This election for leader of the Scottish Conservatives is an important opportunity. An opportunity to debate how the centre-right can make progress in Scotland, as well as an opportunity for our members to decide in which direction we should go. Above all though, this should be a debate about ideas and not personalities.
As we approach the hustings at the UK Conference, I want to explain why I disagree with my colleagues about the way ahead since all of them reject my idea for a new party. I believe that theirs is a serious misdiagnosis of the problem which has potentially fatal consequences for the centre-right in Scotland and for the United Kingdom.
For a start, I do not think that my colleagues are taking sufficient account of the extent of the decline in the Scottish Conservative vote. The fact is we are losing votes in Scotland hand over fist.
In 1997, when we lost all our MPs in Scotland, we polled twice as many votes as we did in the list vote at the recent Scottish Parliament elections. Indeed, we have lost over 100,000 list votes since 1999. And we still have just one MP at Westminster.
So the current party is failing as a vehicle for the promotion of the values which I, and many other people in Scotland, stand for.
But the really important question is why. People in Scotland have given us the answer to this question loudly and clearly. They simply do not trust us to put Scotland’s interests first. So we have to decide whether we are prepared to listen to what people in Scotland are telling us or whether we just look for answers that reinforce our own prejudices.
There are many areas where I think we are in tune with people in Scotland and have potentially popular policies – for example, our stance on tackling crime, encouraging enterprise and giving parents a greater say in the education of their children. But people are either not listening to us on these issues or, worse, support the idea until told it is a Conservative one.
Before we can make a successful public appeal on these issues, we have to persuade voters to trust us and that means showing that our party puts their interests first. David Cameron understood that successful modernisation requires more than just a change of leader and also requires a fundamental change in the way in which the party is perceived. I believe that, in Scotland, real modernisation requires us to transform ourselves into a new party with a distinct Scottish identity and which demonstrates, in all that it says and does, that it puts the interests of people in Scotland first at all times.
My fundamental disagreement with the other candidates in this election is that their analysis of the problem is superficial at best. All opinion polling tells us that we have a very popular leader in Annabel Goldie. But it has not translated into extra votes in Scotland because it isn’t the real problem. So, electing a new, fresh face in the hope that this will turn things around is wishful thinking based on no evidence whatsoever.
Equally, focussing on specific policy proposals doesn’t address the real issue either. If people don’t trust us and aren’t listening to us, it doesn’t matter how good or sensible our policies are.
If we are serious about gaining support, then we need to look outwards and not inwards. We have a serious identity problem and genuine modernisation requires us to address it. But genuine modernisation is not about a new face or a fresh, different leader. Such superficial modernisation is false modernisation. True modernisation is about radical, structural change, and my large team of elected MSPs and Councillors are the true modernisers of this campaign.
The potential of true modernisation is reflected in YouGov polling for ConservativeHome conducted immediately after my campaign launch. This showed 33% of all people, and 43% of young people, think my plan will have a positive effect on our party, compared to the 12% who voted for us in May.
If we follow the ‘no-change’ prescription, I believe that the decline of our party will continue in Scotland. This would let down voters in Scotland who share centre-right values and want to see a strong, successful party which stands up for their interests. And it would let down David Cameron and the UK Conservative Party because they need new, centre-right MPs from Scotland taking the Conservative whip to help them form a future Conservative Government.
That doesn’t mean that I think a new, progressive, centre-right party is some sort of magic wand which will transform our fortunes overnight. But I believe it is the key to re-connecting with voters who are not listening at present. It is the equivalent of the price of admission and gives us the opportunity to be heard afresh.
It gives us a chance to convince people in Scotland of the value of what we stand for. There is a need for a strong, progressive, centre-right alternative to the twin parties of the centre-left – Labour and the SNP. A new party can provide that alternative.
A party with a distinct Scottish identity, just as we had before 1965 when we were at our most successful; a party which produces policies which are genuinely made in Scotland; above all, a party which stands up for the interests of people in Scotland credibly and effectively.
The establishment of the Scottish Parliament has only made the case for such a new party stronger. But it is also what Alex Salmond fears most. An authentically Scottish party making the positive case as to why Scotland’s best interests are served by strengthening our place within a devolved system of government in the United Kingdom. That is the best way to see off the threat of independence from Alex Salmond and the Nationalists.
And it is also the best way to make the case for the type of society we wish to see. One which trusts people and local communities to shape their own future; which extends opportunity more widely enabling people to fulfil their potential; and one which recognises that we all have a shared responsibility to uphold the vital institutions of civil society and to help those least able to help themselves.
I believe we are winning the argument about how to promote our values and achieve our aims for our country. More and more people from inside and outside the party, from the world of politics, such as Malcolm Rifkind, Fraser Nelson and Iain Dale and the world of business such as Jim McColl and Ben Thomson, believe this is the way forward. I am delighted about this because I want this new party to be one that takes all that is best from the current party and adds important new elements which help us to attract new supporters. This party needs to stop losing and start winning. And this is the only way to do it.