No easy answers for leaderless Scottish Tories

Anyone who wants my phone can have it.

Ever since word dropped that Ruth Davidson intended to resign, it has been ringing, purring, buzzing and chirping non-stop, as contacts from all perches in the Scottish Tory pecking order get in touch to tell me What Must Happen Now. 

Some suggestions would make for real change. Others made me want to change my number. New parties were touted or pre-emptively dismissed, per the caller’s inclination. There was a proposal that an MP be made leader and another that a Brexiteer be chosen to lead. Almost all were about what would make Scottish Conservative members the happiest. 

Davidson is barely out the door and already her party is forgetting the lessons of her leadership. She revived the Scottish Tories by putting country before party. The prize was not a contented membership but an electoral proposition capable of attracting those who would otherwise never dream of voting Conservative. 

As the Scottish Tories search for a new leader, they would do well to remember this. A Brexiteer MSP, perhaps someone like Margaret Mitchell, could probably pull off a Corbyn-like surprise win among a membership that is wholly unrepresentative of the general public. But nothing would do more to sweep away the gains Davidson made than a bout of blue Corbynism. 

The next Tory leader will have to build upon Davidson’s charm offensive on floating voters and her deft use of the Union to bring on board otherwise Tory-sceptical electors. 

Adam Tomkins says he won’t join this leadership race but he has proposed that Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians form a new pro-Union party to take on the SNP. 

‘The threat of independence has not gone away,’ the Tory constitution spokesman told the Scottish Mail on Sunday. ‘Things may change —- and Alex Salmond’s forthcoming trial may blow Scottish politics out of the water — but at this distance the next Holyrood election, in May 2021, looks as though it will be a referendum on a referendum.’ 

A pro-Union coalition is one Tomkins might be interested in leading. Jackson Carlaw, interim Tory leader, is against any new party.

I have previously raised the prospect of the Tories disbanding to set up a Unionist party in the centre-ground of Scottish politics. Readers’ responses were mixed. True-blue Tories were mostly against the idea; those much more wedded to the Union than the Conservative Party tended to be in favour. 

There are other problems, trivial and fundamental, with Tomkins’ blueprint. He is a law professor at Glasgow University and has a brain the size of Finland but, generally speaking, academics should not run things. He told Sunday’s paper his party could be called the Scottish Liberal Unionists, or ‘I quite like the name Enlightenment’. Academics shouldn’t name things either. 

A more rudimentary flaw in Tomkins’ plan is that while opposing independence is a sound rationale for a temporary electoral pact, it is a sparse manifesto for a political party. 

This is one of the under-appreciated differences between nationalism and Unionism: almost every single SNP MSP got into politics because they believe in independence first and foremost. Few opposition MSPs got into politics because they believe in the Union first and foremost. 

Set aside the independence question and there is very little Jackie Baillie, Alex Cole-Hamilton and Murdo Fraser agree on. It’s difficult to see how a Unionist party that didn’t attract all three would make much of an impact at Holyrood, yet they hold starkly different ideas about taxation, the size and role of the state, education reform, crime, welfare and much else besides. 

If there is to be a Unionist version of the SNP, it will mean unlearning generations worth of tribalism and agreeing on a similarly bland, populist policy agenda. It’s a task you’d be hard-pressed to complete in a decade, let alone two years. 

What Tomkins proposes could be more readily and realistically achieved by adopting the plan once touted by Murdo Fraser: disband the Scottish Tories and create a centrist, pro-Union party in its stead. Such a party would, like the SNP, begin from a basic constitutional premise but it could also ape the everyman manifesto that got Alex Salmond into power in 2007 (council tax freeze, keep hospitals open, more bobbies on the beat).

A party in this vein could take pro-Union votes from Labour and the Lib Dems and cleave some voters who just want steady managerialism from the SNP. 

Ruth Davidson defeated Fraser in the 2011 leadership election by campaigning against his idea and has repeatedly rejected it since. Arguably, though, his model is best-placed to carry forward the legacy of Davidsonism, to the extent we can speak of such a thing. 

Davidsonism’s unfinished revolution is the forging of a patriotic blue-collar conservatism at ease with modern sensibilities and underpinned by a belief in hard work, personal responsibility, and the opportunity to improve your life and that of your children. It is a philosophy which sees the Union as a source of Scottish pride and the foundations for the success and security of both Scotland and the rest of the UK. 

Central to the Davidsonite worldview is the knowledge that politics is not the centre of the world. The former Tory leader connected with voters because she could approximate the qualities of a human being. A sense of humour is an underrated attribute in political life but it is an effective way of setting yourself apart from all the poll-crunching oddballs who talk in verbless sentences and quote the West Wing in casual conversation.

Whether the Tories decide to stick with their party or plump for an upgrade, they need a leader who is more than a walking soundbite-generator. They might not have another church-going lesbian rugger fan with a penchant for oversharing on her Gillian Anderson crush waiting in the wings, but they should be looking for someone who at least sounds like a regular person.

Part of carrying on Davidson’s legacy is picking up the slack she left. She cared about a lot of issues besides the Union — the NHS, education — but none got the marquee billing that ‘No to Indyref2’ got. The Tories, or whatever they end up calling themselves, cannot just be the parliamentary wing of the We Hate Nicola Sturgeon Society. 

A sizeable chunk of the electorate is distinctly cool on the First Minister but not enough to force her from office. Most people don’t hate Nicola Sturgeon; they think she’s useless, or at least they could be convinced she is by a reasonable-sounding, halfway-normal Tory leader.  

Beyond this, the Tories need a good dollop of luck and a dose of confidence. There is not much they can do about the former but the latter is in their hands. Many of the phone calls and text messages that have come my way in recent days have been despairing. It’s the end of the party. The Union is over. A Scottish Tory wipeout was now certain and would allow Jeremy Corbyn to come first in the next election. Alas, poor Boris!

This may well all be true but politics is about making things happen, not limply accepting a pre-ordained fate. Yes, the Tories face daunting hurdles without Ruth Davidson and, yes, another 1997-style wipeout is possible if a snap election is called this autumn. But the Tories will turn that possibility into an inevitability if they sink into a self-pitying funk or a fit of navel-gazing. 

Their departed leader spent eight years laying foundations for the party to grow on and one day form government at Holyrood. When Ruth Davidson arrived, there was one Tory MP; now there are 13. When she became leader, the party held just 15 seats at Holyrood; it commands 31 today. There is a Tory councillor in Shettleston, in Baillieston, in Ferguslie Park, in Calton. 

Of course the next few years will be trying. Politics is meant to be trying. You are auditioning to run the country, not a village hall tea dance. The Scottish Tories must decide if they are up for the latest fight of their lives or prefer to resign themselves to defeat because Mummy is no longer there to hold their hand. A party that is not prepared to fight for what it believes in shouldn’t disband and form a new party, it should just disband. 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

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