Stephen Daisley

A Scottish Tory government is no longer wishful thinking

A Scottish Tory government is no longer wishful thinking
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'The Scottish Conservatives aspire to lead the next government of Scotland,' proclaims Ruth Davidson in a pamphlet setting out the party's thinking. 

Could it really happen? Could the Tories go from wipeout in 1997 to triumph in 2021 – from resisting devolution to effectively running the show in a generation?

Too long; didn't read answer? Yes. More complex answer: Yes, if... 

Scottish, Conservative, Unionist is a 'Yes, if' document, informed by an understanding that the party cannot sit back and wait for voters to come to it. Muhammad must launch a charm offensive on the mountain. The booklet features contributions from leading lights and rising stars. MSPs Adam Tomkins and Donald Cameron wrestle with inequality, intervention and the limits of programmatic solutions. Cameron counsels 'neither rugged individualism nor stifling collectivism, but a philosophy anchored in the dignity of every human being. A dignity which recognises that people should have some say in how their lives are arranged day-to-day.'

Then there's Annie Wells, a name you will hear more of in time. How to describe her? She's your average working-class Thatcher-admiring Glaswegian lesbian single mum. Raised a socialist, she laments 'casting my vote for Labour at every election and waiting for them to do something for me and my family'. The Glasgow MSP, who still lives in her childhood home in one of the city’s most deprived area, cites drug abuse and social breakdown as her causes. 

Ruth Davidson's chief policy advisor Marek Zemanik, a Slovakian immigrant, traces his conservatism to a childhood memory of jingling the house keys while watching the Velvet Revolution unfold on TV. He argues that migrants' pluck and self-reliance make them natural Tories while reflecting the shortcomings of his libertarianism when it comes to the social and economic costs of unstable families. In a poignant moment, Zemanik (full disclosure: a friend from university) makes his peace with Brexit and looks to the future in his adopted homeland. 

Scottish, Conservative, Unionist is not a policy document but a collection of ideas, reflections, impressions and thought strands grasped but not yet fully pulled at. It records a Tory Party searching for a mission beyond safeguarding the Union and attempting to articulate the Scotland they wish to bring into being. Concrete policy will have to come but they are doing the thinking that all good oppositions do when they are serious about making the transition to power. 

Sure, but that’s never going to happen. Right? Five years ago, suggesting that the Scottish Tories could one day hold the keys to St Andrew's House risked derision, if not confinement in softly-cushioned accommodation. A lot has changed in five years. 

Edinburgh's Stockbridge area – a chi-chi sprawl of charcuteries, espresso bars and retrochic boutiques that never seem to sell anything but never go out of business – shows this change. The population, a mix of millennial graduates and ageing yuppies, spends much of its time power-walking designer dogs with a kale and quince smoothie in hand. Naturally, this Peckham-on-the-Leith has been reliable territory for Labour and latterly the SNP, or at least it was. In the 2016 Holyrood elections, Ruth Davidson pulled off an upset win in Edinburgh Central and the Scottish Tories came first in top-up votes too. In last year's council elections, they boosted their first preference share by 25 per cent and now claim half the ward’s councillors. 

Admittedly, this is not a hotbed of nationalist agitation or post-industrial depression but it is a symbol of how the Tories are winning round the kind of affluent, socially liberal voters who once shunned them as heartless and icky. As in Edinburgh Central, so too Eastwood and, at Westminster level, East Renfrewshire and Aberdeen South. Across Scotland, there are small but unmistakeable signs that that Conservatives have not reached the 'natural ceiling' their opponents and critics keep wishfully predicting then quietly revising upwards. 

Nor are these pockets of unmined Toryism restricted to leafy suburbs. In the 2017 local elections, Shettleston, Baillieston, Calton and Ferguslie Park – among the most deprived communities in Scotland – went Tory, to the horror of an establishment which believed it owned them. In the general election, the party gained 12 seats, cut the SNP's majority to under three per cent in a further five, and pulled off a median vote share increase of 13 per cent. They came second in Dundee East, a seat they've never held, and helped slash the SNP’s majority by 12,000. In Lanark and Hamilton East, where their previous high-water mark was scraping 16 per cent of the vote, they pummelled a 10,000 Nationalist majority south of 300. 

There are, then, more voters out there who may never be Tories, who would heartily object to the label, but who could be coaxed into lending the party their vote. Transactional politics sounds vulgar in this age of true believers but Ruth Davidson’s pitch is that ‘we can do a job for you’. She’s looking for customers, not converts. Is it enough to win government in 2021, though? If the Tories can get to 35 per cent on the regional list and somewhere near there in the constituencies – and if Labour and the Greens nibble a few points off the Nat vote – they could end up the largest party at Holyrood. 

Like I said, a Scottish Tory victory is a ‘Yes, if’ proposition. Yes, if they can move beyond constitutional warring to make peace with soft-Nat voters. Yes, if they can turn their demands for low taxes and more spending into a more credible message. Yes, if they can convince Scots they are dull but effective middle managers, a government-in-waiting that can take Scotland forward. It’s a daunting task but the Tories have begun to believe it’s possible and that, while not quite half the battle, is a good start.