There wasn’t a single mention of “Ve haf vays of making you Tory”. Nor the equally obvious “For you, Ruth, ze honeymoon is over”. It was a shocking lapse. You boys and girls in the redtops should be having a word with yourselves.
It was, of course, a monumentally stupid thing for Davidson to say. Especially as it came while making a reasonable point about Scots reclaiming, in this age of austerity, the virtue of canny thriftiness for which – in another casually racist stereotype – we are known the world over.
We are promised more of Davidson’s thoughts in a series of speeches over the coming weeks. I look forward to these, and it is still too early to judge whether she is capable of re-casting the Scottish Tories as a party relevant to the moment. But I have to say that on the present showing she is acting like an old biddy giving her analogue telly a dunt and saying: “I don’t know why it’s not working now – it used to work before...”
Davidson is apparently unable – or maybe just unwilling – to apply the kind of Tory values she was lecturing us about last week to the very real policy conundrums her party faces. In particular, she seems to have a blind spot on how Conservative values – as opposed to old-school Conservative reflexes – should define the party’s position on Scotland’s constitutional future.
After all, what are the most attractive values espoused by traditional Conservatism? Self-reliance is one. Not spending what you can’t afford is another. Behaving responsibly, fiscally as well as otherwise. And being accountable for your actions. What are these, if not the best possible justifications for Scotland taking more control over its own affairs? We could end our dependency on the Westminster block grant. Make government raise the money it spends. And make politicians directly accountable for how our hard-earned cash is used. But no, it seems some Tory values can trump others. So the logic of more devolution to improve how we are governed, in line with key Tory beliefs, must be subservient to unreconstructed Unionism. Such thinking is not just lazy, it lacks the boldness and fresh thinking Davidson promised when she was campaigning for this job.
Could it be that during the leadership campaign, faced with Murdo Fraser’s radical vision of a new party sympathetic to devo max, Davidson allowed her position to be defined by her opposition to her opponent? Has she painted herself into a corner, with red, white and blue emulsion? It certainly seems that way. Her victory was ultimately down to the backwoods Tories swinging behind her to stop Fraser changing the name above the gantry in the Conservative Club’s lounge bar. That required her to make her famous “line in the sand” comment, promising to go no further on home rule than the modest reforms in the current Scotland Bill.
Like her predecessors, Davidson is discovering that the Tories – and Tory supporters – are not one homogenous bunch. They are, in fact, an uneasy coalition of three distinct political outlooks: 1. those who cleave to a belief in small government and fiscal rectitude; 2. those who will die in the ditch for the Union and the Queen; and 3. those whose social values make them suspicious of one or more of the following: non-nuclear families, unconventional lifestyles and racial diversity. The Tory party is one big Venn diagram of these, with relatively few supporters ticking all three boxes.
How does Davidson reconcile all this? Frankly, I haven’t a scooby. I suspect it is an impossible task. But on the constitution she has an opportunity that is, for example, denied to David Cameron on the question of Europe. In England, the Tories are constantly looking over their shoulder at UKIP and the BNP when it comes to the European issue. Neither of these collections of nut-jobs is a credible threat to the Scottish Tories when it comes to the debate on Scotland’s future. Davidson is therefore free to construct a new Tory orthodoxy on the constitution that chimes with the majority of Scots, a proportion of whom undoubtedly share a similar value system with her party.
I can see the superficial attraction of nailing the Tories’ colours to the status quo. The reasoning might go something like this: around one in four Scots wants neither independence nor devo max. They think constitutional change has gone too far, or far enough. This group is twice the size of the Tories’ current support. Ergo, this is an opportunity for the Tories to begin to grow again.
Genius. Except, of course, this strategy doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. It assumes the constitution is such a compelling issue for this group of people they will gladly abandon their current party allegiance – if they have one – and embrace Toryism, even if their Unionism is of the Larkhall variety. Can the Scottish Tories recover by trying to reclaim a kind of rebarbative 1950s Unionism? I think not, and I sincerely hope they won’t try. Instead, Davidson has the opportunity to pitch for the three out of four who want Scotland to move forward rather than the one in four who are digging in their heels.
Each of the three opposition parties in Scotland seems to be fighting against its own DNA when it comes to the constitutional question: the Lib Dems seems to have forgotten they are federalists; Labour has forgotten it has a century-old record as the party of home rule; and the Tories have forgotten they are the party of self-reliance. Until all three recover their constitutional mojo, none of them is going anywhere.