Yesterday, Eddie Barnes, the (former) Scotland on Sunday journalist was appointed as the new head of policy and strategy for the Scottish Tories so I thought I might offer him some well intentioned advice.
But first I want just to say something more personal. I’ve read Eddie’s work with interest for many years but I’ve also dealt with him personally. I have always found him one of the most straightforward political journalists of my acquaintance. He would always be happy to establish the terms of any discussion at the outset and to stick rigorously by what had been agreed. If he asked you for background information it always remained precisely that and if you decided you’d rather not discuss the matter at all, respect your wishes unless it was about something about which he was entitled to insist you say something. He is widely respected throughout all of Scottish political life, across which his appointment is generally believed to be a clever, clever move. Whether anybody can turn round the fortunes of the Scottish Tories is a more contentious point.
Advice for Eddie
As I sat down to start writing this last night I was distracted in the background by a television programme called Location, Location, Location. It features people looking for a new house with the assistance of the show's hosts and it has the usual diverse demographic group among the house hunters.
But the recurring main "type" consists of a relatively young couple with kids looking for a better place in which to bring up their children. Their target properties obviously vary dependent on income and circumstance but they have the same basic requirements: a "nice" area; good local schools; somewhere to which, if required, they can retreat, as a family, away from the trials and tribulations of the outside world.
And if you ask them about the years ahead they see things very much in terms of the progress, solely, of their own family. For their kids to grow up as "normal" as them; to get a good education and then a decent job and for the cycle of life then to renew itself in the next generation. There are, in the United Kingdom, an awful lot of people like that. Indeed, even among those who are not in that circumstance; those existing among more chaotic personal or relationship circumstance, let alone those in more challenging financial ones, there is often an aspiration to be precisely in the position of these couples.
And, do you know what? Most of these people are natural Tories. Stable relationships; family first; relative economic comfort. Why, all other things being equal, would you not be a supporter of the Party of the status quo?
And do you also know what? There are as many, or at least nearly as many, such people in Scotland as there are in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Yet while, even when polling badly in the UK, the Tories bump along at 30% or so of the popular vote, the Scottish Tories, at least since the late Eighties, would die for that level of support.
Why is this?
Well, the reasons are complex. One of them undoubtedly is that such voters are fearful of the Labour Party. They believe us,secretly, to have ambitions on the appropriation of their wealth and disruption of their lives. No matter how much we (or at least our new Labour wing!) might protest that there is no need for such anxieties there appears little prospect of them being disabused of it. So, in a number of Northern English Cities we have long seen the phenomenon of a slide away from a Tory Party which, for demographic reasons, would never challenge for power locally, and in favour of the Liberal Democrats. And in Scotland, looking around for the best "Not the Labour Party", the natural beneficiaries have been the SNP.
And this is the first, and arguably most insurmountable, problem that the Tories face in the Scottish Parliament. Had they been capable of coming second in the 1999 Scottish Parliament Elections then they would have qualified as the best alternative to the "Socialists". But they didn't and thus became trapped in a death spiral, not helped by the Nationalists increasingly moving on to "their" ground, not only promising to rein in the financial demands of (still mainly Labour) local authorities by freezing Council Tax and ruling out any possible use of the Parliament's own tax raising powers but also pursuing an increasingly authoritarian criminal justice policy.
But there the Tories also had a second problem. The main selling point of the Tories at a UK level, other than in the maintenance of "law and order", is that they will "keep your taxes down". (Here I'm talking perception, I'm not for the moment concerned as to whether that is actually true). But, Council Tax aside, the Scottish Parliament can't cut your taxes! It can certainly spend less but only to give the money back to the Treasury. Sure, in theory, it has the power to vary the Standard Rate of Income Tax downwards but we're all of us, across the political spectrum in Scotland, aware that if we ever did so it would shortly signal the end of the Barnett Formula. No matter what the block grant was intended to achieve it certainly wasn't lower personal taxes as a consolation prize for being Scottish.
Their third problem was and is entirely of their own making. They seemed embarrassed to be Tories. Never mind my more personal illustration above, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey indicates that attitudes in Scotland to issues such as Welfare Reform, scepticism about the European project or even immigration are not, frankly, significantly different from those in England and Wales. But when have you ever heard a Scottish Tory defend their Westminster Government's policies on such matters? If they support them, and I assume they do, why don't they say so? Instead, in so far as they talk about them at all, it is with a "they are not as bad as people are making out" approach that still makes the basic concession that they are nonetheless bad. Suppose they were to challenge us back on what is wrong with the principle, as opposed to the practical execution, of the reform of Employment Support Allowance to discourage long term reliance on sickness benefit among those patently not unfit for any form of work? I suspect that not only would they find a ready Scottish audience but in fact see Labour and (particularly) SNP politicians floundering. Not least because we know what many of our own voters views are on such matters. Indeed (whisper it) some of these reforms were legislated for by the last Labour Government, without demur from the SNP, and just not yet implemented when we lost the election.
So, turning from analysis to advice, my first piece of advice to the Tories is to be proud to be Tories. If Cameron takes a controversial but popular initiative down South, get on the phone to Scotland Tonight and Newsnicht and volunteer to go on. Not to "defend" the policy but to positively advocate it. Don't be afraid to present Labour and the "social-democratic" (sic) SNP as two peas from the same pod. Indeed, if the Nats want to protest that "actually we are more left wing than Labour", positively encourage them to do so, looking out for quotes that you can challenge them on back in the local press of Perth or Moray & Nairn. If asked why 32.2% of the population of Glasgow is economically inactive, don't get drawn into the collective wringing of hands and shaking of heads; let alone the defending the Cooncil or bemoaning the constitution. Tell them to get on their bikes! These people aren't ever going to vote for you anyway.
