Leaders: Tories can make a mark

Ruth Davidson. Picture: TSPL

Ruth Davidson. Picture: TSPL

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RUTH Davidson has slowly but surely established herself as a figure of real substance in Scottish politics. In exchanges at Holyrood during First Minister’s Questions, she has developed into Alex Salmond’s most effective adversary in the chamber. And she has gathered around her an effective team of spokespeople who can more than hold their own against their SNP and Labour counterparts.

But tomorrow she has her best chance of truly making her mark on the politics of this country. Tomorrow sees the launch of the long-awaited report by the Strathclyde Commission. This is the group chaired by Lord Tom Strathclyde, former Scottish Office minister and former Tory leader in the Lords, to examine the case for further devolution of power from Westminster to Holyrood. It promises to be a landmark moment in Scottish politics, for three reasons.

The first is that it is expected to recommend new financial powers for Holyrood, meaning that all three of the main UK parties at Westminster will now have proposals for strengthening Holyrood. Each will go into the UK general election next spring with a manifesto promise to that effect. The mechanism for finding the highest common denominator will be tricky, but that is a discussion for another leader column. The fact remains that the Yes Scotland mantra over the past two years of “No means nothing” is looking increasingly untenable as a tactic with any real credibility. Of course, there will be diehard nationalists who simply do not believe promises by the despised Westminster parties, but is the same true of more dispassionate don’t knows and persuadables?

The second is that it seems likely, if the runes are being read correctly, that the Strathclyde Commission will recommend a more radical transfer of powers to Holyrood than the one proposed in Scottish Labour’s equivalent commission, which reported in March. Labour’s recommendations were hedged and incoherent after a rebellion by some Scottish Labour MPs and a sceptical Labour Treasury team. The price Labour will have to pay for this is being outbid on Scottish home rule by the Tories – an extraordinary turn of events. Labour will have absolutely no-one to blame but itself.

The third reason is closely allied to the second. For almost two decades – since the 1997 wipe-out that left the party with no MPs in Scotland – the Tories have largely been in the political wilderness north of the Border. Repeated and valiant attempts at detoxifying the Tory brand have failed, smashed on the rocks of Scots’ unforgiving memories of the Thatcher/Major era. Emblematic of the party’s disconnect with Scottish voters has been its attitude to devolution, and the perception that its embrace of home rule has been somewhat unconvincing. Could there be a better riposte to this anti-Tory prejudice than being more enthusiastic about home rule than Labour, the progenitors of devolution? This might, just might, be the start of the long-promised Scottish Tory revival.

Of course, in her article for this newspaper today, what Davidson does not say is that she is a late convert to the “more powers” cause. While campaigning to be elected Scottish Tory leader she urged the party to draw “a line in sand” and stick with the powers Scotland already had. It was on this basis she was elected as her party’s leader, and her conversion to the campaign for a powerhouse parliament has been greeted with dismay in some Conservative quarters. Her conversion is due in no small part to David Cameron’s more relaxed attitude to the flexibility of Britain’s unwritten constitution, and his desire for the Conservatives not to be seen as a brake on Scottish self-determination. Cameron’s attitude is a welcome one, and so is Davidson’s belated embrace of it. She deserves her moment in the sun tomorrow.

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