Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Scottish Tories are coming – how 12 new MPs can change the Conservative Party

Ruth Davidson's party is settling in at Westminster. And they're not impressed by the DUP. 

As the ballot papers settled, and Theresa May announced she was in talks with the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party, one Tory made her scepticism clear. 

"I was fairly straightforward with her,” Ruth Davidson told the BBC’s Reporting Scotland. “And I told her that there were a number of things that count to me more than party.

"One of them is country, one of the others is LGBTI rights."

Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party (she brought back the second bit), may not be a Westminster MP but she can afford to throw her weight around. After 20 years in the political wilderness, thanks to her efforts, the Scottish Conservatives are back.

While the Tories had a catastrophic night elsewhere, in Scotland they now are the second biggest party. In the UK, they make a minority Tory government possible (without them, even with the DUP's help, May would not be able to form a majority). 

So how will the 12 new Scottish Tory MPs change the outlook of the party as a whole? And do they represent a distinctly Davidsonian idea of Conservatism?

There is no doubt that Davidson matters. In resurrecting a party left for dead, she has injected it with a strong unionist message, social and economic liberalism, and a blue-collar earthiness that makes it hard for her opponents to paint her as a corporate stooge. She is openly gay, and engaged to her partner. She threw herself into the Remain campaign during the 2016 EU referendum. Since then, she has used public platforms to denounce a “divisive Brexit” and criticised nationalism “which demands people support one camp or another".

Then there is David Mundell, whose nickname is “Fluffy”, and who was for more than a decade the lone Scottish Tory MP. Like Davidson, he served in the Holyrood parliament and backed Remain. He also oversaw the passing of the Scotland Act, which delivered more powers to the Scottish government – a far cry from the anti-devolution stance taken by previous generations of Scottish Tories.

There are echoes of Davidson in the new intake. Bill Grant, who won Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, is the son of a miner and a retired firefighter. Ross Thomson, one of several gay Scottish Tory MPs, including Mundell, is a campaigner for LGBT rights. He, along with Douglas Ross and John Lamont, served as MSPs. Kirstene Hair made a name for herself as a Better Together activist.

But there are also differences. Thomson, now the MP for Aberdeen South, led Scotland’s Vote Leave campaign (all candidates signed a Brexit pledge to fishermen). Alister Jack, the businessman turned Dumfries and Galloway MP whose Twitter biography declares him a “keen fisherman and shot”, was educated at the independent Glenalmond school.

Where the Scottish Tories are likely to speak with a single voice is on three issues pertinent to Scotland – fishing, farming, and energy. Indeed, the Scottish Tory influence has already made itself felt in the UK manifesto on renewables, with a pledge to “support the development of wind projects in the remote islands of Scotland, where they will directly benefit local communities”.

On Brexit, they are particularly focused on the repatriation of powers, and where these are devolved to. Like Davidson, they are not overly impressed with the idea of working with the DUP. However, any personal objections are likely to be subsumed by what the new Scottish Tories consider their overarching purpose – to prove to Scottish voters that it is possible to participate in Westminster government, rather than simply oppose it.

One thing is for certain. The Scottish Tories may be new to parliament, but when it comes to standing up for their views, they’ve had years of practice. Perhaps the most interesting of the new cohort will be Colin Clark, the Tory councillor who unseated the SNP’s biggest dog, Alex Salmond, in Gordon. “I have been in training since 2015 and I am fit and ready to win this seat in June,” Clark declared when he announced his candidacy. Parliament, you’ve been warned.
 

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.