9 May 2016

How Ruth Davidson got the Scottish Tories back in business

By Jamie Kerr

Patience is a virtue not generally associated with politicians; it doesn’t blend well with ambition and defies the belief that sweeping change can only come about on the back of bold new ideas. Ultimately though, it is patience – alongside some much needed re-packaging – that has seen the Conservatives emerge as a resurgent force in Scottish politics. Thursday’s Holyrood elections saw the party more than double the seats it took in 2011, muscling Labour into third place in the process.

Firstly, credit where credit’s due. Ruth Davidson’s leadership has been the driving force behind the Party’s improved electoral performance. In 2013, she made the key decision to embrace fiscal autonomy, a move that proved vital in convincing voters that the Scottish Conservatives were more than simply a branch of the Westminster party. Meanwhile, her clear public commitment to Scotland in the UK was simply more convincing to core unionist voters than Labour’s pro-union campaign, which became mired in accusations of compromise and flip flopping. With almost 2 million Scots voting for the Union in 2014, the constituency offered rich pickings to the Conservatives at last week’s election.

Add to this the Tory leader’s working class background and personal charisma, and it’s easy to see how she has become such an asset to the Conservative cause, both north and south of the border. It’s this energy, as well as her youth (at 37, she was the youngest party leader in Holyrood history) that has helped rehabilitate the Tory image in Scotland.

For many, the experiment with the poll tax and Margaret Thatcher’s abandonment of Scotland’s industrial communities were the electoral nails in the coffin of Scottish Conservatism. However, three decades on, there are signs that time has taken the edge off the country’s antipathy towards the Tories. Davidson’s youth and character have also sped the process of peeling the Thatcher label from the party’s image. While this boils down to a relatively cosmetic point, it’s important, and last week’s results are a testament to successful re-branding.

Leaving these points aside though, the Conservative message in Scotland is broadly the same as it has ever been, and the constituency that it cornered during its political heyday remains intact. It still sets itself up as the real party of enterprise, fiscal responsibility, and competitive taxes. At the same time, today’s Scottish Tories are doggedly committed to the Chancellor’s message of deficit reduction, as well as the need to scale back an inefficient public sector. This unchanged platform appeals to a significant number of Scots and has defied attempts to make it bow to the leftward trend in Scottish politics over the past 30 years. Scotland was the birthplace of economic liberalism and, setting aside the rhetoric, these still waters run deep for many voters.

That said, the SNP have made a big play of being the ‘all things to all people party’, committed to the causes of its grassroots (land reform, anti-fracking, progressive taxation) whilst acknowledging that the nature of Scotland’s tax base will not allow for a punitive tax raid on the wealthy. They simply can’t afford to see that revenue move south of the border. However, this Parliament will present Nicola Sturgeon with some tough choices. Increasing pressure on public finances, alongside unprecedented fiscal devolution (Scotland will spend around 40% of the tax it raises), will force her to take a side on tax. Does she capitulate to the vocal grassroots and hike taxes for Scotland’s middle class, or will she make the case for a broader rise and test the foundations of the SNP’s support? (Possibly, she’ll hope that extended borrowing powers will see her through to not siding with either.)

It boils down to this; the SNP may soon be forced to choose a constituency and they could well be brought up short by a Tory party with a bigger platform, a larger support base, and an old but appealing message. Ruth Davidson won’t shy away from taking it to the SNP, and will not make a play – as Labour did – of trying to wrestle away the nationalists’ grassroots. To those of us desperate for a refreshing change of pace in Scottish Parliamentary politics, this can only be a good thing.

However, let’s not kid ourselves. It’s still a long, hard road back for Scotland’s Conservatives. The party’s rise may owe at least as much to Labour’s poor choices as it does to Ruth Davidson. The uncomfortable shadow cast by the party in Westminster has stubbornly defied Scottish Labour’s attempts to shrug it off. Meanwhile, Kezia Dugdale’s bold decision to ask Scots to reach a little deeper into their wallets failed to hit the mark. Citing pressures on schools and colleges, she suggested that Scottish Rate of Income Tax be set 1p higher than the rate south of the border. While no doubt well intentioned, it bore all the hallmarks of the SNP’s doomed ‘Penny for Scotland’ campaign and was met with the same coolness by voters.

All things considered though, the blend of patience, charisma, and timing have begun to pay real dividends for Scottish Conservatives and for the first time in decades, Tories north of the border are talking about politics with something more than trepidation.

Jamie Kerr is Parliamentary Affairs Officer at the Institute of Directors. Twitter: @_JamieKerr