Jamie Gardiner is a former Barrister who now works for Accenture advising
businesses on their strategy. He is based in Edinburgh, and is fourth on the
Scottish Conservative List for next year’s European Election.
The unofficial mascot of the Scottish
Conservative conference was a man in a rat costume outside the entrance. “Go
home English Tories”, he bellowed to general bemusement. If the revolution
comes, I predict that it will not be led by men in rat costumes.
But what is shocking is that, in more
temperate language and minus the costume, many Scots would sympathize with the
rat. I still remember talking to a friend’s family a few years ago. Everything
about them suggested that they would lean Conservative. They ran a small
business, had a rural background and opposed separation. But they voted
Nationalist, and the explanation over a pint was interesting (and I paraphrase):
“We don’t agree with them on a lot of things, but when they go to Europe or
Westminster at least we know they’ll push for the best deal for Scotland.”
They aren’t alone. In 2011, almost all
Scots believed that the SNP put Scottish issues first. But an extraordinary 50 per cent
believed that the Scottish Conservatives put English issues first. That
perception is an absolute barrier to our electoral success. It would be like
Senate candidate in New York standing on a pledge to fix schools in California.
And that is how it plays out. Only 11 per cent of the growing number who consider
themselves more Scottish than British voted Conservative in 2010.
The centre-right is more under-represented
in Scotland than in any other European state. And it is no coincidence that
ours is the only European state where the centre-right has no association with
national (Scottish) patriotism.
It is sometimes said that a way to fix this
is for the Scottish Conservatives to present a more Scottish face. To embrace
Scotland’s cultural identity as Welsh Conservatives have theirs. But this
doesn’t cut it. The problem isn’t one of presentation. Conservative MSPs have
Scottish roots and Scottish accents. The Scottish conference had the new logo
as a backdrop, modelled on the saltire. The conference slogan was “Scotland
First”. And Ruth Davidson – surely the party’s greatest asset – is clearly
earnest when she says that she feels more Scottish than British.
If the problem isn’t one of cosmetics, it
isn’t one of legal structures either. The argument about whether the Scottish
Conservatives should divorce the UK party is an earnest debate loaded with
symbolism. But it remains, in essence, a debate over a technicality when the
problem runs deeper. If people perceive the Scottish Conservatives as
subservient towards the UK party, then revising the constitution will not
change that. What is often forgotten about so-called ‘Clause IV’ moments is
that they have to come at the head of substantive reform from which they draw
their power. Otherwise you are left with as ignored an exercise as if 1970s East
Germany had pointed to constitutional sovereignty to persuade the world that it
was not a satellite of the USSR.
What, then, needs to happen? It’s perfectly
simple. The Scottish Conservatives need to demonstrate that when Scotland’s
interests pull one way and orders from the UK party pull another, they choose
the former. Even where it leaves them in a tough spot.
There are plenty of areas where the
Scottish party has a different perspective. For example, Fuel Duty and Air
Passenger Duty both have a disproportionate impact on Scotland. The party could
announce reducing the first and scrapping the second as prerequisites for
supporting any Budget in the next Parliament – even the budget of a
No complicated constitutional change would
be required for this. Just a microphone. And Ruth Davidson has the charisma and
showmanship to pull it off.
Sure, it would be risky. We have to assume
that the UK party would take umbrage. It could remove funding for its Scottish
cousins. It could even withdraw the whip from any future Scottish Conservative
MPs who set conditions for supporting Conservative budgets. These MPs would
have to choose between their Scottish leader and the Prime Minister. But these
risks are precisely the point. It would be a real test. And a real test is the
only way to prove that “Scotland First” is more than a slogan.
Nor is the objection is that it would be
foolish to stoke tensions in the run-up to the independence referendum
persuasive. This objection supposes that the Scottish Conservatives negotiating
hard with the UK party represents some kind of failure for unionism. Yet State parties in the US or Canada or Australia would
not recognize it as failure. It isn’t helpful to unionism when the SNP are the
only party that drives a hard bargain in Westminster.
And remember what it would be for. Sure, it
would give candidates good, popular policies for the doorstep. But more
importantly it would prove that we can be trusted to stand up for our electors.
This is what in business would be called the ‘license-to-operate’. For the
Scottish Conservatives to do well in an election, people like my friend’s
family have to be able to say: “whatever else you think about the Scottish
Conservatives, they will fight for Scotland”.
Otherwise the centre-left hegemony in
Scotland will continue. Rates and regulation will continue to strangle new businesses
and keep people poor. Dinosaurs in Holyrood will continue to stop innovation
from reaching our schools. Bureaucrats will continue to subsidise their pet
energy schemes while the rest of us pay for them through our electricity bills.
And the future will belong to men in rat costumes.