Alex Massie: Time Scottish Tories regained their self-respect

Ruth Davidson speaking at FMQ's. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Ruth Davidson speaking at FMQ's. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Ruth Davidson needs to stop apologising and start smashing the cosy Holyrood consensus, writes Alex Massie

THE great thing about Scottish politics is the way in which the same old stories repeat themselves on some endless loop. Missed any given stramash? Fret not, it will soon be coming round the block again. This may seem a sour response to Ruth Davidson’s speech yesterday but, really, haven’t we heard these tunes before? How many more times must the Tories apologise for their past sins before promising to do better next time?

Putting “clear blue water” between the Scottish Tories and their colleagues south of the Border is one matter – and a useful endeavour – but is less urgent than differentiating themselves from the other Holyrood parties. Davidson, to give her credit, has tried to do this but without much reward. At least not yet.

Unfortunately, Davidson’s message that the Tories will now put “Scotland first” still betrays a lack of confidence. Worse, it bolsters the impression that the party has previously subordinated Scottish interests to those of the UK. It reinforces the very message you wish to counter.

Actions are more important than words. As the Tory leader said, the party’s woes go beyond “marketing”. Davidson made a start on that front when she began to argue for reducing the basic rate of income tax in Scotland. But more needs to be done. How many voters are aware the Conservatives wish to cut their taxes? Not enough. Alex Salmond has embraced the logic of tax competition with regard to corporation tax. Davidson should ask – again and again – why what’s good for companies is not, apparently, good for individuals.

In the present circumstances, Tory ideas matter more than the number of Tories returned to Holyrood. The Conservative task is to act as a battering ram deployed to smash the cosy “Scottish consensus”. This requires picking a few subjects, developing effective arguments and hammering the SNP and Labour again and again and again.

Why, Davidson could usefully ask, has devolution become an obstacle to reform rather than a means of delivering real change? Why is the Scottish NHS now less productive than its English counterpart? Why, most especially, do Scotland’s schools fail so many pupils? Davidson’s speeches are full of fine assertions on these matters but too often the detail is lacking. Should it not be considered a national scandal, for instance, that only 7 per cent of Glaswegian state-educated pupils will leave school with five good passes at Higher? Is it not embarrassing that, across the country, only 12 per cent of state school pupils achieve this “gold standard”?

A policy is not necessarily better just because it is swathed in tartan. Too often, in fact, Scottish distinctiveness is allowed to cover-up, or otherwise excuse, mediocrity. We are not as good as we like to think we are. This is not “talking Scotland down”; it is exhorting Scotland to do better.

The Conservatives should not be afraid of controversy. The years of sheepish, timorous, apologies should be put behind them. The Tories have served their penance. This is no time for hair-shirt Conservatism. On the contrary, the Conservatives have useful things to say on public sector reform, on welfare, and on taxes. The Tories job is to be Holyrood’s awkward squad, pointing out uncomfortable truths and demanding something better.

How much worse can it get for the Tories, anyway? A party that attracted less than 14 per cent of the vote at the last Holyrood election has little further to fall. But why vote for a party that has failed to offer a proper alternative to the Scottish consensus? There can be no hope for a right-of-centre revival in Scotland unless the Tories regain their self-respect.

That demands some boldness, too. Fairly or not, the Tories are hampered by their stubbornness on the constitutional question. Davidson was elected on a promise to “draw a line in the sand” on the constitution. That looked an inadequate position a year ago and nothing since has persuaded me – or, I think, many others – that it is any less inadequate now.

Davidson hinted at this yesterday. But a “constitutional commission” is a feeble response to a changing Scotland. It is apparent that Scots wish Holyrood to become something akin to a proper parliament. That is, one that has significant revenue-raising powers in addition to its present spending competencies.

Had they enjoyed even a modicum of gumption these past dozen years, the Tories could – and should – have been at the front of this debate. Instead they are, yet again, lagging behind.

Fiscal autonomy – or Devo-max or however else you wish to describe it – should be at the heart of the Tories manifesto. It is, after all, a conservative principle that a parliament lacking the power to tax is a parliament destined to favour bigger, more expensive, more interfering government.

One suspects, however, that the Tories have been feart of favouring revenue-raising powers for Holyrood for fear this would lead to Scotland being more heavily taxed than other parts of the United Kingdom. That may be a reasonable fear. But, if so, then this too reinforces the regrettable notion that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party does not trust Scotland to manage a greater share of its own affairs. When the national mood has been “Yes, we can” the Tories have sucked their thumbs and whimpered “Actually, we probably can’t. And even if we could, we shouldn’t.”

Murdo Fraser’s idea for a fresh start with a wholly new right-of-centre party was, perhaps unsurprisingly, scuppered by the Tories whose votes he sought in the leadership election. Davidson has now moved closer to her erstwhile rival’s position. That is a welcome first step, but the Tory leader needs to be bolder and braver still. She should be measured less by the seats she wins but by the truths she tells, the battles she fights and the arguments she influences.