The National Conservatism conference was quite a spectacle from the Scottish perspective. A nation that retained a special quality of loathing for Boris Johnson and his low morals and self-entitlement watched as the same, failed populist nonsense was given a fresh airing. Suella Braverman was talked of – somehow, still – as a potential future leader. Bovver boy David Frost delivered a tone-deaf piece of Tebbitism. And after years of pillorying Scottish nationalism, this is the path and language they choose?
Most fair-minded observers would accept that Rishi Sunak has managed a dismal inheritance well since entering No 10. He is certainly the first PM since David Cameron who even makes it over the baseline competence line. It will likely all prove insufficient with Labour so far ahead in the polls, and of course the Tories deserve to lose. But Sunak gets points for trying and for restoring sanity. His pals, not so much.
Who would be a Scottish Conservative in such circumstances? The party has enjoyed a reasonable run at Holyrood since the much-missed Ruth Davidson turned its fortunes around and took the Tories into second place above Labour in 2016.
That run looks to be over. Labour may currently only have one Scottish seat at Westminster – the lowest number of all the major parties – but this will change next year. The debate is not whether Labour will do better, but just how well it might perform. Could it win back as many as 20 seats? Could the SNP collapse accelerate and hand even more electoral real estate back to its fiercest rival? Whatever happens, Scottish Labour is back in the game, with its sights set on Holyrood 2026.
The prospect of power, however slim, tends to concentrate the mind. Anas Sarwar, Labour’s leader in Edinburgh, is a ball of energy at the moment, meeting and courting power players across Scotland, sharpening the message that he hopes will win over voters at the next two elections. It’s hard to walk down Buchanan Street in Glasgow without bumping into Keir Starmer or a member of his shadow cabinet. The quality of candidates being selected for winnable seats at the general election – Douglas Alexander, Kirsty McNeill and Martin McCluskey for starters – is of a higher quality than it has been in years. The thinking on what the policy offer to Scots should look like is intense and hard-headed.
There is, of course, a lot of ruin in the SNP. At the 2019 general election the party won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats. Its vote, driven by its status as the only viable vehicle for delivering independence, has for many years proved stubbornly loyal and unshiftable. Even now, the SNP’s poll ratings will have to fall quite a bit further to bring an end to its long hegemony. Yet its opponents still enjoy a golden opportunity.
The Scottish Tories know this, but it’s hard to discern what they’re doing about it. North of the border, they have owed their success, such as it is, to the fact the constitutional debate has for so long pushed every other issue to the margins. They are the unashamed party of the Union, the yin to the SNP’s yang, and have therefore been the receptacle of many tactical unionist votes. Many of these have come from Scots who in normal times would not consider backing the Conservatives.
With Labour’s revival in London and Edinburgh, that incentive is being removed. The challenge for the Holyrood Tory leader Douglas Ross and his team therefore becomes a new one: forget the Union, what else do they have to offer?
Such is the antipathy towards the Nats in parts of Scotland that Ross might benefit from an anti-SNP vote in areas such as the north-east of Scotland. But elsewhere, the Tories risk being marginalised by the battle between the big two. If they want voters to take a second look, they’d better give them something to look at.
One policy, I think, says something about just how anaemic the Tory prospectus has become at Holyrood. Ahead of the 2021 devolved election, Ross announced that his party would oppose university tuition fees. In 2022, when my think tank Reform Scotland produced a report suggesting Scotland’s university funding crisis should be addressed through a fair and moderate graduate tax, the then Conservative education spokesperson Oliver Mundell responded with: “They’d be best served by making free tuition actually work for everyone, like it’s meant to.”
The truth is that Scotland’s existing tuition fee policy is a growing disaster. It restricts the number of places available to Scots students, while universities are forced to chase fee-paying foreigners to close the funding gap. Since 2006, there has been an 84 per cent increase in the number of domestic applicants refused entry to a Scottish university. Many better-off parents are simply paying for their offspring to study elsewhere.
I doubt there is a single Tory MSP who agrees with Ross’s tuition fee policy. It was a surrender to SNP orthodoxy, to the narrow parameters that the Nats and their Green coalition partners have erected around what is “acceptable” in a Scottish context. The Nats and the Greens are wrong, and the Tories should say so. The freebie culture in general should be a target.
There are some very good people on the Conservative benches at Holyrood. MSPs including Donald Cameron, Liz Smith, Sandesh Gulhane and Russell Findlay are thoughtful, savvy and street-smart. But unless there is a rethink – unless Ross shows he has the capacity to build a platform beyond day-glo unionism – they will be asked to fight the next few elections against overwhelming odds and with a policy portfolio that is underwhelming and bland.
The party needs to carve out a space that is both conservative and reform-minded within the Scottish political context. It needs some vision and intellectual integrity. This can’t look anything like National Conservatism. In which case, what’s the answer?