Commentary by Derek Bateman
What went wrong with the Tories? There was a time when it was respectable, normal even, to regard the Conservatives as having the answers to running the country. They represented grounded common sense, economic competence and a patrician concern for the less fortunate. They embodied the Britain my parents’ generation fought for…principled and tolerant.
It sounds naïve of course. The boss class lorded it then just as it does today. Even mighty Tory figures could be smeared with avarice. Ted Heath’s finances were handled by Slater Walker whose corporate raids were the 60’s and 70’s equivalent of sub prime mortgages, ending in a Bank of England bailout that shook the financial sector. They secured Heath spectacular 60 per cent returns on investments. Say no more.
The Tories gave us Profumo and Establishment spies and the bonds of class solidarity among themselves that still stifle social mobility and talent today.
Yet the Tories I knew, or at least many of them, were finely attuned to their role in public service. And in Scotland they had a taste for small ‘n’ nationalism if they deemed it appropriate. London may try to insist, but it was they who were entrusted to know best Scotland’s national interest. Sometimes they made that clear. Make that often, in the case of George Younger. He had successive run-ins with Margaret Thatcher and claimed that on particular Scottish issues, she would defer to him. He took her on over Ravenscraig – along with other Tories such as Michael Hirst. He made the case that after a damaging series of closures from Linwood to Corpach, putting out the furnaces at an iconic industrial site would harm both the economy and the Tories themselves. She relented, again, and there was a six-year stay imposed.
By keeping up a running commentary on his activities, Younger was playing his Scottish card to the voters, saying he was not afraid to stand up for them.
Too little, too late, you say. But he was playing the game of politics by publicly siding with the people against his government in London, something I don’t believe David Mundell has done once. I find this not only a sign of contemptible weakness in Mundell but an abrogation of responsibility to his Scottish party. It is a time-honoured aspect of Unionist politics to be seen standing up for Scotland against the powers in Westminster. Even Sturgeon does it and she has no Unionist boss to answer to. Couldn’t Mundell even fake a row with Theresa May in which he’s allowed to take Scotland’s side and pretend to win?
John Mackay, who also entered the Lords, was another who understood the hard realities of Scottish Toryism. In 1989, as we approached the tenth anniversary of Thatcher’s election win, the party was in the doldrums. John was by this time Chief Executive of the party in the north and I suggested to him the anniversary celebrations would be a boost to the Tories. He gave me a withering stare. ‘You must be joking,’ he said. ‘It’ll just remind them all of how long she’s been in charge.’
He was an intelligent and engaging character who constantly made cracks at the expense of those colleagues whose family fortunes contrasted painfully with his own modest means. ‘He doesn’t care if he loses’ he said of a well-known party aristo. ‘He doesn’t need the money.’ Everybody who knew him was fond of John and I felt for him when he was pushed aside – almost literally – to make way for Michael Forsyth who commandeered his desk from him as the Press looked on. In his obituary, the Guardian said, accurately: ‘Widely popular, he did not seem to fit wholly in with the new, increasingly right wing and Europhobic regime’.
I think too of Alick Buchanan-Smith, whose gentility was reminiscent of an 18th century gentleman MP. His home was dotted with momentos of empire acquired byancestors. His endearingly warm personality concealed a man of total conviction. He believed in Scottish self-government within the UK and took constant punishment for saying so until eventually resigning over the issue. As did Malcolm Rifkind. I think of them as significant figures with a firm grasp of Scotland’s importance.
Michael Ancram wrestled with the conundrum of fitting Scotland comfortably inside the Union. A nuclear disarmer, he argued for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. He is of course, the Earl of Ancram, or is it the Marquess of Lothian? He was an open host when I followed him for a day in Belfast when he was Northern Ireland Secretary and again when I turned up at the ancestral home – one of them – Monteviot House at Jedburgh. I was to interview him but brought the kids with me. ‘Just take them into the nursery,’ he smiled. They were delighted when it turned out to be more like the Museum of Childhood, a huge space filled with rocking horses and toys of every kind.
There were others, among them Adrian Shinwell, Tory and British and yet undeniably committed to their version of Scotland. They were experienced and mature. They were people – it seemed to me – of stature in public life. And they could debate, as Hansard attests. Jousts between Rifkind and Dewar for example are comprehensive and biting examples of the art.
My personal dealings with such characters produces a jaundiced view of today’s crop. I can think of no active representative Tory who carries anything like the credibility of their predecessors. Styles change of course and the landed gentry and posh boys are out of fashion, rightly so. But class is no marker of stature. Where are the outgoing, avuncular, open-minded Tories today? What is their vision for Scotland? Is there one?
Even those who a year or so ago I genuinely regarded as being the right stuff, have descended into a small-minded antagonisms. Are we to believe that every one of those Tories at Holyrood truly supports the rape clause? Because I don’t buy that. When policy making from London gets that socially vicious, common sense tells you that sane people are inwardly rebelling. If the Scottish Tories did issue a denunciation, who would be hurt? Surely what the old Tories understood was that there was a Scottish viewpoint and, at times, it was their duty to reflect that, even if it miffs Central Office or Downing Street. I was astonished to see Jackson Carlaw chortling that it was ‘only one page’ to fill in and that the SNP should ameliorate the effects of the policy, missing entirely the inhuman element. I usually find that experienced politicians get the key point and can separate the instant reaction for the media from the considered longer view of the public. Not in this case.
Murdo Fraser always had my respect because he could communicate a sensible undogmatic message. What happened to him? Not so long ago he was championing the idea of reinventing the Tory Party and was a serious prospect for leader. Now his Twitter account is juvenile, bitter and unfunny. The stature he was building as a distinctive figure, different and to some extent at odds politically with his leader, has evaporated.
I considered Liz Smith a class act. Blunt, level-headed, no nonsense, she has simply vanished from the scene. Are the Tories only allowed one female at a time? Don’t tell me she approves of the rape clause. And yet she sits silent.
And, whatever her value in being a ‘Tory that is different’, I fear the fake bonhomie and bully boy antics of Ruth Davidson would make the heavyweights of yesteryear reach for the scotch. Where once there was a semblance of poise, there is now decay. It is a decay of quality and content, a paucity of composure. The pointy, angry tone and one-dimensional messaging buries any softer sound of compassion or even potential governmental competence. There was a moment when she took on Boris Johnson during the EU referendum, that I thought I would have to reappraise her. She was taking a Scottish pro-EU line against big hitters in the party. That was briefly worrying territory. But it wasn’t to last. As soon as the new leader took up the Brexit baton any thought of a differentiated approach was thrown overboard for die hard loyalty.
In truth it may be that Ruthie is the embodiment of modern Scottish Unionism – cold, strident, increasingly desperate as history overtakes them. Still they will be able to bask in small-scale glory in the coming elections no doubt as Labour drains away. It will sustain them a while longer but I see no policy initiative that suggests there is strategy at work or any alternative programme for government. They are a last-gasp protest group and, devoid of the kind of talent they used to produce, they cannot reach beyond the hysterical No Referendum rabble. Just as Scotland needs a genuine party of the Left, so it needs one of the Conservative Right. But it requires intellectual foundations and people to articulate it and neither is currently available.