The leader of the Scottish Conservatives should assume Valkyrie mode to get her beliefs across to the public, writes Brian Monteith
Last week there were two significant speeches by Conservative leaders. The first, by the Prime Minister, sought to redefine the country’s relationship with the European Union rather than let continental Europeans dictate a fait accompli as they move towards greater convergence to save the euro currency.
It was possibly his best and certainly his most courageous speech yet, and for all it drew the predictable criticism from opponents and EUphiles, it has undoubtedly put Ed Miliband and Alex Salmond in the uncomfortable position of being against the British or Scottish people having a say over accepting the new EU that will emerge over the next few years.
The second speech on Friday, this time by the party’s Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson, was no less brave, for she did that thing that all politicians hate facing up to – that she had been wrong about a fundamental policy and needed to announce a U-turn. The revelation that the Scottish Conservatives will now seek to put on the table their own ideas about further powers for Holyrood has been a long time coming from a Tory leader, but should be no less welcome for all that.
Davidson’s speech included other sections about her party’s fall from favour, of which her admission that the Scottish public does not trust the Scottish Conservatives was the most important. Rebuilding trust must be the key to restoring faith in the Conservative brand that can lead to a recovery, but there lies a problem. For, in committing her party to supporting greater devolution, she will have to work far harder than the leaders of the other parties to dispel a public suspicion that she does not truly believe in it.
Politics is an unkind profession most of the time, and the charge that she is a Jenny-come-lately with doubtful motives will be put to her or inferred with an uncomfortable regularity.
This can be resolved only by Davidson making the running, striving to say more, offering more and making the issue her own, rather than keeping up the rear. She must move fast and whatever the personal differences, she could display her sincerity by involving her defeated opponent, Murdo Fraser, in formulating the policy.
There is another difficulty that Davidson is well aware of and referred to, namely that the Scottish public see the Tories as being “London’s party in Scotland and not Scotland’s party in London”. Again, she has a fight on her hands to convince the people that this perception is unjustified, for there is more than a sneaking suspicion, already being aired, that her volte-face was pushed upon her.
After all, it was Davidson who, in seeking to appeal to party loyalists in last year’s leadership campaign, said the powers in the latest Scotland Act would be a line in the sand for her.
Now she is saying she will cross that line, but only after David Cameron talked last year of more powers being possible and David Mundell, the solitary Scottish Tory MP at Westminster, saying earlier last week that the party would come up with further proposals for more devolution. Davidson really has to exert her authority over Mundell; announcements about Scottish policy should not be coming from his mouth but hers. You don’t get a dog and then ask the pussycat to bark.
More damaging still was the expectation that Mundell created for Davidson’s speech – that there would be some big announcement about what the Tories would offer – when it turned out only to be pleasing mood music without an aria giving the detail or even the process by which Davidson could convince the electorate her motives are genuine.
As we get to know more about the real Davidson and hear what she has to say for herself – such as the fact that she voted No to a parliament but Yes to it being fiscally responsible in the 1999 referendum – I happen to think that she is sincere in supporting reforms that will make Holyrood work more effectively.
Only just elected to Holyrood and put up by London-based party hacks to stop the Fraser bandwagon at all costs, I rather suspect she was at least badly advised, if not pressed to make the line-in-the-sand commitment. It paid off at the time, with Lord Forsyth and others thumping their tubs and stirring up votes for her elevation, but has been an albatross around her neck ever since.
Now, having spent a good year in charge and having seen for herself just how detached Holyrood is from financial reality and accountability, her own sympathies that made her vote Yes in the referendum’s second question must have been gnawing away at her political conscience. Time then to announce that her instincts were right the first time, that if there is to be a parliament – and all Tories must now accept that it is never going to go away – then it had better be made accountable for its actions.
Arranging for Scottish income tax to go entirely to the Scottish Government and assigning a share of other taxes, as proposed by Alan Trench, would of course encourage more public debate on territory that Conservatives are believed and trusted in – that they will be more careful with taxpayers’ money and cut taxes.
It was noticeable that Davidson did not mention her existing policy of cutting Scottish income tax when the new powers would allow her to do so.
I felt this a mistake, as it would have underlined her intention to use the constitutional arrangements in a way that no other leader has yet offered, and it bears repeating – for the policy has not yet lodged in the public consciousness.
Like some Wagnerian epic, we are being promised that Friday’s speech was the first of a series of three. We have been given an overture; Davidson has set the scene, now we need the detail of the drama to unfold. Davidson should become the Tories’ Brunhilde, pulling down the temples of Scottish socialism, but to do so she must work even harder than other mortals around her.
And she could start by silencing Mundell by consigning him to the torrent, so that she and she alone is seen to be in charge.