Brian Monteith: Ruth Davidson must choose her path at crossroads

The Queen's Speech has now been read and is likely to pass, confirming Theresa May will govern as she walks on eggshells that could at any time break. For no other than the powerful argument of self-preservation it is more likely than not that she will traverse the dark chasm of ignominy that lies beneath her. Her troubles have been of her own making but there is now an opportunity of slowly recovering her reputation.

Ruth Davidson needs policies she can say are Conservative but which other parties can also call their own, which dont frighten more voters away than they attract. Picture: Greg Macvean

If we are to hold to any objectivity it should be recognised that the Prime Minister had won herself popularity and built up a large store of political credit with the British public over the short period that she has governed.

She stood firm against Nicola Sturgeon and created the platform for Ruth Davidson to campaign against her when many others would have thrown in the towel and conceded a second independence referendum. She took the correct decision to remove George Osborne from government altogether and then showed her steel by correcting her own chancellor when he made serious misjudgments in his budget.

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She also said how she would tackle the Brexit dilemma that was not of her choice or making and gave a timeline by which she would do it. She met that goal with days to spare and in clear terms that could not be accused of making a fudge, unlike her predecessor.

It was therefore a surprise when all of this was squandered by her apparent lack of appetite and inability for campaigning. Another week in the election and she might actually have lost. Now, however, she is governing again she may yet win back public sympathy and support as she tussles with the unelected and unaccountable EU elite. She might be a cold technocrat negotiating against other cold technocrats, but she’s our bloody technocrat and we should wish her the best for all our futures.

As our domestic politics settle down and Jeremy Corbyn is no longer talked of as a winner but as the loser he was, we shall become used to the ever-present drone of the Brexit negotiations. This means that so long as there is no new nationalist grievance, real or imagined, that reignites the threat of a second independence referendum, the Scottish Government’s own performance, and in particular that of the First Minister, will be put under greater political and media scrutiny.

With peak SNP having been reached the subsequent decline must also bring greater attention to the relative performances of the alternatives available and thus Ruth Davidson will be put under the same gaze as Nicola Sturgeon.

While we look to see if the SNP and its leader can restore excellence to the failing public services, most especially education and health, we also have to ask is there more to the Tory leader than being the best conduit to prevent a referendum? Simply put, is Davidson more than a one-trick Unionist pony? Can she broaden her appeal to include a political platform of attractive policies that does not frighten the horses? For a Conservative in Scotland that remains the ultimate test that has defeated all of its leaders since, arguably, Teddy Taylor back in 1979.

The scale of this problem for Davidson is daunting.

Thanks to the Tory reforms of the Scottish Parliament there is nothing to prevent her crafting a traditional Conservative platform of lowering the tax burden. By adopting the principle of the Laffer Curve, Davidson could seek to cut particular taxes that lead to economic growth and rising revenues, thus avoiding having to fund tax cuts by trimming public services. Unfortunately such a philosophical approach or economic coherence has thus far been absent from Davidson’s language.

The alternative method and traditional method of funding tax cuts requires reducing the size of the state that especially in Scotland must surely mean cutting some services, divesting others to the private sector or simply withdrawing altogether from what might be considered luxuries. The squeal of public sector voters that may have just voted for Davidson’s Unionist & Conservative Party can be easily anticipated.

Davidson therefore faces a choice of becoming a tax radical or a fiscal conservative: the first appears out of keeping with her intellectual temperament and the second looks like a risky electoral liability that would allow Labour to rebuild its support as the leading unionist party.

It cannot be enough to suggest that a Davidson minority government (for that is the most likely scenario by which she becomes First Minister) would be more competent than those of other parties. Nor will it be enough to suggest it will be more “fair”, or more “socially just” to make it electorally popular. Being competent, just or caring is not the sole prerogative of the Conservatives or indeed any party. Judging by such yardsticks there can be good and bad governments from all parties – as the comparison of the SNP in its first few years with its last few years demonstrate.

No, if Davidson is to become the leader of the largest party in Holyrood then she has at some point to advocate policies that broaden her appeal – but how can she do this and maintain her Conservative credentials without turning more voters away than she might attract?

By example the privatisation of Scottish Water would make eminent sense in releasing much-needed financial resources but would simply lead to accusations of “same old Tories”. Never mind that it was Jim Wallace as Justice Minister in the Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive who introduced private prisons.

Davidson’s route to power must be more subtle but no less attractive than what she has achieved. The answer is simple because it cuts across all parties. The Scottish people have a yearning for taking more control of their lives, whether it is through the concept of independence, or of causing less harm to our planet, or simply choosing the school which our children attend or selecting healthcare options – people want to take control of their lives.

The route to this goal is through policies that can be defined as localism in action, giving more power to schools, community councils with real budgets, and yes, local authorities that want to become Stalinist republics twinned with Venezuela. Above all she needs policies she can say are Conservative but which other parties can also call their own.

That is the scale of the challenge and I look forward to seeing how she tackles it.

l Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org