BY EFFIE DEANS
The problem with Scottish Conservatism is structural rather than personal. Ruth Davidson is better suited to leadership than either Douglas Ross or Jackson Carlaw. But this is because she is a first rate politician. It is not because her ideas are any different from theirs. They all more or less agree about everything and the everything they agree upon is mistaken. That is the problem.
There are two sorts of Conservative in Britain. There are reformists and then there are declinists. Thatcher is the ultimate reformist. Heath, May and Major are declinists. Declinism is the view that the correct response to loss of British power and influence after the Second World War was to manage that decline, slow it down, do what the Americans tell us to do because that keeps the relationship special and merge our lot with the European Union, because we cannot manage on our own. Reformism is the view that we can change Britain, make it more united, more efficient and that our greatest days are ahead of us rather than behind us.
The Scottish Conservative response to Margaret Thatcher was declinist. Our best days are behind us. We will never win a majority in Scotland again. We must apologise for what Thatcher did to Scotland in the hope that we will be forgiven. We opposed devolution, but we were wrong. Now we have the zeal of the converted and worship at the Holy Rood.
The Scottish Conservative response to the SNP is similarly declinist. We must give the Scottish Parliament and the SNP ever more powers. We can’t possibly say No if Nicola Sturgeon asks for indyref2 six years after 2014. We must praise Sturgeon as much as possible and agree with her. We must appease rather than oppose. We must talk about separating the Scottish Conservative Party from the party led by the horrible Brexiteer Boris Johnson, because we think separating is the best way to defend the UK against separatism.
The whole problem with declinism is obvious. It leads inevitably to decline. The end point of Conservative declinism was a United States of Europe with Britain as a rather unwilling region. No wonder the BBC didn’t want us to sing Britannia rules the waves, it didn’t want Britain to rule anything, not even ourselves.
The end point of Scottish Conservative declinism is Scottish independence with Douglas Ross or his successor having a few seats in the Scottish Parliament post separation.
Thatcher was a reformer because she could see the problem with Britain, and she could see the solution and she had the courage to do what was necessary even if it was unpopular.
The problem with Britain is that there are certain wrong ideas that cannot be questioned. Thatcher saw that Britain was being held back by trade unions, nationalised industries that made a loss, by inefficiency and low productivity. This was completely heretical. The declinists were horrified when she set about solving the problem. It was wildly unpopular. But it gave rise to the modern Britain that is no longer in decline.
Today we face similar sacred cows:
- Leaving the EU is impossible and will be a disaster economically.
- There is a widespread problem of hunger in Britain and it is necessary to give the poor free school meals.
- Devolution was a success.
- We dare not say No to separatism.
- The NHS is the best in the world and must constantly be saved.
These views are essentially the same as the view in the 1970s that British Leyland is the best way to make cars and we must let the miners turn off the lights whenever they choose to do so.
Dominic Cummings was hated by the British declinist establishment because he saw the problem in the same way that Thatcher did and was willing to put forward solutions and to think the unthinkable.
The EU is making much of Europe poorer. Its model of protectionism both economic and social prevents its members from becoming more efficient and profitable. It’s like British Leyland on steroids. If Britain can free itself from EU regulations and restrictions and trade freely with whoever wants to trade freely, it is obvious that we will undercut the EU and do better than they do. Theresa May who turned out to be the ultimate declinist was determined that we should not be allowed to do precisely that. Let’s not forget she was cheered on by Ruth Davidson and Douglas Ross.
The problem with benefits in Britain is that they trap the poor by giving them just enough that they feel constrained to remain on benefits rather than find work. Increasing those benefits by giving benefits in kind (food banks, free school meals) makes the problem worse rather than better.
Devolution this year has seen support for Scottish independence and Welsh independence increase and real borders established for the first time in hundreds of years. Yet the declinist establishment reacts in horror when Boris tells the truth about it. The solution is to devolve power equally everywhere in Britain and to bypass the devolved Parliaments by bringing real power to the county level. But you have to first recognise that there is a problem before you can find a solution. The declinists cannot even do that.
At some point Britain has to learn the lesson that every other country in the world learned – that the only solution to separatism is to make it illegal. It is the mere possibility of separatism that fuels it. The declinists react with horror, but this is precisely because they are declinists and wish to merely manage decline into Scottish and Welsh independence.
There are large numbers of Scots who oppose the SNP, dislike devolution, hope that Brexit will make Britain richer and more united and are simply desperate for a Conservative politician to make arguments against Nicola Sturgeon. We should indeed focus on the SNP’s domestic record, but the task is to show what the SNP are doing wrong. The task is to persuade Scots that there is an alternative and that alternative is Conservatism.
Scottish Conservatives are going to get nowhere if they continue to be declinist. The task is not to be popular. The task is to be right. This is the lesson that Thatcher learned. If you are right, popularity follows because you are able to convince those who disagreed with you. This is why the Scottish Conservative appeasement strategy won’t work. It is the essence of declinism. The task instead is to have ideas that are right and to use argument to persuade people who disagree with you. Conservative thinking and free market economics make you richer. It does so just as much in Scotland as anywhere else. But unfortunately, the Scottish Conservatives decline to make this argument.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.