Andrew Wilson: ambition not apologies needed from Tories

Margaret Thatcher in Leith during a pre-General Election tour in May 1979. Picture: TSPL
Margaret Thatcher in Leith during a pre-General Election tour in May 1979. Picture: TSPL
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ONCE upon a time, the Conservative party got MPs elected in Scotland. Once upon a long time ago, they even got them in Glasgow. Well, the last time was 1979, when Sir Tam Galbraith won the Hillhead seat. When he died in 1982 he was succeeded by Roy Jenkins for the SDP and Glasgow never returned a Tory to Westminster again.

The obliteration of Tory support is a remarkable part of the story of modern Scotland. It is so ingrained in the culture that local cub scouts now give out badges on learning never to vote that way, along with cycling proficiency.

My three-year-old can rehearse the things the Thatcher government did to wrong Scotland (abolishing milk, abolishing industry, banning the bagpipes) and all of my friends’ kids can too. OK, so I have exaggerated a touch there. A touch.

But it is interesting that we have reached a moment of pause in the party’s story where they have one last chance to do something about their inexorable decline. It is even more interesting that the man charged with chairing the commission to analyse their choice is the son of the last Glasgow Tory MP.

Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith is the 2nd Baron Strathclyde, Companion of Honour and Privy Councillor. Known to all who love him as Tom Strathclyde, he has never sought election but has devoted much of his life to public service roles from an active seat in the House of Lords since 1986.

In March last year, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson made him chair of her commission to examine ways to strengthen the Scottish Parliament. He is due to report in May. This is a big moment in the history of Scottish Conservatism.

Davidson has had a decent run of form as leader. She is young, fresh and different in almost every way from the stereotype view of the office she holds. She is articulate, popular with the media and comes over well in Parliament and on TV. All important, but not sufficient for success and her party’s polling rating remains stuck in the mid-teens.

She knows she needs to change the position and positioning of her party radically if she is to have any hope of doing more than managing decline. Scotland needs a centre-right voice in its politics to challenge consensus thinking and provide proper democratic choice.

In every other democracy a centre-right party would be expected to stand confidently for making politicians accountable for raising the money they spend and driving power closer to the people. But here the Tories seem to have lost their confid­ence and sense of purpose. They seem unsure and are defined by where other parties stand and by what their London mothership thinks.

The Strathclyde Commission presents an opportunity to reach into themselves confidently for a new sense of purpose and confidence in who they are and what they stand for. There is no point in them simply tacking on Holyrood powers to look a bit more pro-Scotland or even to position themselves as more ambitious than Labour. Nor should they be driven by what the SNP is doing. No-one will sit up and take note.

But if they embrace the opportunity to define confidently how they would strengthen Scotland’s democracy and economy, then foundations for growth could be laid. I always found it truly ironic that Conservative politicians argued that a subsidised and unsustainable Scotland was a reason to keep things as they are. It always seemed fundamentally to lack ambition to assume the central hold on power would always be better than giving it to the people. It also seemed very un-Conservative.

I don’t suggest for a minute that Tom Strathclyde’s findings will set the heather on fire, whatever he says. But it can provide a platform for optimistic, confident and hopeful campaigning from a party that has said “no” to too many for too long.

We know what the Conservatives are against. Part of their problem for decades is that it has seemed to so many that it is Scotland and its progress itself they opposed.

The voice of reluctance is strong, of course. There remains a strong chance they will be unable to give up on fighting the battles they lost in the 1980s and 1990s. But most of the voices who argue for this don’t have the responsibility of leadership now. I get a sense that many have basically given up on the Scotland that gave up on them.

But if they manage to resist the magnetic pull of the past and the centralised hold on power, then new futures become more possible.

Once the reality of Scottish Conservatism is different so might public attitudes towards them change. Rebranding on its own would be a hollow, meaningless move. But if the substance of the party is renewed, so might the story and image they take to the people follow suit.

What is it they have left to lose? But they have so, so much to gain. Time for ambition to replace apology. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW