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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.