by James Mitchell
For three decades, senior Tories in London were perplexed by political developments in Scotland. As they saw it, the party’s support receded as Scots embraced their policies. Scots bought their council houses but showed little gratitude to the party that had made this possible. Margaret Thatcher reflected that her legacy had been one of economic success but political failure.
The tables appear to have been turned. Tories in London look to Scotland and Ruth Davidson for inspiration. There has been no shortage of plaudits for Ruth Davidson following her performance in May’s Holyrood election when the Tories overtook Labour as Scotland’s second party and during the Brexit referendum when her debating prowess was on show in the BBC’s ‘Great Debate’ at Wembley. The Scottish Tories are today more buoyant than at any time since 1979, even if much of the praise for Ruth Davidson’s leadership may have been orchestrated and overtaking Labour owed most to the decline of Labour and playing down the Conservative brand.
Nonetheless, in May the Tories fought the most disciplined campaign witnessed in Scotland. Not even New Labour at its apogee managed to combine obeisance to the leader with an unrelenting focus on a simple message. Ruth Davidson, we were told repeatedly, would provide strong opposition to the SNP, independence and an independence referendum and Labour and the Liberal Democrats could not be trusted to do this. Party literature was repetitive – often almost identical leaflets posted in some areas on a daily basis in the final stages of the campaign.
Ironically, the Tories need the union to be under threat. Their current appeal is heavily dependent on the prospect of an independence referendum. Hence, Ruth Davidson and the Tories constantly raise the issue. They hope to force the electorate to make a choice between true blue Unionists and Scottish nationalists, removing the centre ground. They run the risk that if forced to choose many more voters might chose independence. It is a high risk strategy but the only one available to the Tories.
Labour and LibDem opponents stand on the outside of this polarized debate, excluded by erstwhile colleagues in Better Together. A generation ago, SNP activists dreamed of a scenario in which the SNP would replace Labour and confront a Tory Government in Westminster with little support in Scotland. Even then few in the SNP imagined that support for independence would be as high as it is today.
It is unclear where the Tories can pick up sufficient votes to close the massive gap with the SNP. Voters who switched to the SNP from Labour did so because they saw the SNP as a more effective vehicle for championing their values and views – central to which is opposing the Tories. These voters have not in essence so much altered their core beliefs. When the SNP falters and voters become disillusioned, Labour are more likely to be the beneficiary. But the polarized nature of the debate may make such a return less likely.
And while the SNP Government does not have to look far for challenges ahead, this is even more true for the Scottish Tories. Ruth Davidson will have to confront the same painful problems her Labour opposite numbers faced. The Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson look even more like a branch office than Labour ever did. She promised to draw a ‘line in the sand’ – no more devolution – when she stood as Scottish Tory leader but soon backed down when London insisted that more powers had to be granted to Holyrood. Similarly, vehement denunciation of Brexit before the EU referendum has melted away. Her record suggests that this lady is for turning.
Claiming to have the ear of the Prime Minister is far from demonstrating that she speaks for Scotland especially when the Scottish Tories are out of step with Scottish public opinion. The Scottish electorate have fairly unambiguously decided who they want to speak for Scotland and it is not Ruth Davidson. Unless Ruth Davidson can demonstrate that she stands firmly with majority of Scots on a major issue, and is willing to challenge her party colleagues in London and win then she will face the inevitable accusation that she is London’s poodle.
Ruth Davidson’s response to the problem that Scottish Labour grappled with has been to fall into line with London. Picking fights with Boris Johnson, her mirror image as a celebrity politician in London, will be welcomed by the Prime Minister and leaves the impression that she is there to do Prime Minister’s May’s dirty work. She may well find she needs to adopt more than Murdo Fraser’s idea of abandoning the Conservative label, which was done so effectively back in May, and create a truly independent Scottish Tory Party.
The emphasis today is on the leader. Though Ruth Davidson had fiercely opposed the idea of changing the party’s name during the Tory leadership contest in 2011, she showed a remarkable willingness to ignore her own strictures in demoting the ‘Conservative’ brand in favour of Brand Ruth. The tight campaign message eschewed any ambition to govern and thus discouraged any unwelcome scrutiny of Tory policies. Her Labour opponents may have stood little chance of governing but at least presented themselves as an alternative party of government.
In the event, the Scottish Tories bask in the honeymoon of victory having achieved their goal. But Ruth Davidson’s favourable popular standing as an effective leader of her party is not matched in her standing as a potential First Minister. Being top of a lower league does not equate with being near the top of the premier league. The Scottish Tories have not begun to play in the premier league and appear reluctant to take up promotion while insisting they will win the championship.
The Tories first need to secure their position as Scotland’s second party. This is far from secure at present. The electoral system worked for the Tories in May but Labour won more constituency votes and are not far behind on the list. Last year’s UK election saw the electoral system cheat Labour of representation leaving it with a solitary Scottish MP on a par with the Tories but with 24.3% of the vote to the Tories 14.9%. The Scottish Tories can’t play the ‘strong opposition’ card at the next UK general election.
Labour’s base in local government looks likely to erode in next year’s local elections and the Tories can hardly fall below the 13% of first preferences won in 2012 but closing the gap on Labour will prove difficult. Inexperienced Tory councillors may be returned across Scotland in reasonable numbers and may even play a part in administrations but that can be a very mixed blessing. There can be no certainty that the Scottish Tories will remain in second place at the next Holyrood elections. Having declared her desire to be First Minister, Ruth Davidson invites more scrutiny and a much more substantive policy programme.
The greatest danger facing the Scottish Tories may prove to be unrealistic expectations. The party is far from secure in its position as Scotland’s second party and has a long way to go before it can claim to have even won over what many see as its ‘natural level of support’. If Ruth Davidson’s ambition to become First Minister is serious – and there remains a suspicion that politics is just another joust in a debating society for her – then she needs to develop skills beyond spin and political theatricals.
Professor James Mitchell is Director of the Academy of Government, Edinburgh University.
He is co-author with Rob Johns of Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP, published earlier this year by Biteback.