A robust Tory party can only be good for Scotland's democracy – Alastair Stewart

Ruth Davidson was a brilliant political operator and a lifeline to the Scottish Conservatives. Her resignation as leader was not only a blow for her party but, like Labour at Westminster, is pause for thought as to why the opposition needs to be in fighting shape.
Ruth Davidson's resignation as leader was a blow to effective opposition to the SNP in Scotland (Picture: Getty)Ruth Davidson's resignation as leader was a blow to effective opposition to the SNP in Scotland (Picture: Getty)
Ruth Davidson's resignation as leader was a blow to effective opposition to the SNP in Scotland (Picture: Getty)

It shouldn't matter who occupies the shadow benches as long as they hold the government of the day to account and provide a credible alternative. Labour has, in many ways, failed to offer a convincing challenge to Cameron, May and Johnson. As Brexit has ably exposed, a weak opposition nullifies the idea of a deal-breaker general election to solve lingering policy problems.

In Scotland, the political system was never designed for an official opposition. Shadow spokespeople and leaders are equally important. It's also outlandish to think that the second largest party isn't cemented in the mind's eye as a government-in-waiting. By the next general election in 2021, the SNP will have been in power for most of the life of the Scottish Parliament.

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Davidson's resignation is a stoic pause for all to ensure the second largest party is in fighting condition and a viable choice for the public. Brand Ruth not only saw significant electoral gains at Holyrood and Westminster, but she became a political metonym. It was 'Ruth', rather than the Tories, who stood up to 'Nicola'. It was 'Ruth' who not only inspired a new generation of activists but genuinely moved the public perception of the Scottish Conservatives away from patrician and out of touch.

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Whoever next takes over the party reigns has to address the final phase and failures of Davidson's time in office. Brexit proved the policy fault lines with London, with no visible mechanism to resolve to whether Scottish MPs take the final policy whip from their Scottish or UK leader. For many, there's genuine confusion as to whether the Scottish Conservatives are semi-autonomous from UK Conservative Party and, if so, in what ways?

Davidson repeatedly rejected calls for the Scottish Tories to break away from the UK party and pointed out that she was already in charge of policy and campaign funding and candidate selection. Nevertheless, in her final months as leader, she and her shadow Cabinet had to stand up every week at First Minister's Questions and defend the policy decisions of a UK Prime Minister most fundamentally disagreed with.

SNP becoming 'natural party' of Scottish Government

There's a middle ground between an open split and beginning anew. A formalised federal structure, like with the Liberal Democrats, eases the responsibility and accountability as to which tier of government is responsible (making open disagreement between leaders and members practical if not ideal).

The Scottish Conservatives are not new to change. The party as it is today came into being out of a merger between the Unionist Party and the Conservative Party in 1965 precisely because their electoral fortunes were flagging. Until then, the Unionist Party sat and took the Conservative whip at Westminster, producing two Prime Ministers in Andrew Bonar Law and Alec Douglas-Home.

Despite the recent victories of Scottish Tories, the SNP is on their way to becoming the 'natural party' of government in Scotland (as, with some irony, the Unionists were in the first half of the 20th century). The question remains then as to whether the party's resurgence is rooted in the personal qualities and charm of Davidson, fatigue after over a decade of SNP Government or a new intellectual invigoration?

Looking these hard truths in the eye and avoiding complacency are issues which cannot be side-lined as the party moves towards a leadership election. Whatever the final Brexit endgame, a second Scottish independence referendum is not going to disappear as a rallying cry in the run-up to 2021 or as an answer to Scotland's overwhelming vote to stay in the European Union.

Restructuring the party might not only hold onto their electoral wins but provide the much-needed counter ballast to what could soon be two decades of SNP government after 2021. The Scottish Conservatives must adapt to meet the different priorities of Holyrood and Westminster and avoid the very public spats with the party hierarchy. Which Tory leaders call the shots is a redundant issue and the SNP has done well to cement themselves in public as Scotland's representatives at Westminster with Nicola Sturgeon ultimately the one in charge.

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If there's one reactive urge that must be resisted, it's for a breakaway party. The practicality and cost of doing so would inevitably lead to what could be the ideal situation now – a supply and confidence relationship at Westminster from Scottish Conservatives MPs who very much take their lead from the Scottish leader of their party.

To indulge a breakaway party, at this juncture, would be more a Ship of Theseus than anything else: if you change the name, shift some of the operations and take the membership with you, isn't it just the same party?

A vigorous opposition, making a robust challenge to the government of the day, is a prerequisite to proper democracy. Now, more than ever, we need it.