John McTernan: Scots Tories must get over Thatcher

The opportunity is there for Ruth Davidson to bring voters back into the Conservative fold. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The opportunity is there for Ruth Davidson to bring voters back into the Conservative fold. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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John McTernan writes that the Tories should stop apologising for Margaret Thatcher and be proud of how they helped to shape Scotland

IT IS possible that the big beneficiary from the referendum on independence will be the Conservative Party. This may seem a counter-intuitive claim. After all, it has become a foundation myth of modern Scottish politics that Scotland hates the Tories. Indeed, it is often asserted that this antipathy should be a powerful reason for embracing independence. Not Lochaber no more, so much as David Cameron no more.

But myths are myths however widely held they are – the truth is that the Tory Party has as much claim to have formed modern Scotland as any other political party. The Tories’ problem is that they just don’t have the confidence to make their case. So let me do it for them.

The first point to make has been made well by the impressive Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. She leads the only Scottish political party whose supporters are united on the referendum. As she puts it, 98 per cent of Tory voters are voting No, and she’s on to the other 2 per cent.

In contrast, the SNP and the Labour Party – currently Scotland’s dominant parties – see up to a third of their supporters opposing their respective positions on separation. How does this help? For one, the unity of purpose in campaigning will help to build a new grass-roots organisation. Political hard-heads know that boots on the ground can make the difference in tight fights, which may make all the difference in Tory/Lib Dem marginals in the 2015 general election.

But there’s a far bigger prize than the internals alone. Two-thirds of Scotland are unionists, yet they have few inspirational political voices channelling their settled will, let alone their passion.

Labour, bruised by the 2011 Holyrood election defeat, is playing a defensive game and – looking ahead to the elections of 2015-16 – is cautious about alienating working-class pro-independence voters whose support they will need. This leaves a huge opportunity for a party who can wholeheartedly support the Union.

For as long as polls have been taken, Scotland has been a unionist country. But now, just look at the potential arbitrage for the Tories. Nearly four times as many people support the Union as support the Tories. There’s room to grow there. Pick up 4 per cent and you’ve got a Tory bounce of around a quarter.

What about values though? It’s a commonplace that the Tories are at odds with progressive Scotland. How wrong could that be? Well, for one thing, let’s take core Scottish values – hard work, thrift, invention, respect for education. These are hardly antithetical to conservatism: in many ways they are core to right-wing politics. These are the values that took Scots across the Empire – nearly half the East India Companies admin staff were Scottish and left the legacy Singapore’s defence minister described to me as “English and the rule of law”.

And Scotland has a long tradition of conservatism – a disruptive, dissenting conservatism at that. It can be fairly said that the radical tradition in Scottish society owes as much to conservative thought as to trade unionism, syndicalism or socialism. From John Knox to Adam Smith, the thinkers who have shaped Scotland – and the world – are from the right. Their thinking still shapes our mental landscapes.

Think, too, of the tales we tell ourselves about who we are and where we are from. A critical portion of those were written by a High Tory. Modern Scotland is in many ways more properly Scott-land. Without the great Sir Walter Scott, where would we be? His poetry founded the Scottish tourism industry. His novels forged the story of the nation. Don’t like the kitsch of the kilt? Without him there would be no tartan. What other country in the world can be identified by a swathe of cloth?

In a noisy, growing world, an instantly recognised identity is priceless. Scott told a powerful story of a country that was a global success and had a powerful sense of its own identity within a growing Union – one that encompassed Ireland in his lifetime. But could even he have imagined what was to come? A Scotland whose Enlightenment structured the way the modern world thinks about it, whose greatest novelist invented the historical novel – and on the way through popular history – became the workshop of the world. Who created the ships and the steam engines, who dug the oil and forged the steel? The workers. And we celebrate them – and their struggle to get fair shares, the vote and decent housing.

But less often we reflect on the economic benefits of the Industrial Revolution for ordinary Scots. Conditions in cities were – at times – appalling. But it was worse, far worse, in the rural areas the workers had fled. For many centuries from the late Middle Ages on, Scotland produced a larger population than it could feed. The only answer for Scots was emigration. It may be unfashionable to say it, but it was capitalism that changed that. And there was always a socially conscious strand of capitalism in Scotland. Robert Owen was a reformer – but he was commissioned by local government to bring reform to New Lanark. Civic conservatism has a proud Scottish tradition.

All this is to say to Scottish Tories: stop apologising and start proselytising. We get that you are sorry for Margaret Thatcher, but until you get over her, no-one else will. When the dust settles, she in her turn will be rehabilitated. The first step will be when she is recognised as the patron saint of Scottish home ownership – never forget that without Right-to-Buy half of all Scots would still live in council housing. Half. That time will come for sure, but for now just be bold enough to say that you have paid the price for more than 20 years. The grovelling stops now. Go back to the long Scottish tradition of conservatism, name it and reclaim it.

In 2001 Jean-Francois Richard, then vice-president of the World Bank, met me when I was head of policy for the Scottish Government. He observed that the economies that would prosper in the 21st century were those with strengths in banking, biosciences, energy, education and the environment. Scotland was, and is, a world beater in those fields (though falling behind badly in education).

It is a leader not by chance but by choice. The choices of a UK government that shaped and intervened and invested. Tom Johnston and Willie Ross rightly get their share of the praise. But who can claim the credit for Silicon Glen and a strong micro-electronics industry? Why do Tories not talk about James Stuart and John McLay? They were secretaries of state for Scotland during the long boom years – the height of Butskellism. A construction boom. A country rebuilt. A majority of Scots voting Labour. A land forgotten – not least by the Tories themselves.

George Steiner famously wrote that “a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact”.

Likewise a country can be trapped in a story of itself that includes some facts and delegitimises other. There is a Tory story of Scotland. It’s not mine, but it is Scotland’s. In our past is our future. But if the Scottish Tories can’t, or won’t, tell their own story – no-one else will. And they will continue to be marginalised.