Joyce McMillan: Do even the Tories know what they stand for?

Ruth Davidson with her new intake of Conservative MSPs this year, who gained from voters seeking a party which supported the Union.
Ruth Davidson with her new intake of Conservative MSPs this year, who gained from voters seeking a party which supported the Union.
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Vague values don’t put off voters who are only interested in stopping independence says Joyce McMillan

Back in the 1970s, it was often said – only half jokingly – that voters in some parts of Scotland would vote for a donkey or even a lamp-post, if it was wearing a Labour red rosette; and there was some truth in the allegation, in the days – just a generation ago – when the “people’s party”, as it liked to call itself, overwhelmingly dominated Scotland’s representation at Westminster.

Times change, though; and in the last decade, the tectonic plates of Scottish politics have been moving at unusual speed. Today, Labour is not the dominant party in Scotland, but a third-ranking shadow of its former self, outperformed even by the once-toxic Tories, who seem set – according to the latest polls – to win almost twice as many seats as Labour in the next Scottish Parliament. And since, in the natural ebb and flow of politics, leading opposition parties do eventually tend to win – look what happened to Scotland’s SNP opposition, in 2007 – it’s no longer unthinkable that Ruth Davidson will one day stand in the First Minister’s place at Holyrood, cheerfully mocking the memory of the moment, back in 2014, when the nation briefly imagined it might actually be capable of independence.

Yet if Labour enjoyed its long dominance thanks to the donkey and lamp-post element among its loyal voters, then it’s hard to avoid the feeling that there is now a growing minority of Scottish voters who are willing to vote for a large, blue-tinged blank space, so long as it comes labelled with the reassuring words Conservative and Unionist. In some respects, of course, Ruth Davidson’s positioning of the Scottish Conservatives has been extremely deft. Still only 38 years old herself, she has shrugged off the pall of cultural and social conservatism that often hangs over the Conservative Party by taking determinedly liberal positions on issues from immigration to gay rights; she never uses the kind of retro imperial fantasy rhetoric that comes so easily to some of her Westminster colleagues, and frankly declared her differences with Theresa May over immigration at this year’s Tory conference in Birmingham.

When the conversation shifts from social issues to economics and wider policy matters, though, what is most striking about Davidson and many of her Tory colleagues at Holyrood is their extreme vagueness, and their evident desire to create a reassuring image for Scotland’s Tories, without explicitly distancing themselves from some of the nastiest aspects of Conservative policy. Their bizarre behaviour over Brexit is a case in point. In the run-up to the referendum, almost all Tory MSPs vehemently opposed Brexit, and Ruth Davidson herself took to the most prominent platforms in the UK to dismiss the Brexit case as a pack of dangerous lies peddled by a notoriously unscrupulous group of politicians. Yet six months on, in the Scottish Parliament, they bray their contempt whenever any other party expresses any concern about the huge disruption that has been brought about by their own party’s reckless political game-playing; and now seem to view Brexit as a mere minor adjustment, compared with the shocking and destabilising idea of any further debate on Scottish independence.

If their attitude to Brexit shows a striking lack of a sustained and coherent view on the issue, though, then so do many other aspects of their politics. On the question of austerity, for example, it is now abundantly clear that schemes like the benefits sanctions regime, the bedroom tax, and the fitness for work tests imposed on desperately ill people, were and are shockingly inhumane policies, often administered by officials who are actually incentivised to treat their most vulnerable fellow-citizens like criminals; it’s also clear that most of these measures have failed even in their own terms, saving little or no government money.

It is not clear, though, whether the affable Ms Davidson and her colleagues actually continue to support such grim measures, or whether they now reject the ideology that underpinned them, and so many other Tory policies since 1979. We know that they support fees for university education, but not whether they support the Westminster government’s latest moves to break up the English NHS or the BBC. Nor is it unusual, at events around Scotland, to meet Tory MSPs who seem to have very little clue at all about the recent history of Conservatism, and who cheerfully – if bafflingly – identify themselves as Conservatives, while embracing policy positions on individual issues which put them somewhere to the left of Scottish Labour.

It is clear, in other words, that whatever around 25 per cent of Scottish voters are now choosing, when they opt for Ruth Davidson’s Tories, it is not a party with a comprehensive and coherent approach to all the major issues of the day. What they are voting for, it seems, is the biggest thing around that can be relied on to support the Union, and to oppose the SNP at all costs; and in the same mood that characterised the Brexit vote and the recent American presidential election, they do not care about the detail of the rest of Conservative policy, so long as that basic stance is, in their view, right.

Of course, as parties grow more successful, they have to become a little more precise; there was an ominous silence from the Tory ranks at Holyrood this week when Nicola Sturgeon challenged them on whether they would help to ensure that devolved powers are not reclaimed back to Westminster, as part of the Brexit process.

All the evidence of recent politics suggest, though, that voters are becoming less and less interested in what governments actually do – the measures of their real-world performance in generating jobs, cutting carbon emissions, raising real wages, or improving services – and more and more interested in the big, broad-brush-stroke media narratives of who they are, and who they claim to speak for. For now, Ruth Davidson has made herself spokesperson-in-chief for those Scottish voters who detest the idea of Scottish independence, and want no more truck with it; and as for what kind of UK we live in, or what kind of Scotland – well, apparently those questions can wait, for another day.