Discussion: The ‘intelligent Right’ is dead in Scotland

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No surrender!
Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

Commentary by Derek Bateman

Scotland doesn’t need another party of the Left – it needs a real party of the Right. The left-of-centre field is getting mighty cluttered with those claiming they can out radical each other but we don’t even have a single ambitious party of the right worthy of the name. The Scottish Conservatives aren’t so much a branch office as a regional depot for despatching London policy.

The Scottish Tories have been the embarrassing relative everybody avoids since the Scots, finally realising what Margaret Thatcher meant by bringing harmony and peace, took their revenge by obliterating them at the ballot box. What was left by ‘97 was a rump of Dad’s Army Telegraph readers with interest-bearing accounts and share dividends. They think Labour equates to Communism, the Nats are anarchists and we can save the health service by reintroducing Matron (see 1999 manifesto).

Once a Tory could be a West of Scotland working class Protestant, a Borders mill worker suspicious of socialist change or a professional who respected social structures that had endured. But the stigma of Thatcher poisoned the name so that Scots canvassed on their voting intentions would demur and claim they were Don’t Knows instead of Tories.

Some of this is illogical since there are policy positions many voters could approve of and indeed candidates sufficiently credible to deserve a vote. But things ain’t wot they used to be…attitudes and culture change so that what was once mainstream becomes unimaginable – think bell-bottoms or frizzy hair.

Have the Scottish Tories binned the flares and stopped listening to Slade and the Sweet? Well, the leader is certainly a change – new generation, plain-speaking and non-posh. Ruth Davidson is able to mix it with the mainstream of mainly Left-orientated politicians without sounding like Margo in the Good Life. There are able and effective individuals in elected positions – Jackson Carlaw, Murdo Fraser, Liz Smith.

But…what are they for? They cannot claim to be instigators of a Scottish renaissance of ideas since it’s hard to know when they last had one. There is a sense in which they read between the lines of popular sentiment and hedge their bets. It’s interesting to look back to 1999 when they were still in shock from the Extinction of the Dinosaurs two years previously. All pretence at fading popularity was washed away with all 11 MPs, led to oblivion by the Thatcherite zealot Michael Forsyth, blindly denying the demand for devolution and democratic change.

The late David McLetchie
The late David McLetchie

The manifesto for the first Holyrood includes abolition of university tuition fees(!?) and free childcare for all four-year-olds and making the parliament work for Scotland within the UK, all which could be lifted from any progressive party document. In fact the sense of realism and contrition pointing to new and bolder future is palpable. Here is part of the leader’s statement (the late David McLetchie).

On May 1st 1997 the people of Scotland told us what they thought – we got it wrong.

They said we were out of touch. We didn’t listen; that our decisions and policies had London stamped all over them, with little relevance, or sympathy, for the needs of the Scottish people.

As a result, our history is indelibly marked with the 1997 election defeat.

The defeat, however, was a turning point. It made us look at ourselves. It was time to face the criticisms and address them head on. It was now or never.

One of our immediate tasks was to find out what Scotland really thought of us. And, more importantly, what Scotland expected of us.

Since July 1998 we have held over five hundred ‘listening’ meetings to hear the views of over 15,000 people from all walks of life, from all over Scotland. The result? The manifesto you see before you.

It gives me great pride to say that no other manifesto has ever been put together this way. It truly was created for you, by you.

Please feel free to read on. Whether you read it all, or whether you just dip in and out, you’ll see that, while our core values and principles remain intact, this is a new party.

A party that is listening.

A party that has got back to grass roots. A party that has risen to the challenge of devolution.

A party that is committed to putting Scotland First.

Is that what has happened? Does this describe the Tories you know? Do today’s policies sound as if they are crafted in Scotland with unique properties of their own? Can you name a single big idea that emanated from or is uniquely identified with the Scottish Tories? Is there any single way in which you understand the Tories to put Scotland first? Do they reflect the needs of the Scottish people?

