The Scottish Tory Party Conference is not a sight of Tories in Crisis and it is certainly not a vision of Tory Revival. It is simply a static and fairly marginal strand of Scottish politics.
There are two signs (among many) I have come to recognise as prime indications that a political party and its leadership doesn’t really know what it is doing. The first is that the word ‘root and branch’ will appear next to lots of commissions and working groups and forums and such like. It will always go along with ‘structures’ – reviews of, modernising etc. It is the sound of ‘hows’ happening, with the aim it seems to me of drowning out the sounds of the ‘whys’.
The second is the ‘authoritative speech’. I am a pretty harsh critic of most political speech writing – an aversion stemming from the moment I realised who writes the speeches and how. Most speeches are written by harassed staffers caught between wanting to be ‘loyal soldiers’ writing the right stuff to keep happy the next tier up the hierarchy and sort of budding Martin Luther Kings. If you read the speeches you can almost hear where they imagined their standing ovations while plugging away at their laptop. The aim is always to sound strong and authoritative, visionary even – but never to say anything, never to offer a strong, clear opinion which is not already contained in the party’s internal briefing notes. You’d be surprised how much of these speeches are made out of structural inversions (‘Not A to B, but B to A’, ‘I will not A, I will not B, I will never C’, ‘A gets me up in the morning, A guides my day, by night I dream of A’), tales designed to link the speaker in the mind to someone or something else (‘I remember the words of The Wonderful Wizard which stay with me to this day’, ‘like my grandfather did during the Blitz’) and some colour stuff about their own formative life to make you feel they are human but even more important to make you think they are significant enough to care about what they learned one day on a bus when they overheard a conversation aged 11.
Both of these moves – root-and-branch reviews and elaborate speeches with JFK/Churchill pretensions – are signs of weakness and uncertainty. A strong leader does not come into politics to set up a committee to tell them what to think. A visionary leader does not need to make elaborate speeches full of unconvincing literary pretensions. These are substitutions for vision, not an indication of them.
And so we turn to the Scottish Tories and Ruth Davidson. To whom is attributed:
“When it comes to the very future of the country I love, I will not falter. As Conservatives, where we need to lead, we will lead. Where we need to join, we will join. And where we need to fight, we will not be found wanting.”
OK, so we know what you won’t be doing (found wanting or faltering, neither of which are expressions I suspect Ms Davidson would ever actually say). But what is this about? A vision for a Tory Scotland? A confident call to a party ready to rise up? Or is it perhaps simply symptomatic of a party that secretly knows its position in Scottish politics but can’t really accept it?
David Cameron came to the Scottish Tory conference and gave them all a row for being too timid. Likewise, the sniping against Annabelle Goldie. And yet, if the Scottish Tories are to seek a hero figure, Goldie has done infinitely more for the Scottish Tories than has Cameron. His grinning Home-Counties, Eton-educated toryism has virtually no home in Scotland. We don’t have the kinds of millionaires that inhabit the political sphere in and around Westminster. Scotland never really understood New Labour because New Labour was forged in a different world, one where everyone you knew sent their kids to private school (without exception) and top rate tax was the only kind anyone you knew paid. Scotland has not a hope in hell of understanding a politics forged in horse stables and dining clubs.
Goldie basically understood this and created a reasonably genuinely Scottish Tory Party. She played to the conservative current in Scottish life but not a market-ideology current or to an elitist current (neither of which were strong enough to carry the party anywhere). And so she was patronised and criticised as if an alternative strategy would have propelled the party into government in Scotland. This is the real fantasy of some parts of the Scottish Tories.
And so instead they get Ruth Davidson. Only one leadership candidate had a real vision for the Scottish Tories but it was too radical. Murdo Fraser had a genuine concept of a different way to present the politics he represents but he was rejected for what one can only call a place-woman. Davidson did not come ‘out of the party’ but was bolted on. She is a cypher, not a leader.
And she faces one massive problem – despite what many would tell you, the plight of the Scottish Tories is not the great political aberration of our times, it is one of the most constant and predictable. Here’s the uncomfortable truth – Scotland isn’t a Tory country and isn’t going to be in the near future. Britain has the wrong kind of Tories for Scotland. Scotland could go for a ‘conservative’ party but not a party of London financiers and Home County elites. And even if it did go for a conservative party it still wouldn’t be putting it into power.
Scotland is not Tory and all the posturing and reviews in the world won’t make it so. The Tories are were they belong just now – one of those political truths people just can’t absorb. So we get bluster, faux-gravitas and radical-in-sound-only major reviews. Then nothing much will happen. The real game in Scotland is on the other side, the side which represents the widespread Scottish view. And here we find an irony; with no challenge from the right, the centre and the left positions itself only against itself (if one is to take a very broad spectrum). And so in Scotland we face the risk that our domestic politics is calibrated to play against a political opposition which comes either from another world or from right next door.
There won’t be a Tory revival in Scotland and one suspects they know it (despite being patronised by Cameron). And so everyone else should be building an alternative, not a reaction. Unfortunately, that is as of now a dynamic missing from Scottish political life just as much as the Tory dynamic.