My political crush on Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, took off in January when she made it absolutely clear what she thought of the government’s decision to fly flags at half mast to mark the death of Saudi Arabia’s king. She described the decision as a “steaming pile of nonsense”; a “stupid act on its own and a stupid precedent to set”. Just as she recently became one of the first senior Tories to call for Britain to increase its help for Syrian refugees she was demonstrating a compassionate internationalism – and also her independent, straight-talking streak. Her Saudi Tweets were entirely the right response to yet another manifestation of the British state’s unhealthily close relationship to a kingdom that shows little respect for human rights and has been the epicenter of the export of extreme Islam. Sadly, our country’s closeness to the Saudi regime does somewhat undermine the protests that decent people need to be making about Jeremy Corbyn’s unsavoury associations.
Ruth Davidson’s attack on the Saudis could, of course, be interpreted as a bit ungrateful. More than Alistair Darling, more than “The Vow”, more than the Tory money that was poured into the “Better Together” campaign, more even than Gordon Brown’s “I’ve saved the banks, the world economy and now I’ll save the Union” speech, it was probably the desert kingdom that did more to defeat the Nats than anyone or anything else. Through what has been inaccurately called the “Sheiks v Shale” phenomenon the Saudis helped push down the oil price in order to bankrupt America’s transformational shale industry (the true target of Riyadh was actually the finances of Russia and Iran). The side-effect, of course, was the sailing of a supertanker through the Salmond-Sturgeon economic vision for Scotland. That effect was visible when Scotland voted one year ago. It’s supertanker-sized now and just before the Holyrood parliament was going into summer recess – in proof that the SNP can be as underhand as any other member of the political class – the Scottish government sneakily released its latest oil revenue estimates. Sneakily – because they pointed to a massive hole in Scotland’s finances.
Before last year’s referendum officials in the Scottish government were predicting revenues of £16 billion to £39 billion over five years from oil production. On that day before MSPs left for recess the projections were £2.4 billion to £10.8 billion. An 80% downgrade and the equivalent of a £1,400 per person hole in Scotland’s finances. The reduction in the oil price and other commodity prices has caused huge economic difficulties for Australia and Canada – two other wealthy, energy-exporting nations. Outside of the UK it would have caused massive difficulties for Scotland too.
On the face of it the collapse in the oil price has not caused a collapse in support for independence. One recent YouGov poll, for example, had independence up 3% on last year’s vote: 52% of Scots saying they would reject independence and 48% saying they’d vote for it. I’m not sure I believe that number and nor, it would seem, does Nicola Sturgeon. She’s under pressure to put a clear second referendum pledge into the SNP’s manifesto for next year’s Scottish elections. She’s not so keen and not just because nearly two-thirds of Scots are opposed to holding another vote any time soon. I guess she knows that the economics of independence would make defeat very likely. She is caught between declining oil wealth on one side and rising costs on the other (Scotland’s population is older than the UK’s as a whole). What we’ll get in the SNP manifesto is identification of triggers that could initiate a vote. Those triggers are likely to include the rest of the UK voting to leave the EU; Britain becoming embroiled in “another illegal war”; or, just possibly, the renewal of Trident. Alex Salmond (remember him? The man who now lives in Ms Sturgeon’s shadow) was the one who proposed the Trident trigger. I don’t think Ms Sturgeon would be foolish to include Trident in her list. Because – surprise, surprise – a majority of Scots want to retain nuclear weapons.
The actual percentage of Scots who want to retain the nuclear deterrent is 53% (37% are opposed). It’s just one of a number of stats that confound the forgivable perception that the Scottish people have become Corbynistas. Only a quarter of Scots think benefits are too low. Only a minority of Scots want higher public spending. A vast majority support the welfare cap. Most oppose euro membership.
But you wouldn’t believe any of this if you looked at the composition of Scotland’s parliament. Andy Maciver has drawn up a league table of international parliaments with the largest percentage of left-wing members. Switzerland is near the bottom of the league table with a 31% red flag factor. Holland at 37% also has the left under reasonable control. The US is at 44%. Germany is at 50%. Italy is at 55%. And the runner up in Andy Maciver’s search for the world’s most left-wing legislature is Hollande’s France at 59%. You will, of course, have guessed by now that the runaway winner is Holyrood: “with 88 per cent of seats in the legislature held by politicians from identifiably left-of-centre parties, Scotland truly is world-leading.”
There is some hope that the Tories will win a handful of extra seats next year but no one is expecting a transformation. Scotland will still top the Maciver table. The Scottish Tories have now tried almost everything to change the situation. They’ve thrown money at Scotland (defending the Barnett formula). They’ve devolved extra powers (the “Vow”). They gave the green light for an independence referendum (largely on Salmond’s terms). And the opinion polls continue to flatline. It’s too late for next May but soon afterwards the Scottish Tories must embrace the “Murdo Fraser” plan. The Scottish party must have the same kind of relationship with London that the German CSU has with the CDU. They must be sister parties but the Scottish Tories must have a policy agenda and name and leadership team of its own – and a commitment to true federalism. Ruth Davidson is the person to lead that team and she has engineered things such that her team of MSPs may be the strongest since devolution. But radical change must come and David Cameron must overrule the objections of his Scottish Secretary David Mundell, if necessary.
So long as the SNP can use fear of Tory government as one key way of selling independence the UK is in danger. Building a new reputation for Scottish Conservatism is the antidote to that. In her recent speech to the Adam Smith Institute (in which she wisely remembered the great Scot as a moral thinker as much as an economic thinker) Ruth Davidson showed that she knows what Scotland wants from a centre right party: a judicious mix of patriotism, social solidarity and economic freedom. She deserves the chance to build that party and few things could be more important to the long-term security of the Union.