There has long been a problem for the Scottish Conservative Party that it has too often been compliant, too soft in appearing to accept the word of its national leadership when there were times that it would have been politically beneficial to speak out with a different message.
I have not been alone in thinking this. I remember former Aberdeen South MP Raymond Robertson when he became Party Chairman saying privately that what was needed was “a good argument” with the hierarchy so that Scottish voters would appreciate the party did have autonomy and could stand up for Scottish interests.
But such was the loyalty of the Scottish Conservatives that no issue of disagreement could be found.
That was in part down to a lack of self-confidence following the Tory wipe-out of 1997, the resulting decapitation of the local leadership and a belief that unity was a prerequisite for the route march back to electoral success.
There have been issues that affected Scotland more than the rest of the UK that could have been exploited, such as campaigning for reductions in fuel duty, but so keen was the national leadership to help the Scottish party that it would often adopt an idea or position conceived in Edinburgh and the possibility of a patriotic fall-out failed to materialise.
It is nearly twenty years since that wipe-out and the Scottish political landscape is considerably different. The route march to political salvation has not been completed fully, but the most difficult obstacles have been overcome and the numbers making the march are greater and have a well-earned spring in their step.
One of the benefits of the party’s new-found success – based upon it becoming the premier unionist party willing to challenge the SNP together with the pugnacious yet ebullient leadership of Ruth
Davidson – is that it now feels more comfortable in its own skin and more ready to defend what it views as Scottish interests when they are different from that of the
Conservative government of the day.
This is not a new phenomenon, for there is a strong pedigree of such behaviour running through its past elected members, such as Walter Allan winning the argument to establish the Scottish Office as a wholly separate department, or outspoken backbenchers such as Bill Walker and Albert McQuarrie defending our steelworks or fisheries.
Now, freed from her personal fealty to David Cameron by Theresa May’s ascension to the premiership, we are able to see that Ruth Davidson is willing to speak out and risk a public falling-out if the cause has merit. Recognising that there is much still to be decided on the final shape of the UK’s Brexit negotiating position, Davidson has been able to fire a few warning shots across the bows of ministers who are taking positions unlikely to find favour in Scotland.
The Conservatives always like to have a darling of the conference and this year Ruth Davidson was the conference darling, being feted by members and the media alike.
By reminding the conference and the wider audience beyond that “The Conservative party I know is optimistic in spirit and internationalist in outlook – we are an outward looking people, and so we must remain” she reprimanded not just the Trade Secretary and fellow Scot, Liam Fox, but also her former remain campaign ally, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd.
Fox had suggested EU nationals were “one of our main cards” in the Brexit negotiations, a morally repugnant idea as well as a silly one rightly rejected by the Cabinet Secretary for Brexit, David Davis.
Not to be outdone by Fox, the outspoken remainer Amber Rudd has also suggested companies would need to record the number of foreign nationals, taking us back to the days when Gordon Brown called for “British jobs for British workers.” Now she is having to back track, after a furious reaction, of which Davidson’s comments have added to.
Davidson could go further and take a leaf out of Albert McQuarrie’s playbook by seeking to turn the volume up by protecting the interests of Scottish fishermen – something the SNP has thus far been reluctant to do. Back in the early seventies the UK fishing grounds were seen as expedient by Ted Heath and bargained away in an effort to protect other interests.
Now the UK has the stronger hand. All the signs are that the UK is heading for a clean Brexit without a deal that keeps us in the protectionist single market and customs union – leaving us free to trade with the whole world on our own terms, while setting our own taxes and making our own laws.
It would be utter folly for the Government not to repudiate the Common Fisheries Policy and give management to the Scottish Parliament. Davidson could do worse than outflank the SNP in the very constituencies that previously fell to then “Tartan Tories”
She should not hang about, it is already clear from an interview given by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on a trip to Iceland that she is quickly backing away from her foot-stomping Brexit tantrum and suggesting that all options now need to be considered.
By taking up the fishermen’s cause Davidson can be next year’s conference darling and win back fishing constituencies at the next general election.
Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain