Scotland has a special place in the Conservative mind. As the birthplace of Adam Smith and David Hume, the great Enlightenment philosophers, Scotland has been incredibly influential for Conservative political thought. Unionism is also an integral part of the Conservatives’ identity. So it was with great joy that the Scottish Conservatives won twelve new seats this year, enough to help keep Theresa May in power.
Despite voting firmly for Remain, Scotland is still dominated by the fallout from the independence referendum in 2014. There is widespread exhaustion with a decade of SNP governance which has seen public services decline in quality, especially education. Scottish Conservatives were able to exploit a wave of anti-SNP sentiment after Nicola Sturgeon announced her plan to hold yet another independence referendum. But the optimistic and energetic leadership of Ruth Davidson also helped persuade many Scots to overcome their long held hostility towards the Scottish Conservatives.
This is in stark contrast to the story in England. Disillusion among young voters and Tory Remainers made the Conservatives vulnerable to the Labour surge which claimed key marginal seats like Bedford and Croydon Central as well as Tory strongholds like Kensington and Canterbury. May’s success in reaching out to working class Leavers was not enough to save the party’s majority after an inept campaign. This has given cause for many English Conservatives to look to Davidson as a possible future leader.
While Davidson would certainly make an excellent Prime Minister, her focus is rightly on becoming First Minister of Scotland in 2021. But that does not mean Davidson cannot shape the future of Conservatism. Indeed, Davidson has already begun to use some of her political capital to influence major debates around Brexit, immigration, and the economy within the Conservative party.
Davidson is unashamedly a centrist, as she said in a recent interview. But that does not mean she is simply a defender of the status quo. In a widely read essay for UnHerd which uses Adam Smith as her ideological guide, Davidson argued that capitalism is in need of a “reboot” so its benefits can be spread to everyone, especially the young. As a 36-year-old who has recently married and bought a home after years as a mobile professional, Davidson has experienced the struggles many millennials face as they grow into adulthood.
Ideas have not just come from the Scottish Conservatives’ leader. Two of the new Scottish Conservative MPs have written for CapX to defend the centrist principles which helped them win their seats. Emulating that great Scottish Tory Noel Skelton, Paul Masterton believes that Conservatism wins when it supports “the ladder of opportunity”. In a similar vein, Rachel Maclean made the positive case for capitalism as “it makes people happy, enabling them to contribute and fulfil their human potential”. This determinedly centrist brand of Conservatism has long been championed by Alex Massie and Chris Deerin in the press.
It is also interesting to note how the Scottish Conservatives have thrived by balancing a coalition of Remain and Leave voters. While Davidson has emphasised the need for Britain to enjoy continued access to the single market, she has still supported Theresa May’s Lancaster Speech policy. She also made a strong effort to win over Scottish fishermen who are pro-Leave and want Scotland out of the Common Fisheries Policy. This balanced approach on Brexit has helped the Scottish Conservatives to attract unionists from both sides of the Brexit divide.
As winners in an otherwise dismal election for the party, the Scottish Conservatives have shown how the national party can successfully adapt to the post-Brexit landscape. It means conserving capitalism and unionism in a way which is inclusive and open in nature but also addresses people who have felt excluded and left behind. Instead of concentrating on personality, Conservatives should remember how principled moderation can win elections.