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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

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.