Blueprint for razing red wall can topple SNP tartan wall too …
IN those heady hours after winning 47 seats at last month’s General Election, the SNP was in euphoric mood.
But in the intervening weeks, dejection ensued, and the champagne bottles have been quietly re-corked – and put back on ice.
There is mounting panic in the ranks: how else to explain the absurdity of former Nationalist minister Alex Neil proposing Gandhi-style ‘civil disobedience’ to force the Tories to cave in on holding another Scexit vote?
Or Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil suggesting that Unionists – allegedly held hostage by the UK Government – should be re-labelled Hostagists?
Boris Johnson is partly to blame for these bizarre interventions, with his swift and clinical rejection of Nicola Sturgeon’s request for the transfer of power over referendums from Westminster to Holyrood.
In the midst of these Nationalist collywobbles, the Scottish Tories are about to choose a new leader, with Jackson Carlaw widely seen as a shoo-in to be Ruth Davidson’s full-time successor.
It comes at the most important point in the party’s history north of the Border: failure to prevent an SNP triumph at the Scottish election in 2021 would lead to a continuation of the constitutional chaos that has blighted devolved politics for more than a decade.
As they prepare for that fight, there are important lessons to be learned from Mr Johnson’s extraordinary victory on December 12 – when the Tories took a wrecking-ball to long-held Labour majorities south of the Border.
The genius of the Tories’ message lay in its simplicity: you may not love us, indeed you may dislike us – or even detest us.
But the alternative was more Brexit paralysis, and a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn that would bankrupt the economy (and imperil the Union).
Tory strategists are acutely aware that in the north of England and the Midlands, where the party demolished the ‘red wall’ of Labour hegemony, it didn’t win because of a Damascene conversion to traditional Conservative values.
Labour voters were disgusted with Mr Corbyn, true, but they wanted to draw a line under Brexit, and only the Tories could guide us out of the quagmire – this was an election where pragmatism took priority over tribal loyalties.
In Scotland, the Tories should duplicate this approach, telling voters that while they accept many of them don’t normally vote Tory, and maybe never will again, this time around they need them to mop up the spectacular mess the SNP has made of public services.
It would be an administration with one overriding aim – to focus relentlessly on reversing the damage wrought upon the economy and key institutions of the state by the SNP.
Under Miss Davidson, the Tories made enormous strides – becoming the official opposition at Holyrood in 2016 – by positioning themselves as the only party that stood any chance of thwarting the SNP’s demand for a re-run of the 2014 referendum.
But there have to be more layers to the Tory pitch than blocking a second Scexit poll.
In his memoir, Ken Clarke spoke candidly of his disdain for detailed manifestos, suggesting that governments shouldn’t be bound by them – and pointing out that in Margaret Thatcher’s first one, there was precious little evidence of the seismic overhaul to come.
Next year, there can and should be a raft of policies underpinning the Tories’ bid to deprive the SNP of a majority, and indeed to attempt to form a government.
But on the doorstep it should be driven by just one central idea: fixing Scotland.
Fish in a barrel doesn’t quite cover it – this is a government whose reverse Midas touch has become legendary; its talent for maladministration has reached epic proportions.
And, as the problems have piled up, the SNP has been in constant denial.
At the ballot box last month, Scottish voters consciously deferred judgment on the SNP’s lamentable record until the Holyrood vote next year.
Historically, many who backed the SNP did so not because of a deep-seated support of its primary aim, but because they believed it would do an adequate job of running the country – but it hasn’t.
Challenged on its performance – from Scottish schools tumbling down international rankings to child cancer patients dying in supposedly state-of-the-art hospital wards – the SNP Government tends to lay the blame at the door of malign Tories and ‘austerity’; or quite often, they shoot the messenger – and lash out at the Press.
But some of these failings – all in areas which have been under Holyrood control for more than 20 years – aren’t as intractable as the SNP likes to portray them.
Last week Miss Sturgeon lost a key vote and buckled to opposition calls for a review of Scottish education, after a row over widespread subject rationing.
One of the avoidable consequences of the SNP’s inaptly-named Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was a severe limitation in the number of subjects that children can study.
Even architects of the CfE have said this wasn’t the original idea, and it shouldn’t have happened – but it’s having a catastrophic effect on the life chances of an entire generation.
For years, the SNP has dodged responsibility for this scandal – but it could be stopped instantly, with a one-line directive from Education Secretary John Swinney (if he could bring himself to concede he got it wrong).
The Tories should commit to sending that letter to local authorities as their first act in office.
In higher education, ‘free’ degrees mean Scots are being squeezed out of universities in favour of their fee-paying counterparts from the rest of the UK and abroad.
Keen to maintain its Europhile credentials, the SNP has promised to keep paying for EU students – around £93million a year – until at least 2024.
But making them foot the bill for their studies post-Brexit would fund extra places for Scots, and salvage taxpayer-funded degrees for Scots.
In the NHS, there has been a shameful failure of ministerial oversight, as evidenced by a looming, judge-led public inquiry into the contaminated water controversy at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, and the much-delayed Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh.
How can anyone, regardless of their usual voting preference, trust Health Secretary Jeane Freeman, or indeed Miss Sturgeon – who was once the minister in charge of the NHS – to ensure there’s no repeat of these fiascos?
Meanwhile, a punitive tax regime that has become the most onerous in the UK could be turned into a system that incentivises the hard work and entrepreneurialism vital for economic growth – currently at negligible levels.
But most of all, we urgently need ministers with some basic level of competence – sorely lacking among Miss Sturgeon’s lacklustre team of bunglers and placemen.
The Tories will only pose any real threat to the SNP next year by heeding what voters are crying out for: a government that can undo the Nationalists’ appalling legacy of failure, spin and stagnation.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 21, 2020.