Ed Jacobs reports on this weekend’s Scottish Conservative Party Conference.
It was the weekend the Conservatives reasserted their credentials as the unashamed, pro-Union party. That’s how the Tories in both Edinburgh and London will have liked this weekend to have been seen as the Tory faithful met for their Scottish conference in Troon this weekend.
On Friday it was David Cameron’s turn to call on his party north of the border to become more aggressive in standing up for the union, accusing the Scottish Conservatives of having been too “timid” and “hand-wringing” about their beliefs.
The party’s leader at Holyrood Ruth Davidson, meanwhile, invited her counterparts in Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats to unite in defeating the prospect of independence, declaring:
“When it comes to the very future of the country I love, I will not falter.”
She later went on to argue it was time to “stop apologising for being Conservatives”.
Former Northern Ireland first minister and now a Conservative peer, Lord Trimble, accused the SNP of “doing violence to part of the identity of every Scotsman” in proposing independence.
“Conservatives will back our Union through thick and thin.”
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You get the picture: the Conservatives support the union and are now seeking to take the fight right to Alex Salmond much more aggressively than they have so far, with a belief that for too long they have been too apologetic for its historic past in Scotland.
Sensible it might sound; the only problem is who the messengers are.
For many Scots the arguments deployed by Cameron, Davidson, Trimble and Gillan would probably be wholly in line with their own views on the future of the Union. It is, however, the messengers rather than the message that is the problem, a clear signal of how disastrous it would be for the Conservatives to lead the fight against Alex Salmond.
We have only to look at the most recent YouGov poll (pdf) for the Sunday Times to realise that with just 15% support in Scotland, Conservatives are hardly flavour of the month north of the border, a point re-iterated across many of the weekend papers.
At the Scotsman, whilst being positive about what Cameron said, it was not likely to win over any other converts.
In its leader on Saturday the paper argued:
David Cameron’s message to his Scottish party members had a big headline. The time for timid apologetic Conservatism is over – it is time to stop the hand-wringing and to come out and fight for Conservative values.
A good headline indeed, prime minister, but the story beneath it was, well, a little thin and a little bit familiar. Mr Cameron found himself on territory which, to many Scottish Tories, is all too recognisable.
He defended the cut in the top 50p rate of income tax as big, bold and necessary if Britain was to attract the brightest and best to build a dynamic economy. Such people, he declared, would not come if Britain had the highest income tax rate in Europe.
It is a perfectly plausible argument. This is a competitive world with, in Europe, complete freedom of movement of people and capital. The brightest talents will head where they can find not just the biggest challenges, but the rewards to match.
But it was also the message that Margaret Thatcher delivered with fervour. But it did not match the reality in Scotland of industrial closures and the end of Scottish manufacturing greatness. And neither did Mr Cameron’s speech chime with current reality.
GlaxoSmithKline and Gamesa, big companies which have announced significant investment in Scotland in the last week, made their decisions before tax cuts were announced, as indeed have the remarkable number of other firms.
The brightest and the best seem to be coming here regardless of tax rates.
The Daily Record, meanwhile, was more scathing and blunt about Cameron’s message to the party faithful in Troon, pointedly arguing:
Cameron is absolutely right when he says they must raise their game and start doing something if they want to save the Union and stop Britain being broken up.
The problem is – and this is the rub – the Tories are so utterly without credibility north of the Border that every time a Conservative opens his or her mouth in support of a united Britain, support for independence goes up.
In short, a party with just one MP in Scotland and reduced to an irrelevant rump in the Scottish Parliament are now so out of step with mainstream opinion as to be almost speaking a foreign language.
And so it follows that when Cameron does make a sound point about the dangers of separation from the rest of the UK, nobody here can take him seriously.
Elsewhere, the New Statesman, whilst admitting Davidson gave a “confident” speech, pointed out her failure to address the real challenges now facing her leadership.
Assessing her speech, James Maxwell observed:
“Despite what was an undeniably well constructed and delivered address, Davidson failed to confront the two central challenges facing Scottish conservatism. The first is that the Scottish Tories are still run by the UK party, from London.
“This has lead to Davidson’s authority being badly undermined on two occasions: once by the prime minister, who announced in January that he was willing to enhance the powers of the Holyrood parliament beyond the provisions offered in the Scotland bill, despite Davidson having described the bill as a “line in the sand” as far as constitutional reform was concerned, and again this week by the UK government in its decision to support minimum pricing for alcohol, which forced her to abruptly abandon her opposition to the SNP’s own minimum pricing proposals.
“The second, much more deep-rooted challenge is that posed by the legacy of Tory rule in Scotland. Modern Scottish politics is to a large extent defined by its anti-Thatcherism.
“The current generation of nationalist and Scottish Labour leaders came of age during the 1980s – when Scottish unemployment and poverty rates nearly doubled – and share a common antipathy towards the laissez-faire economics championed by the Thatcher government.
“The problem for Davidson is that this antipathy is by no means restricted to Scotland’s political class, but reflects the feelings of Scottish voters more widely.
“So far, there have been no indications that Davidson understands how to overcome these obstacles – or that she even knows they exist. If in fact she does then, ironically, her best bet might be to adopt the strategy advanced by her defeated leadership rival Murdo Fraser, who argued that the party needed to be completely disbanded and a new one – free from the baggage of the past – established in its place.
“But there is no chance of that happening: Davidson won the leadership on the basis that she was the continuity candidate (she was endorsed by her predecessor Annabel Goldie and is thought to have had the private backing of the prime minister).
“The difficulty, of course, is that continuity for the Scottish Conservatives means slow decline and then, probably, death.”
And the conclusion? Any memo to Cameron and Davidson to sum up this weekend might go something like this: right message, wrong messengers; let someone else have a go.