Davidson confirms slow death of the Tories in Scotland

The new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, gave a confident speech but didn't conf

In his speech to the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Troon on Friday, David Cameron attempted to shore up the morale of the handful of Tory faithful still active north of the border."Let's be frank", he said bluntly. "We aren't where we want to be. There are those who think this is just a fact of life, that a small Conservative presence in Scotland is inevitable -- I am resolutely not one of them. I'm here today to argue that this is our moment -- if we are bold enough -- to come back stronger." But perhaps the prime minister hasn't fully grasped the scale of the crisis his party faces.

Since 1997, when the Conservatives lost every one of their Scottish seats, its share of the vote in Scotland has barely grown. In fact, at the last devolved elections in May, it actually dropped by 2.7 per cent on its 2007 performance. What's more, Scotland's Tory activists are literally dying out. Between 1992 and 2011 membership of the party declined from 40,000 to 10,000, while the average age of those members who remain is around 70.

So yesterday it fell to Ruth Davidson, the new leader of the Scottish Tories, to demonstrate that someone at the top of the party understands just how much work is needed if there is to be revival of centre-right politics in Scotland. Speaking in front of what looked like a half empty town hall, Davidson laid out plans to reform the organisation's internal structures -- including its candidate selection procedures -- and to draw a younger generation of activists into the Tory fold. She also urged her colleagues to "stop apologising" for their conservatism and signalled her intention to confidently re-assert right-wing values against Scotland's SNP and Labour maintained social democratic consensus.

Davidson was equally robust when it came to the constitutional question. "Our position is clear," she said. "We are foursquare for the Union. Scotland is better off in Britain and you don't defend Scotland's place in the United Kingdom by compromising with the forces of separatism." She went on to say that there must be no "rigged ballots and no second questions" in the independence referendum., as well as repeating the all too familiar unionist charge that by "delaying" a vote on autonomy, the SNP government was damaging Scotland's economy. (Although she didn't explain how this fits with yesterday's announcement by Gamesa, the Spanish energy company, that it would create 800 new wind-turbine production jobs in Edinburgh.)

But despite what was an undeniably well constructed and delivered address, Davidson failed to confront the two central challenges facing Scottish conservatism. The first is that the Scottish Tories are still run by the UK party, from London . This has lead to Davidson's authority being badly undermined on two occasions: once by the prime minister, who announced in January that he was willing to enhance the powers of the Holyrood parliament beyond the provisions offered in the Scotland Bill, despite Davidson having described the Bill as a "line in the sand" as far as constitutional reform was concerned, and again this week by the UK government in its decision to support minimum pricing for alcohol, which forced her to abruptly abandon her opposition to the SNP's own minimum pricing proposals.

The second, much more deep-rooted challenge is that posed by the legacy of Tory rule in Scotland. Modern Scottish politics is to a large extent defined by its anti-Thatcherism. The current generation of nationalist and Scottish Labour leaders came of age during the 1980s - when Scottish unemployment and poverty rates nearly doubled - and share a common antipathy towards the laissez-faire economics championed by the Thatcher government. The problem for Davidson is that this antipathy is by no means restricted to Scotland's political class, but reflects the feelings of Scottish voters more widely.

So far, there have been no indications that Davidson understands how to overcome these obstacles - or that she even knows they exist. If in fact she does then, ironically, her best bet might be to adopt the strategy advanced by her defeated leadership rival Murdo Fraser, who argued that the party needed to be completely disbanded and a new one - free from the baggage of the past - established in its place. But there is no chance of that happening: Davidson won the leadership on the basis that she was the continuity candidate (she was endorsed by her predecessor Annabel Goldie and is thought to have had the private backing of the prime minister). The difficulty, of course, is that continuity for the Scottish Conservatives means slow decline and then, probably, death.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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The private renting sector enables racist landlords like Fergus Wilson

A Kent landlord tried to ban "coloured people" from his properties. 

Fergus Wilson, a landlord in Kent, has made headlines after The Sun published his email to a letting agent which included the line: "No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy."

When confronted, the 70-year-old property owner only responded with the claim "we're getting overloaded with coloured people". The letting agents said they would not carry out his orders, which were illegal. 

The combination of blatant racism, a tired stereotype and the outdated language may make Wilson seem suspiciously like a Time Landlord who has somehow slipped in from 1974. But unfortunately he is more modern than he seems.

Back in 2013, a BBC undercover investigation found 10 letting agent firms willing to discriminate against black tenants at the landlord's request. One manager was filmed saying: "99% of my landlords don't want Afro-Caribbeans."

Under the Equality Act 2010, this is illegal. But the conditions of the private renting sector allow discrimination to flourish like mould on a damp wall. 

First, discrimination is common in flat shares. While housemates or live-in landlords cannot turn away a prospective tenant because of their race, they can express preferences of gender and ethnicity. There can be logical reasons for this - but it also provides useful cover for bigots. When one flat hunter in London protested about being asked "where do your parents come from?", the landlord claimed he just wanted to know whether she was Christian.

Second, the private rental sector is about as transparent as a landlord's tax arrangements. A friend of mine, a young professional Indian immigrant, enthusiastically replied to house share ads in the hope of meeting people from other cultures. After a month of responding to three or four room ads a day, he'd had just six responses. He ended up sharing with other Indian immigrants.

My friend suspected he'd been discriminated against, but he had no way of proving it. There is no centrally held data on who flatshares with who (the closest proxy is SpareRoom, but its data is limited to room ads). 

Third, the current private renting trends suggest discrimination will increase, rather than decrease. Landlords hiked rents by 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, an indication of high demand. SpareRoom has recorded as many as 22 flat hunters chasing a single room. In this frenzy, it only becomes harder for prospective tenants to question the assertion "it's already taken". 

Alongside this demand, the government has introduced legislation which requires landlords to check that tenants can legitimately stay in the UK. A report this year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that half of landlords were less likely to rent to foreign nationals as a result of the scheme. This also provides handy cover for the BTL bigot - when a black British tenant without a passport asked about a room, 58 per cent of landlords ignored the request or turned it down

Of course, plenty of landlords are open-minded, unbiased and unlikely to make a tabloid headline anytime soon. They most likely outnumber the Fergus Wilsons of this world. But without any way of monitoring discrimination in the private rental sector, it's impossible to know for sure. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.