Union. Union. Economy. Education. Union. Those were the themes of the Scottish Conservatives' conference last week.
Despite confessing she would be “the happiest woman alive if [she] didn’t have to talk about the constitution one more time”, Ruth Davidson dedicated much of her address to this. Meanwhile, speeches from MSPs and council candidates were littered with references to ‘no second referendum’ – and repeatedly framed May’s local authority election as a chance to reemphasise opposition to independence.
Even where delegates were not talking about the Union, they were still talking about the Union. Scottish economy lagging behind the UK economy? A Government too focused on independence. Problems within the Scottish school system? A Government too focused on independence. Failing to pull together to make Brexit a success? A Government too focused on independence.
Whether one agrees with this argument or not, it is clear that the party is still heavily reliant on its pro-unionist stance. And with good reason – it is an acknowledgement of the fact that the party will never garner the support of strong Yes voters, so instead it positions itself as both the Defender of the Union and the only party which can turn the focus away from the constitution. This has proven electorally successful thus far.
So criticism of the SNP by speaker after speaker was expected. In addition, because the party is the only elected party at Holyrood situated on the right of the political spectrum, it has also been able to stay true to its roots – advocating lowering taxes and small government. Many of the speeches all centred in on these points and delegates did a good job of sticking to the party line. There was little dissension in the ranks. But then, the majority of them appeared to be candidates themselves – indeed, when Jackson Carlaw asked prospective councillors to stand, over half of the room did so.
The focus on maintaining a united front was clear. Even on Brexit, where there has been a long history of division between Eurosceptics and Europhiles within the party, effort was made to present only one belief: the UK, out of the EU, would be a success.
This was subtly contrasted with the heavily divided Labour Party – though the constant ridicule aimed at Labour was less subtle. The overarching message was that the electorate was glad to have the Conservatives filling the role of main opposition, because Labour had become “useless”. Ignored was the fact that, if this logic equally applied to Westminster, the UK Government was not being held to account either.
Aside from independence and Brexit, the other two themes of conference were the economy and education.
Comparisons between the UK and Scottish economies were frequent, but speakers were keen to explain the difference was due to Scottish Government action (or inaction), not an issue with Scotland generally. The party has seemingly wised up to accusations that it was “talking Scotland down”. Scotland being the “highest tax part of the UK” was also oft lamented.
On education, speakers were particularly critical of what they described as Scottish Government failures. Falling standards in literacy and numeracy, university access issues and cuts in further education were highlighted, while Named Persons and baby boxes got a bit of a bashing. The Scottish Government was accused of not acting quickly enough education reform, so Ruth Davidson announced a review of the Curriculum for Excellence.
Overall, the conference felt to be one of celebration. Confidence ahead of May’s elections was clear. Indeed, many a reference was made to the Conservatives preparing to become the “government in waiting” before 2021. But four years is a long time in politics.
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