His bosses in London had withdrawn financial backing for Kezia Dugdale, currently being sued for defamation by a pro-independence blogger. Dugdale says Labour’s previous general secretary undertook to fund her defence. The new general secretary is, unlike Dugdale, a Corbynista.
Dugdale was facing potential ruin until the Daily Record, which published the offending article, stepped in. I asked Leonard’s spin doctors if he agreed with the treatment of Dugdale. ‘Richard is pleased that Trinity Mirror newspapers are now supporting the case,’ came the craven, evasive reply.
Leonard can’t even show solidarity with one of his MSPs for fear he’ll upset the court of Corbyn. The man has a puppet string where his spine ought to be.
Health secretary Jeane Freeman has written to EU nationals working in the NHS, assuring them ‘Scotland is absolutely your home’. Very laudable, and in contrast to the minister who said in 2014 that EU nationals ‘would lose the right to stay here’ if a separate Scotland didn’t automatically inherit EU membership. The minister? Nicola Sturgeon.
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