When news of Jackson Carlaw’s victory came through on Friday, I was in a dentist’s waiting room nursing a jackhammer of a toothache. The announcement was welcome since it provided me with someone other than myself to feel sorry for.
After Kezia Dugdale won the Scottish Labour leadership in 2015, I told her my first reaction was wanting to hug her because she was in for a hell of a time. After Carlaw prevailed in his contest, my first thought was whether Clinton’s sold ‘Sorry You’ve Just Been Elected Leader of the Scottish Conservatives’ cards.
Maybe I’m just being a gloom-merchant, or maybe it’s the abscessed anguish talking, but I look at the odds Carlaw is up against and struggle to see how he can overcome them. This isn’t a reflection on the man: the party membership made the right decision (and by some margin).
Across many years and through some of its darkest days, Carlaw has been a faithful servant to the Scottish Tory Party. During Ruth Davidson’s maternity leave and the vacancy left by her resignation, Carlaw stepped up to lead amid political tumult on the national scene. He approaches First Minister’s Questions with an acid flair that sometimes gets him in trouble but more often puts Nicola Sturgeon on the back foot.
This is all very commendable but the next challenge is the biggest he has ever faced in his political life. In 445 days, Scotland will go to the polls to decide whether it wants him as first minister or whether it would rather stick with Sturgeon. The latter is far and away the favourite and even allowing for Harold Macmillan‘s reputed admonition, it would take some fairly extraordinary events to place the Tories on the government benches next year.
The best poll for the Conservatives so far this year had them trailing the SNP by 24 points. Yet Carlaw told readers of the Scottish Mail on Sunday that ‘the prize that is now in view’ was ‘to bring the era of nationalism to a close’. I suspect the definition of ‘era’ will prove to be as elastic as that of ‘generation’.
The new Scottish Tory leader has announced a policy review and insiders speak of it in the half-hushed, half-giddy tones of a no-sacred-cows affair, similar to Tony Blair’s zealous reform of Labour or David Cameron’s revamp of the Conservatives into a party of hoodie-huggers.
Change is certainly needed. After 20 years of devolution, and despite Davidson taking them into second place, the Scottish Tories have never secured even one quarter of the seats in a Holyrood election. Deep wells of suspicion run through much of the country and are filled with cartoonish folk memories of a woman who has been dead for seven years and out of power for thirty. For a great many Scots, ‘Tory’ is still the ultimate four-letter word.
Reforming the party to convince these voters that it represents their interests is a perfectly sensible idea. The Tories can’t be like the far-Left Labour council leader who was heard to growl at the height of Thatcherism: ‘There can be no compromise with the electorate.’ But Tories should understand better than anyone the dangers of hasty or ill-conceived change, the kind of change that leaves a party a husk of what it once was.
What the Scottish Tories must avoid in particular is remaking themselves as SNP-lite and Jackson Carlaw as Nicola Sturgeon without the extensive air miles portfolio. It would be very easy to rip up every policy the party has and replace them with faint tracings of the SNP’s own agenda but it would be cynical opportunism and it would be seen as such.
What kind of thing am I talking about? In general terms, the sort of populist, publicity-seeking junk policy that feels satisfying in the moment but proves unfilling in the longer term. One example might include embracing the SNP’s position on tuition fees. Some key figures in the Scottish Tories believe their current support for a ‘graduate contribution’, in which graduates would begin to pay back £6,000 in instalments once they were earning more than £20,000 per annum, positions them on the wrong side of Middle Scotland. The policy costs them the votes of students and their parents, so the thinking runs, and scrapping it would help shake off their image as market-obsessed Thatcherites.
Ruth Davidson indulged in a bit of this herself when she abruptly ditched the party’s opposition to ‘free’ prescriptions during the 2017 election. Notably, Davidson used her Mail on Sunday column to endorse ‘throwing out long-held policies and unveiling a more comprehensive platform’.
There may be sound reasons to reverse-ferret on tuition fees, as there might have been on prescription charges, but these have to be rooted in quality of service and cost-effectiveness. Doing a trolley-dash around the last SNP manifesto and grabbing shiny policies at random, like some political version of Supermarket Sweep, is not the approach of a serious party of government.
Davidson made another observation in her column yesterday. ‘As Conservatives,’ she wrote, ‘we never get the benefit of the doubt on motive.’ This is true and that is why an impulsively-assembled clanjamfrie of freebies and headline-grabbers risks alienating the voters even further. A party prepared to renounce deeply held principles on the off-chance it might bring electoral advantage will be seen through by the voters faster than you can say ‘naked opportunism’. They know how to count and they know anyone who promises centre-left spending on centre-right tax levels is for the watching.
This is the lesson of New Labour that its Tory admirers never fully learned: Tony Blair didn’t break with Labour’s core beliefs; he broke with their tradition of losing elections. For all the gnashing and wailing from the hard-Left, New Labour’s policy priorities — a minimum wage, tackling poverty, massive spending on schools and hospitals — were social democratic golden oldies. Blairism was Attleeism with a better spin operation. As the Scottish Tories embark on an agenda of change, they should learn from Blair’s example and modernise rather than masquerade as something they’re not.
The polls look bleak at the moment and they may portend an underwhelming result next May, but there are reasons to be cheerful and they come from Jackson Carlaw. Confirming his canny political sense, he made his first appointments as leader two rising stars. Rachael Hamilton, MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, was made party co-chair while Glasgow’s Annie Wells became joint deputy leader.
There will be time to talk about Hamilton later but Wells is the promotion to focus on for now. She has something — something still ineffable — and I can only describe it as a grit, something with a bit of edge to it. There is no artifice beyond what is necessary to the low-grade showbusiness that is politics, and even then not all that much of it. She is a working-class Tory, a walking definition of blue-collar conservatism, and the sort of person the party needs to win over if it is ever to see government in Scotland. It’s not enough that she has become the party’s deputy, she has to become its soul.
Jackson Carlaw could surprise us all and end up in Bute House after next May but I suspect not and he’s clever enough to know that it’s extremely unlikely. Even so, his leadership is an opportunity to do what he has always done: put himself at the service of the party he loves. Carlaw can be the leader who sets the Scottish Tories in good stead for 2026 and he can do that by principled policy change, honest costings, ushering in new talent, and putting in the strongest possible showing in 2021.
Whatever comes of his policy review, it will not lead the Scottish Tories into power. That can only come by fashioning a conservatism that is true to the party’s values and trusted by the voters. Scotland is a conservative country that has still to find a conservative party worth voting for. Jackson Carlaw will do the heavy-lifting for now, but it will fall to Annie Wells and others like her to shape such a party for the future.