When it came to the defining issue of the age – independence – did they have copyright on any aspect of the campaign although their party was in legal control of the referendum process? Surely the opposite was true – they cowered behind Labour’s larger support and greater credibility in speaking to the Scottish people (pause for retrospective irony). They surrendered the ground to Labour although it was in truth the most fertile territory any Scottish Tory could wish for. They merged into the execrable Better Together because they had no distinctive voice on Scotland’s place in the world and no character big enough to match even the semi-retired Alistair Darling, twice Britain’s Most Boring Politician.

Indeed if you scan the 2015 Tory election manifesto, it has ‘Scotland’ on top of every page but the content is 95 per cent the UK manifesto. This is partly understandable for a UK election, it’s true, but on the key area of the economy alone, there is but one single paragraph on Scotland which, after giving us the employment rate, merely states that growth will help ‘every part of Britain.’

Immigration, another key area and the policy bedrock for virtually every Right-wing European party, has literally no mention of Scotland at all despite a different tone to the debate here and different economic and social needs. Education, perhaps the area where Scotland is most distinct and where the Tories have the widest remit for unique ideas, is a pale version of London policy – allowing individuals and charities to set up their own schools and allowing schools to be run independently from local councils. This is England’s Academy policy with a kilt.

David Cameron: would he block a second Scottish referendum ?
David Cameron: would he block a second Scottish referendum ?

How much real independence does either the party of the leadership actually have? Before the May election Davidson was asked if the Tories would block a second referendum and was unable to say more than it had been discussed with Cameron but she could not foresee the circumstances in which that would happen. She later said it would be a mistake to block indyref2. Cameron has now decisively ruled out support for another referendum. I suppose she can argue she is putting Scotland first. The truth would appear to be that in Scotland Tories can be as independent as they like – nobody in London takes a blind bit of notice.

There is a heavy Tory focus on benefits for the aged which directly reflects the people who vote Conservative and as long as SNP policy lures the aspirational with a vision of a prosperous and equitable independent Scotland, the profile of Tories will fail to deliver the stream of younger voters and talent needed for success. The GE showing was the worst since the creation of the modern party in the mid-Sixties.

I’m not a Conservative – they remain the only party I have never voted for in nearly 50 years of voting. But I deprecate the Left’s neglect of business development and understanding of economic activity which opens it to the accusation of myopia. Business, from barter onwards, has been a bedrock of society not only for the revenues in taxes its profits generate but for the welfare benefits that work and earning bring to millions. Work is – or should be – a purpose for life, a place to interact, a centre for our self-expression and achievement. (I know it’s not like that at Amazon).

There is a wide field here for policy generation which embraces work as a key driver of a happy society, the creator of revenue for both individual and state and the means by which we create a more balanced society capable of eradicating poverty. It could be hypothecating certain taxes for anti-poverty programmes, championing oil industry decommissioning as a Scottish economic flag-bearer instead of braying about the oil price fall as if it were a super idea. Is there a Scottish entrepreneur culture to be rekindled among the working class kids they complain can’t get into college any more? Why aren’t Tories in Scotland the natural home of business sentiment? An organisation which constantly produced new ways of thinking about business and showcased them online and in public presentations would be the first political destination for innovators. Business is changing so fast – even the definition of what business is – yet the Tory model still seems to be silver-haired men in suits and ties linked to the financial sector.

Davidson’s success as a party spokesman may be masking a decline more profound than we realise. She is merely shoring up the façade of a listed institution with nothing behind it. The analysis of Murdo Fraser’s bold plan that it was just a rebranding need not have been true, although he makes that case himself with his jeering noises about Scottish economic dependency because of the oil price. That plan should have opened the way to a new party of business embracing the digital sector, one where anyone below 60 would feel comfortable. Ending the clammy embrace of London Central Office would free up policy – and allow the influx of those with the talent to create it – and even release the bird of real right-wing thinking, independence. The Right is about freedom, responsibility, the role of the individual and nothing encapsulates that better than national independence. It is after all favoured by half the population and you’d expect Tories to spot a market.

Opening up a sensible internal debate on what that might mean would centre the Tories in the Scottish mainstream instead of casting them as absolutists. That would at least display what McLetchie talked about 16 years ago – a party that’s listening and a party that puts Scotland first. But I’m wasting my time just as the Tories are. The intelligent Right is dead in Scotland. (Good luck to Rise, by the way).