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.