Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters, and a former Scottish Conservative Head of Communications.
Two young, Scottish, female political leaders have caught the attention during this General Election campaign. Although their performances have taken the London-based media and political establishment by surprise, the same cannot be said of those of us here in Scotland, who have long been aware of their abilities.
One, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has shown herself to be at least equal to her formidable predecessor and has comfortably dispatched all other leaders in the seven and five-way national TV debates. Sure, it’s easier when you don’t have to offer a responsible or realistic economic message, but the fact that no opponent was able to expose her on it says much about her skills.
The other is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. I worked for both of her predecessors – Annabel Goldie and the late David McLetchie. Both had real quality. David was fiercely intelligent; always the smartest guy in the room. He was forensic in debate and a good tactician, and he knew how and why conservatism benefited ordinary working people.
Annabel was more broad-brush, but was incredibly likeable both on and off-duty, and had an easy style which made her Scotland’s second most popular leader, behind Alex Salmond.
I see both David and Annabel in Ruth. She is the poster-girl for honest, grafting, liberal conservatism. She knows what life is like for the masses because she was, and still is, one of them. She can give a ruthlessly honest, Conservative message about spending cuts and education reform without coming across as a complete bastard. Indeed, she can do it with passion in her voice and belief in her eyes.
She is an irresistible force. However, unfortunately for her and her Scottish party, she is met with an immovable object: the (British) Conservative general election campaign.
The campaign discourse of the last week-or-so reaches the heart of why the Conservatives in Scotland are increasingly being hindered by their association with London. Without any personal offence intended to any individuals, it is clear to me that Downing Street has absolutely no strategy whatsoever when it comes to Scotland. They have tactics; but no strategy. If is for that reason that Downing Street’s focus in Scotland is simply about getting over the next hurdle.
Last year, the hurdle was winning the independence referendum. To leap that hurdle, we were a family. Scotland was lauded and Scotland was loved. Scotland, of course, was capable of going solo, but why do so when we can do so much together? Narrowly, the tactic worked.
Fast forward to the next hurdle – staying in Downing Street. To leap that hurdle, we need the Carlisle Principle – an annual review of Scottish devolution to ensure that Holyrood doesn’t give Scots any goodies that the English don’t have.
Privately, leading Scottish Tories are livid at the Carlisle Principle, Theresa May’s ‘abdication’ intervention and the rest of the rhetoric of the last week. They have spent years defending their own patriotism; fighting back against 30 years of SNP assertion that the evil Tories are anti-Scottish.
There is mouth-foaming anger amongst those to whom I have spoken. If the SNP could create the Tory campaign, according to my erstwhile colleagues, they would have created the one we have seen for the last week. It has legitimised the left-wing paranoia which is feeding the army of monkeys required by the SNP’s organ grinders.
These Scottish Tories wanted to see their vibrant, exciting leader talking up the government’s job creation miracle, tax cuts and public service reform. They wanted to see her pushing the Scottish Conservative Party to its limits to provide the ultimate, final test of whether or not it has a future. They wanted to see her continuing to make life more difficult for Nicola Sturgeon than anyone else has been able to.
Instead, they woke up to find that, while they were sleeping, the Saltire they’ve been waving has been replaced by the St. George’s cross.
The last week might very well help David Cameron back into Downing Street by pulling England towards the Tories and pushing even more of Scotland into the welcoming arms of the SNP, both at the expense of Labour.
However, it has been poisonous for the Union, and poisonous for the Scottish Conservative Party. And the exasperating irony is that the Prime Minister and his advisors hold the antidote in the palm of their hands. It is federalism.
English voters are quite entitled – and in my view correct – to look upon the Scottish Parliament with a degree of distrust, annoyance and envy. And the Prime Minister is quite right to attempt to win their favour with a message which appeals to their sense of grievance.
But that message should not be: “I’ll keep those Jocks in check”. The message should be: “I’ll give you lot the same as Scotland has”. I can say with certainty that if last week’s message from the Conservative campaign had been that they are the leaders of a great decentralisation which will reach every part of England as well as the rest of the UK, then it would have been applauded in Scotland, and by more than just dedicated Tories.
Next Thursday’s election is likely to be another serious wound to the flesh of the British state, and to the Conservative party. The country is likely to go, north to south, from yellow, to red, to blue, with relatively little cross-contamination (outside London).
Federalism is the recovery formula for both country and party. It can equalise and heal the British state, which remains one of the developed world’s most centralised. And it can free the Conservative movements in the north of England and Scotland to make the case for workers’ conservatism without the intoxicating influence of London.
There is no shame in this. There is no shame in letting go. Decentralisation leads to cohesion. Residents of Washington state may not have high regard for the leaders in Washington DC, but they are not trying to secede, because they are perfectly happy to stand under the Stars and Stripes knowing that it gives them plenty power to run their own lives.
British devolution is a recipe for conflict and chaos. It is not working; it is never going to work. There is increasing realisation that the only two outcomes are independence (for Scotland, at least) or federalism.
The time has now come for a Prime Minister to stand up, face up and speak up. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be David Cameron.