Alex Massie

Ruth Davidson gives the Scottish Tories grounds for hope. At last.

Ruth Davidson gives the Scottish Tories grounds for hope. At last.
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Because I spent the weekend moving house and being depressed by events in Cardiff I did not attend the Scottish Conservative's spring conference in Edinburgh. A dereliction of journalistic duty, perhaps, but also, well, life takes over sometimes.

In truth, I didn't worry about missing the conference. Attending these things can be dangerous. Like journalism, politics attracts a grim number of copper-bottomed, ocean-going shits but also, like journalism again, a greater number of decent, public-spirited, optimistic folk than you might imagine. Most politicians, most of the time, are in the game for most of the right reasons.

Speaking to these people has its uses but, also, its dangers. Before you know it you end up liking them. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Ruth Davidson has been a wee problem for me.

I've known Ruth, you see, since university days. She is tough, smart and fun. Caustic on occasion, too. But in a generally good way. We have enough friends in common that we attend the same weddings. Not quite bosom chums but a good bit more than acquaintances too.

So obviously she's needed kicking. Quite often, in fact. Because that's the way it goes. We hope for better from our friends so they disappoint us more easily. (This, by the way, is why I criticise the Conservatives more often than Labour.)

But good things come to those who wait. And Ruth Davidson's speech to the Tory conference at the weekend was her best since becoming leader of the Scottish Tories. Sure, it contained a certain amount of blather of the sort all politicians feel they must offer (the NHS is not actually the "envy of the world") and a certain amount of wishful thinking (you don't have to be a Conservative to believe in responsibility, sound finances, opportunity or, even, "rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in") but this was still a good, well-crafted speech.

Best of all, it was muscular and unapologetic. The time for saying Sorry but we're actually Tories is long past. The time for taking the fight to the soft-left Scottish consensus long overdue.

This speech did that. For a long time now - too long - the Scottish Tories have minced around in hair-shirts. As you might expect, this look has done little for their appearance or their dignity. Time, then, to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and move on. Time to attack.

Ruth's suggestion that if Alex Salmond "was caught spraying graffiti, he’d blame the wall" was a good line. It's funny because even some of the First Minister's admirers might admit there's a grain of truth to it.

The Tories have been punchbags for so long that some have simply accepted that is their role. But Davidson urged the party to reclaim its patriotism. The SNP  - and Labour before them - have spent years implying there's a contradiction between being Scottish and Conservative. No Proper Scot could possibly be a Tory. They are Uncle Tams, truckling to London and their British paymasters. It's a peculiarly Scottish form of bigotry, really.

Except of course many Tories see no contradiction between being Scottish and British.  No need, either, to choose between these layers of identity. Edinburgh is the capital but so is London. The saltire is our standard but so is the Union Flag.

So why not cite Woody Guthrie? Why not indeed. Not least because of the irony in doing so. Salmond, you see:

[H]asn’t realised that this land is our land. This union is our union. And every one of us has their own personal reasons for wanting it to stay.

Our United Kingdom belongs to all of us. We’ve built it together. We’ve traded together. We’ve fought together. We’ve lived together. We’ve loved together. We’ve settled and built our lives together. This land is our land and we will allow no-one to break it apart.

Of course nationalists will scoff and snipe at this. They would. But Ruth wasn't speaking to them. She was talking to her tribe and reminding them that, despite the attrition of recent decades, the worst might be past. There are more Tories in Scotland than people think. More than 400,000 at the last general election. There's a place for them in this country too and don't let anyone forget that. It's their country too and they're no kind of McQuisling.

Better still, thanks be to god, she didn't only talk about the bloody constitution. She made a proper case for cutting income tax and welfare reform, best of all, for reforming Scottish education. Sure, as Ian Smart says, real school choice isn't hugely feasible in rural, small town Scotland but it's damn feasible in the parts of Scotland inhabited by most Scots. Instead, too often we endure what Ruth dubbed "a monopoly of mediocrity" in a system that "too often fails the ablest without giving real help to those who need it the most." We know this is true. More people need to say it.

Education is one of those minority enthusiams in which it is just as important to win arguments as win elections. Win the argument and change will come eventually no matter who governs. Education should be an issue that the Scottish Tories can "own". We must do better than this; we can do better than this. Today's heresy is tomorrow's orthodoxy and every journey begins with a single step.

And you don't need independence to improve education. Or health. Or even, necessarily, welfare. The SNP have one Very Big Idea but are often oddly silent on the many smaller ideas that also really matter. They are less interested in challenging orthodoxy or vested interests than you might think. Which is fine: everything is a means to an end and that end is independence. After which, naturally, all things become possible. (As they might.)

Of course the constitutional rammy matters but it's not the only game in town. Few people will vote for a party afraid of its own philosophy or worldview. Dignity and self-respect matter. The best thing about Ruth's speech was the way in which she jettisoned the Tory Cringe.

There is a market out there for an alternative to the soft-left, soft-soaping Scottish consensus. The Tories should provide it. For too long they have brought a butter knife to a gun fight. With this speech Ruth Davidson suggested they might start to tool-up and, jings, not before time.

It's clearly too soon to talk of a Tory Spring in Scotland but if you keek hard enough you can just about discern wee shoots of recovery. Two and a half cheers, then.

More of this, please.