This analysis must begin with two facts, although it rarely does. The first is that the Scottish Government is failing. Across the sweep of its areas of responsibility, Scots are receiving less for their money, and enduring bad and failing services which are each year getting worse. No debate can be had without recognising the dire state of devolved government.
And the second fact is that only one of the two Conservative candidates grew up in Scotland: Liz Truss, who spent much of her childhood in Paisley. The Tories must accept that, even though their fortunes in Scottish seats at Westminster, and in the Scottish Parliament, have looked worse, the Scottish party has been losing ground for much of the last 30 years.
Against the ability of the SNP to forswear traditional government for a perpetual campaign for independence, ordinary parties naturally struggle. These are powerful rhetorical forces, and the emotions they elicit are powerful prompts for voters.
The deployment of this nationalist sentiment is an SNP speciality. But although it motivates some voters, it cannot fix a broken political system, a dismal situation in public health or revitalise a flagging economy. This is the challenge facing the next prime minister. Under the SNP, and especially under Nicola Sturgeon, normal government has largely ceased to occur, at least in Holyrood.
Instead, both the never-ending campaign for independence and the management of Scotland are centred on Bute House and in the person of the First Minister. This is an inefficient and unhappy system – imperilling the health and prosperity of Scots, and jeopardising the Union both.
It hardly needs saying what can be read in any newspaper, almost daily. That the rising cost of living is hurting the most vulnerable among us; that the Scottish NHS is creaking; that our epidemic of drug deaths is one of the worst in Europe; that we came out of the pandemic with structural economic and public health problems seemingly beyond the ken of Bute House. This is a system whose remedy is both philosophically important to Truss and fundamentally Scottish. The building blocks of which created the economic liberalism and empirical conservatism of Adam Smith and David Hume – the economics which in the past made Scotland great and rich. This is Truss’s philosophy. It can succeed in Scotland.
This philosophy can overcome the centralisation of power under the SNP – which resembles the Whig Oligarchy and Old Corruption which reforming conservative politicians in Scotland and Westminster successfully pushed back.
Truss must be bold. Deregulation of stifled sections of the UK economy will make Scotland grow. And Westminster can level up Scotland most effectively with its power of the purse.
Truss must emphasise that whereas previous Conservative leaders could credibly be considered outsiders to Scotland whose governments imposed their policies from Westminster, her origins are essentially Scottish. Her background prompts and demonstrates her view that Scotland must be liberated from SNP failure and corruption, with the help of Westminster intervention if necessary.
It is now orthodoxy that the country is, for want of a phrase, falling apart. Services do not work. Productivity is low. The blame for this can be laid on mismanagement and distraction from the First Minister, but only so much. Across the UK, and especially in Scotland, those things which are necessary to grow and to thrive, investment and capital spending, have stagnated. Everyone now agrees capital spending must rise. And under Liz Truss as PM, capital investment which the SNP never managed to make can come to Scotland.
The opportunities are tremendous. Areas of Scotland in relative decline can be made the equivalent of special economic zones. In Glasgow and Edinburgh, ancient university cities neglected by Bute House, a new hi-tech and scientific sector – funded from Westminster – can find its workers and its place. Under new and existing frameworks, UKRI and ARIA, capital investment in scientific research can flood into Scotland. It must do so. Liz Truss knows this better than a former Chancellor whose Treasury-inflected outlook requires that he compute present-day costs rather than future benefits.
As Foreign Secretary, Truss also understands that we are all of us in competition with authoritarian governments. This affects people from Hamilton as well as Hong Kong. Investments will be needed to build our hi-tech industries, in the manufacturing of semiconductors, in life-sciences, in energy generation, in secondary industries, that will insulate the country from the effects of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Russia blockading European energy, and other crises. These investments may as well, and under Truss they will, happen in Scotland. The SNP, for all its global grandstanding, is not interested in the future of the free world. It is interested narrowly in its own cause, where “democracy” starts and ends with endless referendums until the desired result is achieved.
When faced with global authoritarianism, or the centralising tendencies of the SNP, Liz Truss understands that a dynamic private sector and a nimble, targeted public sector unafraid to invest are needed to keep Scotland free, and to make it prosperous.
Scotland’s Conservatives must know that only one candidate before them has a Scots background, and comes from the traditions of Scottish Enlightenment which made the country great. It can be again.
Prof Azeem Ibrahim OBE is the founder and Executive Chair of the Scotland Institute and Director of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy
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