In the current campaign for the leadership of my party, I have made it clear that I wish to transform the Scottish Conservatives into a new, stronger, centre-right party for Scotland. Understandably though, people want to know what this new party will be like. The answer is that it will resemble many of the centre-right parties that exist across Europe which share some important common features.
First, such parties are patriotic and the interests of their people are paramount. Our new Scottish, centre-right party will be able to stand up for the interests of people in Scotland credibly and effectively. The Scottish Conservative Party’s own polling before the recent Scottish Parliament election shows that we have a severe identity problem. Only 6% of people in Scotland thought we put their interests first and 50% thought we put English interests first. A new party, with a distinct Scottish identity and policies that are genuinely made in Scotland will demonstrate clearly to people in Scotland that we put their interests first.
However, there is no contradiction between a clear Scottish identity and staunch support for remaining within the United Kingdom. Our own experience as a distinct Scottish party before 1965 demonstrates this clearly, as does the Bavarian CSU’s relationship with the CDU in Germany. The CSU is the Bavarian centre-right party and is a distinct entity. However, it works with the centre-right party in the rest of Germany – the CDU – at the national level which poses no threat to the integrity of that country.
The United Kingdom is the most successful economic, political, social and monetary union the world has ever seen. That is not something to be cast aside lightly. It is something to be cherished and strengthened because it is so clearly in the best interests of people in Scotland. There are certain things which are better done at the UK level and, therefore, we are undoubtedly stronger together than apart.
Second, in common with other European centre-right parties, our new party will embrace the devolution of power in its broadest sense. We will start from the principle that power should be exercised as close to those affected as possible. So unless there is a very good reason to retain power at a certain level, we will push it downwards. This will result in power cascading down from Westminster to Holyrood to councils and on down to local communities and people.
This contrasts sharply with the attitude of the SNP. Alex Salmond and his party may believe in Scottish political sovereignty, but they certainly don’t trust people in Scotland with power. Their sovereignty is an exclusive sovereignty where only certain politicians can exercise real power. It would give the Scottish Government more power, but is none too keen on giving it to Scottish local authorities, communities or people.
The approach of our new party will be very different. The devolution of power will not grind to a halt at Holyrood, but continue on ever downwards. We must start by recognising the central role of local government. As Michael Forsyth put it in a speech in 1995 when he was Scottish Secretary, ‘Local Government is the mortar that binds civic society in Scotland.’ So we must free our councils from excessive central control and give them the capability to respond to the differing needs of communities throughout Scotland.
Of course, our councils shouldn’t hog power either. There is plenty of scope to enable local people to come together voluntarily to tackle local problems, but this should be seen as complementary to the reinvigoration of our local councils.
Such a localist approach is also in tune with a fundamental belief that the best way to improve public services is not through central command and control, but through local diversity. People and local communities are different and we need to give them much greater choice about the services which are right for them and their local areas. Support for such decentralisation is the norm for centre-right parties across much of Europe and it delivers better and fairer outcomes, so extending opportunity and strengthening society.
All of this should help to draw far more people from a range of backgrounds into public life as they see the opportunity to shape the development of their own communities. But we need to convince people that our belief in localism is sincere by practising what we preach. So, our new party will be one which trusts its members. The concentration of power at the centre has just as corrosive an effect on a political party as it does on our society.
So we will give our local party associations greater responsibility for running their affairs and greater freedom in candidate selection. Our party conferences must be exciting and vibrant with meaningful debates about party policy. And our councillors must be treated with the respect they deserve, playing a central role in our party that befits the central role that we wish local councils to play in our society. That way, we will create a new party that is genuinely participative and which people will want to join, donate to, support and vote for.
That final point is crucial because the third feature our new party will share with other European centre-right parties is success at the ballot box. Virtually alone amongst western European countries, Scotland lacks such a strong centre-right voice. This matters because it means political debate in Scotland is dominated by a stale conflict between two parties of the centre left – Labour and the SNP. But we need to understand why we have failed to make progress in Scotland?
Of course party organisation matters. There are many ways in which we can improve the efficiency of our campaigning and I want to involve all parts of our new party in a discussion about how we do that.
Of course policies matter. I will be setting out in more detail my approach to the key areas of policy as this campaign goes on, but we already have some very sensible policies although there is always room for improvement.
And of course leadership matters. But we have had excellent leaders in David McLetchie and Annabel Goldie who haven’t been able to turn things around.
The fact is that none of these things get to the heart of the matter. That is because our fundamental problem remains that, for a whole variety of reasons related to the way they perceive the Scottish Conservative Party, people are just not listening to us, never mind voting for us. So the many voters in Scotland who share our centre-right values of freedom and responsibility have found an alternative home.
I firmly believe that a new, Scottish, centre-right party is the key to re-connecting with voters who are not listening at present. In itself, it is not enough to transform our fortunes. But a YouGov poll conducted for ConservativeHome found that the idea of a new, Scottish, centre-right party was viewed positively by all voters, but especially by the younger voters we need to attract. So it is a pretty good start. It is the equivalent of the price of admission and gives us the opportunity to be heard afresh.
It is then up to us to grasp this opportunity and ensure our new party is a winning party. It is a task I have no doubt we can achieve.