The overriding priority for our new party must be to show people in Scotland that we are on their side and will stand up for their interests. This will only happen if we give them a clear idea of what we stand for – a positive vision for Scotland’s future and persuade people that this is something that will make a real difference to their lives and those of their families, friends and local communities. That is why, in this leadership election, I have concentrated on setting out the broad aims and values from which we can then work with others, both inside and outside our party, to develop a clear and consistent set of policies in keeping with a modern, centre-right party.
This approach recognises that it is not our individual policies which are holding us back. To think that coming up with a few, potentially popular, policies will somehow turn our fortunes around is simply deluding ourselves. If only it were that easy!
In areas such as how to tackle crime, encourage enterprise and improve our schools, I think we are in tune with many people in Scotland and have potentially popular policies. But people are either not listening to us on these issues or, worse, support the idea until told it is a Conservative one. This shows that we have a much more fundamental problem based on negative perceptions of the party and the fact that few people in Scotland trust us to stand up for their interests.
The other problem with this type of ad hoc policy making is that it leads to incoherence. Policies designed to appeal to one interest group may be incompatible with policies designed to appeal to another or, more importantly, with important underlying principles.
Further, populist policies designed to win over different sections of the electorate tend not to gain wider support overall. This is because they tend to be inconsistent and so such policies give people no clear sense of where a party is coming from or in which direction it wishes to take the country. Equally, they smack of opportunism and being willing to say anything in order to gain support which makes voters less likely to trust and, therefore, to support a party.
An altogether more considered approach to policy making is required – one based on principle and not populism. We have nothing to fear from such an approach and everything to gain. Across Europe and the wider world, centre-right parties have prospered when they have stood up for clear values and developed policy from those values. That is the approach that I am determined our new party will follow.
Above all, we must be a party that stands up for the broad interest of people in Scotland and not particular sectional interests. This is in keeping with the idea of a free society based on the rule of law applying equally to all.
Such an approach brings much-needed discipline to the process of policy making. For example, when it comes to tax policy it presents a clear choice – should we seek to create an environment of lower, simpler taxes which will benefit all people and businesses or specific tax loopholes which only benefit particular favoured groups? To my mind, the former approach is not only the right and fair one, but also the one traditionally adopted by centre right parties because the more loopholes you build into your tax system, the more complex you make the system and the higher the overall rate has to be.
That is just one example of how adhering to clear principles requires difficult choices to be made if we are to give people a clear idea of what we stand for. For me, the broad national interest requires the devolution of power to people and local communities throughout Scotland. They are best placed to determine their own futures and the diversity this fosters is the key to progress and building the better, stronger society we all wish to see.
But if we believe in this fundamental principle, then we must apply it consistently and not just when it suits us. That is why I believe the Scottish Conservatives have been wrong to support a single Scottish police force as set out by the SNP Government. Such a centralisation of power is incompatible with a belief in localism that is common across western European centre-right parties, including the UK Coalition government led by David Cameron.
It is local diversity and not central command and control that is the best way to deliver higher quality and better value for money within our public services. We have rightly recognised this in other key areas because people and local communities are different and so require much greater control over services so that they can determine what is right for them and their area. This applies to policing just as much as to health and education because the type of crime faced by different parts of Scotland is very different and so local communities must be free to determine how they tackle it.
Centre-right values of freedom and responsibility must remain at the heart of all our policies. They are what define us as a party and, if applied consistently, can help us to re-engage with people from all walks of life across Scotland.
I am also determined that the process of developing the new polices of our new party will help to build a stronger centre-right movement in Scotland. This new party will be a participative party which gives its members a real role in policy making and genuine opportunities to debate policy at conferences. But we will also engage through policy forums with representatives of, amongst others, the voluntary sector, the business community and local government. That is the best way to develop good policies, based on clear principles, which serve the interests of people throughout Scotland. This will show we are a modern, open and inclusive party with an agenda which meets the many challenges facing Scotland in the future.