Animal metaphors were much in evidence at the Scottish Conservative conference on 4 March. “When you have two elephants charging towards you,” said the Tory MEP Ian Duncan in his speech to a modest crowd, “always tackle the first elephant first, then move on to the next elephant.” He was referring to the Scottish Parliament elections in May and the European Union referendum on 23 June, a pairing that many Scottish Tories view with increasing trepidation.
This is curious. All the talk since the end of last year has been of a modest Conservative revival north of the border, with party strategists convinced that an attractive leader – the counter-intuitively un-Tory-seeming Ruth Davidson – plus strong opposition to tax rises and another independence referendum have the potential to attract Scotland’s embattled unionist majority.
The Prime Minister and his Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, have even talked up displacing Labour as Scotland’s main opposition party, though the enthusiastic reports from the doorstep are rather at odds with the familiar flatlining poll ratings. As the academic James Mitchell observed during the conference fringe: “Politics is an expectations game. If you don’t do it, it will look as if you’ve failed.”
History, meanwhile, repeats itself. Many of those predicting an additional five Conservative seats in May (there are currently 15 Tory MSPs at Holyrood) made similarly optimistic noises before last year’s general election, which the party fought with just a single incumbent – a tally unaltered despite a decent swing to the Conservatives in the rest of mainland Britain. But then, the triumph of hope over expectation comes naturally to a party that has long been toiling in the electoral doldrums in Scotland.
Just as elephants never forget, many Scots still have not forgotten decades of Tory-inflicted grievances, both real and imagined. They might like Ruth Davidson, they might think Scottish Labour is a bit crap and they might even agree with the Scottish Conservatives on income tax but they still can’t quite bring themselves to put a cross next to what even David Cameron once called the “effing Tories”.
The gathering at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh was a dull and lifeless affair. The Prime Minister breezed through a short speech before heading south; the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, pushed all the right buttons on Trident (the Conservatives are bucking Scottish political orthodoxy by championing its renewal). Speaker after speaker explained how inspirational Davidson is: “our Sturgeon-slaying, Dugdale-defying, absolute star of a leader”, according to Cameron. The podium legend “Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition” will be reproduced on ballot papers for the regional list vote on 5 May, a tactic taken straight out of the Scottish National Party’s playbook (it used “Alex Salmond for First Minister” to great effect in 2007).
However presidential the campaign contrived by the party may be – Davidson the pragmatic Republican v Nicola Sturgeon’s Hillary Clinton – the European debate casts a big shadow. Scotland’s Ukip MEP, David Coburn (the Donald Trump of Scottish politics), will probably receive an inconvenient boost, while his party could take votes from the Scottish Conservatives and even pick up a seat or two at Holyrood. Only one Tory MSP will actively campaign for Brexit, a stage-managed sop to the generally Eurosceptic party grass roots.
In policy terms, meanwhile, the party has contradicted its recent framing of the new tax and welfare powers heading Holyrood’s way, now that the tortuous “fiscal framework” has been agreed between Edinburgh and London. Having repeatedly taunted the SNP for not having the guts to use the fiscal levers at its disposal, Davidson’s much-anticipated tax reduction failed to materialise. Such a policy, she argued in her keynote speech, needs to be credible and the timing simply isn’t right “for a short-term tax cut below that of the UK”.
Instead, the party urged the Scottish government to increase health spending in Scotland, an indication that the art of triangulation is alive and well. A collection of essays (entitled Light Blue) launched at the conference urged the Scottish Conservatives to “start parking their tanks on unexpected lawns” by considering policies such as federalism, a guaranteed basic income, proportional representation and even adoption of gender quotas for election candidates.
Scottish politics, however, has never been notably good at bold policy thinking. One has to reach back to the poll tax to find signs of life – and that didn’t exactly end well. Besides, Scotland has long been a small-C conservative nation, albeit one that likes to think of itself as “radical” and “progressive”. There were many barbed comments at the conference about the SNP stealing several Tory policies: standardised testing in schools, a minor tweak to council tax, and a commitment not to raise the basic or upper rates of income tax.
At a convivial conference dinner, a veteran Conservative deployed another animal metaphor to summarise the party’s Scottish experience over the past 20 years, citing the scene in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film The Revenant in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is nearly mauled to death by a hungry bear. Only on 5 May will we see if the Scottish political mammal has found alternative prey.
This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho