Craig Hoy is a former Downing Street lobby correspondent and is a member of the Scottish Conservative Party.
Tony Blair has always believed that the political centre-ground is where elections are won and lost. It’s no surprise, therefore, that in an interview with Holyrood Magazine – a journal which, incidentally, I co-launched 20 years ago – he says that Labour in Scotland is in trouble because it lost the middle ground to Ruth Davidson.
As the tectonic plates of British politics reposition themselves following the launch of The Independent Group (TIG), something interesting is taking place in Scottish politics. Something which, for once, might play out in the Scottish Conservatives’ favour.
Scratch beneath the surface of a recent Deltapoll, and you’ll find some significant data. Asked how they would vote if an election was held today and Labour and the Scottish Tories are on 26 per cent apiece: with the SNP still polling an alarmingly high 41 per cent, despite its decade of broken promises in Scotland.
But asked how they might vote if TIG field candidates in Scotland, things look a bit different. Labour drops to just 13 per cent and the Tories and the SNP get a boost, the Tories up three points to 29 per cent. TIG scores nine per cent in Scotland – eight per cent lower than the 17 per cent support the poll suggests it might get in London. Meanwhile the beleaguered Scottish Liberal Democrats get squeezed to just two per cent if TIG fields candidates.
What do these numbers tell us, and what are the takeways for the Scottish Conservatives?
From my reading, it backs up Blair’s point. That the centre-ground is where we need to be, and that’s where Scots are starting to believe the Tories are positioned under Ruth Davidson.
Capitalising on this will be crucial. The launch of TIG might make Scottish voters think more seriously about how they cast their vote, and by doing so they could start to see something that has been staring them in the face for a while: the Conservative Party in Scotland has changed, and changed for the better. It’s a centrist party – and the only one that can beat the SNP and remove the clear and present danger it poses to the Union.
This is something Blair recognises when he tells Holyrood: “The question the Labour Party should ask itself in Scotland is how do you get beaten by the Tories? Why is that happening? It’s happening because it’s the politics that Ruth Davidson represents. That’s why it’s happening. You gave up the middle ground. That was always the thing, the myth about Scotland, it was seen as this great leftist territory, but it’s always been much more complicated than that. People forget that, I think in the 1950s, actually, you had a majority of Tory MPs in Scotland.”
So there you have it. Blair, a Scot of sorts himself, concedes that Davidson is the kind of politician who represents the middle ground in Scotland. Blair evokes the memory of 1955 when the Conservatives – running under Unionist and National Liberal & Conservative banners – secured the majority of seats and votes in Scotland. This reminds us that Scotland has a tradition of voting Conservative, but perhaps back in the 1950s it was a different kind of Conservatism.
The commonly-held view that the rot set in under Margaret Thatcher misses this point. Long before her “Sermon on the Mound“, Scots had set out on a different path electorally. Many Scots have a far less equivocal view on the role of the state than those down south. Perhaps it is this fact, combined with the stridency of the Thatcher era and her decision to finally address the failing state industries upon which many Scots jobs depended, that set Scotland out on a fundamentally different path politically.
You cannot overlook the impact that significant levels of state involvement and public spending have had on the way Scots think and vote. State spending has accounted for as much as three quarters of the local economy in some parts of Scotland. When it comes to social policy, many Scots have more sympathy with the Nordic model than they do with the more neoliberal approaches advocated by those on the right of the UK Conservative Party.
Under Davidson, the Scottish Tories have shifted significantly. By dropping opposition to free prescriptions, the party has shown they are where Scots are: in the political centre-ground. It’s a commonsense, centrist conservatism, which presents a credible alternative to an SNP government which is now taxing Scots more while delivering lower outcomes in health, education, crime and transport.
A YouGov poll in 2015 found that on every single issue Scots are to the left of the UK-wide position. But that does not mean they are necessarily left-wing, as Blair justly points out. With the presumption being that the UK is somewhere on the right of the political spectrum, then it can be argued that Scots might be somewhere very close to the centre-ground, or maybe even just a smidgeon to the right on some issues.
So that is where the next Holyrood election, which takes place in just over two years time, could be won or lost. The SNP have shifted markedly to the left, becoming focused on the one-time Labour heartlands of the Central Belt and in cities such as Glasgow and Dundee. Many voters in rural Scotland, where the SNP traditionally cast themselves as Tartan Tories, have abandoned the SNP following its lurch to the left.
The impact of The Independent Group could therefore be very different in Scotland. It might make our politics more binary, focusing minds on the fact that the next Holyrood election is a two horse race between the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives: with Labour and the Lib Dems as non-starters. To quote Tony Blair at his best: “The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do let us reorder this world around us.”
Capturing those pieces in Scotland will be no mean feat. But Davidson has already done a lot to persuade Scots she is different sort of politician. The challenge now is for the party to extend its reach across the middle ground of Scots politics – to build support for its policies just as it has done for its staunch defence of the Union. In practical terms, this will entail winning over centrist Labour voters in seats such as East Lothian, and disillusioned Nationalists in seats like Perth and North Perthshire.
Getting anywhere near the party’s historic high watermark in 1955 is a massive political undertaking. Becoming the largest party at Holyrood, let alone securing a majority, would be a significant achievement. When Davidson returns from maternity leave in May, she will have two years to get her party there. But more than anyone else in politics today, she has the popular appeal to be able convince middle ground Scotland that it’s finally permissible to vote Tory again.