When Ruth Davidson defeated me for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives back in 2011, I really didn’t believe that the party was capable of revival. I underestimated her. With a combination of energy, charisma, and a great deal of effort, she took the Scottish Conservatives from political irrelevance to being the second force in Scottish politics.
In this, she was substantially assisted by the SNP’s drive for independence, and the way in which the 2014 referendum changed Scottish politics for a generation: dividing us into a country of unionists or nationalists. By making the Conservatives the party of the Union, we were able to garner the votes of many of those who would not in the past have considered supporting us.
There have been acres of newsprint devoted to Ruth’s departure over the last few days, and a great deal of speculation about her motivation for deciding to take a step back at this stage. I have no doubt that this was more a personal decision than a political one, and that the pressures of family made Ruth take the reluctant decision to put those before her career.
Ruth leaves big shoes to fill. Her capable deputy, my good friend Jackson Carlaw MSP, will step into the breach as interim leader. Jackson demonstrated during Ruth’s absence on maternity leave that this is a role that he is more than capable of fulfilling.
Inevitably, there has been a great deal of media speculation about who is likely to replace Ruth. Whilst this obsession with personalities is understandable, to me what matters more is what sort of party do we want to see in future?
Last month in this column, I wrote about how the pro-Canada parties in Quebec had defeated separatism by rallying behind one main federalist party in the province, as a counter-weight to the Party Quebecois. At the time, I asked whether this was a model that unionists in Scotland should be trying to learn lessons from.
At the weekend, my colleague Adam Tomkins expanded on this idea, posing the question as to whether Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour should be working together to present a unified front against the SNP.
For those of us whose primary political motivation is keeping Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, these are all issues that are worth exploring in a calm and rational fashion, and I hope that there will be the space to do this in the weeks ahead.
But the future of the Scottish Conservative party is not just about structures, or our relationship with Westminster. There also needs to be a policy platform which challenges the SNP where they are weak, and presents an alternative vision for a dynamic, enterprising, and compassionate Scotland.
One area in which we can do this is in relation to local government. It has been a characteristic of the SNP in Holyrood that, whilst they are very keen on devolution of power from Westminster to Edinburgh, they do not seem at all keen on devolution from Edinburgh to other parts of the country. Indeed, many in local government today feel they have been emasculated by the SNP, their hands tied by the centre while, at the same time, they have seen core budgets slashed with increasing strain on front-line services.
The contrast to the programme of reform that we have seen south of the border is stark. David Cameron’s coalition government actively devolved power to city regions across England, encouraging the creation of the post of directly elected mayors with executive powers.
The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in Manchester, for example, brings together the city and adjoining local authorities under the leadership of the elected mayor, the former Labour MP Andy Burnham. With a multi-billion pound budget, the mayor has control over areas such as economic development and health spending, in addition to the more traditional local government subjects of planning, environment, schools, and social work. Directly elected, he is directly accountable for his administration’s performance.
But in Scotland, under the SNP, we have seen none of this, and that to me is a substantial weakness. I would like to see, at the very least, our seven cities in Scotland having elected mayors, or provosts, with a similar executive power to those south of the border. We are at the moment seeing a restructuring of enterprise bodies, why not take this opportunity to combine economic and skills training budgets with those of local authorities, and put them within city regions?
Our cities should be the drivers of economic progress; the powers passed down from Edinburgh allowing those locally elected, and accountable, to take the right decisions to help their communities grow. It is happening successfully elsewhere in the UK, and it should happening here.
It is this sort of thinking, learning from what has been developed successfully elsewhere, that Scottish Conservatives should be championing.
We know that Scotland should be better than it is; that the SNP in Edinburgh are obsessed with hoarding power; and that devolving power should not simply mean a transfer of control from Scotland to Edinburgh.
A Scotland which is a patchwork of vibrant city regions, larger rural areas, all with well-known local leaders, being a counterweight to the over-centralised Holyrood administration, is an attractive vision.
Of course we are going to miss Ruth as leader, but with ideas like this our party still has a bright future.