And my second piece of advice is to forget, for the moment, May 2016. There is a potential big prize for the Scottish Tories at the 2015 General Election. That is to return, at Westminster at least, to being Scotland's second party. It is a mark of the Tories own failure of self promotion that the initial reaction of even seasoned political hacks reading this will be "surely that is impossible?" In fact, at the 2010 General Election the Tories got 412,855 votes, 16.7% of the popular vote. But then you realise that the second Party (in popular vote), the SNP, got only 78,531 more votes, or 2.2% more of the total vote share. Even without the Tories making any true gain in support, in the aftermath of the referendum one can assume that the tactical vote the SNP have historically enjoyed at Westminster elections vote (anti-Labour in some areas, anti-Tory in others) would be stripped away. And the fate of the poor old Libs appears to be sealed. That alone would probably carry the Tories into second. But more importantly, they have to make sure it brings prizes.
I've been saying for ages that the Tories could easily gain more seats than the SNP at the May 2015 General election. Straight gains in Angus, Moray and Perth North to the Tories together with Dundee East to us and it's already 4-2. None of that is even particularly difficult since, even with the benefit of a tactical vote, the SNP got less than 40% of the vote in all of these seats in 2010 and the Tories are already well placed in second in each of their three. And that's without even considering what might be seized from the wreckage of Labour voters abandoning their tactical support of the Lib Dems, let alone what might be picked up in and around the more affluent cities and county towns by just getting natural Tory voters to actually vote Tory. Talk up Red Ed. "Michael Foot without the duffel-coat". "He's a danger to your savings, your mortgage rates, your very way of life!" "Only by maximising the Tory vote across the whole country can we prevent a descent into anarchy!" "Scotland must do its bit!" "Remember Teddy Taylor!" (I may have taken that too far). The point is, if you don't want a Labour Government you need to vote Tory. And a lot of people in Scotland don't want a Labour Government, even if they remain a minority.
And think then what a transformation even five or six Scottish Tory MPs would bring to the public discourse. Suddenly Scotland would no more be seen as "a land with no Tories" and once that embarrassment factor had gone I suspect 2016 would suddenly look a lot more manageable even without doing much new, policy wise, up here. A few new faces after May 2015 would also bring benefits in themselves, never mind the public service broadcasting requirement to give the Tories greater air time when UK politics were being discussed in the Scottish media.
And then we have the most important factor of all in modern politics, the presentation of the leader. Now here, I want to start with a confession. I really like Annabel Goldie. Indeed Annabel Goldie is universally liked. The point however is that IT IS NOT PART OF A LEADER'S ROLE TO BE UNIVERSALLY LIKED! Even at the height of his popularity Tony Blair was hated by many Tories who thought him a charlatan. By the time he went it wasn't just Tories!
Yet after Annabel became leader it seemed she just couldn't help being liked. Sure, she was a smooth operator behind the scenes, gaining significant policy concessions from keeping the SNP in power from 2007-11, but in the very act of being universally liked she lost sight of Machiavelli's maxim. It is better to be feared than to be loved. Nobody ever really took Annabel seriously as a potential First Minister, or even as a potential King (or Queen) maker. And her Party paid the price for that. What was the point of voting Tory in the Holyrood elections? They weren't going to win but much more importantly, it didn't even appear as if they'd be a very challenging opposition.
Ruth was meant to be a fresh start but, as time has gone on, far from turning into Theresa May, let alone Margaret Thatcher, she is becoming more and more like......Annabel Goldie! Just a bit less well disposed towards the Women's Institute and a bit more inclined towards the SAS. Universally liked and utterly ineffectual in the process.
Ruth needs to get herself into a position where (politically) she is really not liked by the likes of me. She should find some successful part of the English NHS reforms (there must be something?) and pledge to introduce that in Scotland. Expose and attack "failed" comprehensives and demand that parents be given more choice over where and how their children are educated. Find somebody released after a quarter of their sentence on a tag and who has then re-offended and protest that law abiding citizens can't sleep safe in their beds. Get a researcher to dig into the budgets of the Scottish Government and various (Labour controlled) Local Authorities, find the "waste of taxpayers money", express outrage and demand "action". Be a Tory!
And if she supports the Westminster Government, support the Westminster Government! Be photographed and quoted beside Michael Gove; Jeremy Hunt; George Osborne and Boris. Above all Boris. "A proud Tory but still standing up for London in the way I would stand up for Scotland." Well, actually not above all Boris. Above all David Cameron. Engineer a situation where he seeks her advice about something. Fishing? (what do I know about fishing). Engineer another situation where she is reported (off the record) to be "furious" and then get him to say. publicly, that "having spoken to Ruth Davidson" he has reconsidered about.......what doesn't matter. Fishing would probably do again. Currently the Scottish Tories get all the blame and yet none of the reward from association with the Westminster Government. Change that.
And finally, forget the constitution. That will be settled on 18th September. The SNP and certain certain sections of the media will no doubt "demand" that Westminster respond to the 30% or so who will have voted Yes. Tell them to piss off. Re-draw the line in the sand and stick to it. I suspect she'd find plenty of post referendum allies on our side in that enterprise.
So that's my advice but I'll finish with one other observation. Forget taking out Jim Murphy. If there has ever been a national politician who is a better constituency MP then I've not encountered them. You're not getting that seat back till he's deid.