Andy Maciver: Too little too late for Tories?

Leader concedes Scotland does not trust the party, but it could all have been so different under plans for a radical shake-up, writes Andy Maciver

The Scottish Conservative Party is a peculiar outfit. I had come to realise this long before I left its employment, its membership and its dwindling ranks of voters in 2007. I had just finished writing a manifesto that was heavy on style and rake-thin on substance, and planning and executing a media strategy for Annabel Goldie who, as nice a lady as she is, had neither the inclination nor the instinct to know that her party was doing a disservice to itself, to the centre-right and to politics in Scotland. Massive and radical change seeming far away, I got out.

Four years later, Tory MSP Murdo Fraser asked me to run strategy and communications for a leadership campaign that could – and should – have changed the face of Scottish politics. For me, this was never about adding a few Tory MSPs to the three black cabs-worth currently at Holyrood: it was about being at the forefront of a long-needed reorganisation of Scottish politics.

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The biggest weakness of Scottish politics is the absence of a centre-right, liberal force – a unique characteristic among developed countries. The omnipresence of the constitutional question has led to the cementing of centre-left thought as mainstream, with Labour and the SNP split not by ideology, but by identity.

Scotland needed a fresh start. Like most countries, Scotland has an enormous cohort of people who think centre-right – probably more than a million voters. Unlike other countries, though, they consider themselves to have no option but to vote centre-left.

Murdo wanted to give them one. We advocated a new, liberal, centre-right, Scottish party. Not a new version of the Conservatives; not a replacement for the Conservatives; not a club for former Conservative members, but a new party, with new people, advocating new policies. It would be a Scottish party taking the London whip at its own discretion; not a London party cracking the whip in Scotland without knowledge or consideration. It was the right time for a new party. With the independence referendum on the way, a decisive No vote (something of the order of 75:25) has the potential to cause a split in the SNP and pave the way for a range of new political parties, based broadly around the competing ideologies of liberalism and socialism.

It would be a logical outcome in a country where a party badge can reveal little about an MSP’s ideological compass. We have SNP MSPs, such as Fergus Ewing, who share much more in common with Murdo Fraser than they do with those on the left-wing of their own party, such as Sandra White.

We have similar figures in Labour and the Liberal Democrats, such as Ken Macintosh and Tavish Scott, who would also naturally gravitate to the same liberal platform as Fraser and Ewing, rather than sharing one with the likes of Elaine Smith, on Labour’s hard left. There is little sense to the composition of our current parties.

Draft 23 of Murdo’s launch speech – the one he delivered – outlined with brutal honesty and clear forethought three key pillars for change. Like three legs of a tripod, we sought to make it clear that you could not cherry pick one or two without risking collapse.

First was the acceptance of the problem. Not poor policies, or poor people, or a lack of hard work, but a dud party, which was losing almost 40,000 votes at every election because people couldn’t bring themselves to vote for it, despite liking many of its policies. The Tory vote was literally dying.

Second was an affirmation of Murdo’s long-standing commitment to massive constitutional change. A new Union based on fiscal autonomy for a more responsible, accountable Scottish Parliament; the Scotland Act 2012 with rocket-boosters (which, incidentally, would do no harm to the Tory vote north of the M25, which sees Scotland as a subsidy junkie).

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And third, a new party, acknowledging the fact that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party was no longer a vehicle capable of delivering any message to the Scottish people. It was too toxic, too far-gone, with unpopularity ingrained into generations of Scots.

Murdo lost. Ruth Davidson –picked and backed by Downing Street, David Mundell, Lord Forsyth and Scottish Central Office – won on a simple ticket. First, there were no fundamental problems; we just need to shout louder. Second, the Scottish Parliament needed no more powers – in fact, you’re lucky to have what you have. This was a line in the sand. And third, we most certainly did not need a new party – the Scottish Tories once got more than 50 per cent of the vote, don’t you know? To scrap it would be an act of treachery akin to Bonnie Prince Charlie turning back at Derby, so went the line from the attack-dogs.

Then last week, 18 months on, all changed. Ruth made a speech acknowledging that the party’s problems are more fundamental than bad marketing, and accepting that Scotland doesn’t trust the Tories.

A U-turn? Of course – although detail is too light to know the scale of it, but it is an extremely welcome one nonetheless. Ruth’s speech presented the party with some home truths from which it cannot escape.

However, the Davidson speech was not without its deficiencies. First, it conceded only one of Murdo’s three pillars – the fact that the party, not the policy, is the problem. It was a speech that posed several questions but answered none; a speech that left its audience with the view that Ruth understood the problems but could not put her finger on a solution.

It hinted towards conceding Murdo’s second pillar – fiscal autonomy – at a future speech in the mini-series, but we know no detail of to what extent, beyond the clunky comments made by Mundell in the days before the speech.

Then there is the third pillar. The large elephant in the small room remains the impotence of the Scottish Tory party. During the leadership election, Murdo make clear that a new captain was not enough; we needed a new ship. It is no less true now than it was then.

The cold, hard reality is that the million-or-so Scottish centre-right thinkers will never be centre-right voters as long as the name on the ballot paper says Scottish Conservative and Unionist. It is socially unacceptable to vote this way. The theory that this can change through force of argument or personality has been tested to destruction. It cannot be done.

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Ruth is capable of much. At no point have I doubted her potential. She is bright and articulate, and in John McLellan (the former editor of The Scotsman) she has hired a good, clever right-hand-man with more than enough experience in this game to know just how deep the party’s problems run.

However, her party is a ball and chain, hampering her progress. She cannot succeed without embracing the logical solution to the problems that she herself identified last week.

Will she? The signs are not good. Because the great irony of Ruth’s speech last week, and the two further ones she is due to deliver, is that they are the brainchild not of a new self-confident Scottish party, but of the party in London.

London had to persuade Edinburgh to make this speech, having finally come to the conclusion that its Scottish arm is a lifeless drag on the rest of the party. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

• Andy Maciver is a director at Message Matters, a strategic communications consultancy in Edinburgh, and ran strategy and communications for Murdo Fraser’s leadership campaign