TODAY’S challenging thought: Scottish politics lacks a truly conservative party but needs one. Independence can achieve that.

This is not an appeal on behalf of the group of instinctive Unionists who supposedly follow Douglas Ross’s lead (for now). Nor is it a call for a Scottish version of the vile Johnson administration, or the even stranger, and scarier, Tory backbenchers at Westminster, whose rage compels them to vote against public health measures, even though they are perfectly comfortable with new authoritarian measures which maintain their privileges. These are not conservatives.

A genuinely, economically conservative political party would be sceptical about the state’s ability to provide direction to society, believing that people, and communities, understand their needs well enough to meet them directly. Consequently, this party would be supportive of low taxation, small government deficits, business, free markets and economic growth.

If that seems unimaginable in Britain, remember that in Germany Angela Merkel led such a government for 16 years. Repeatedly trusting the people, she built a broad-based coalition in support of policies and then acted firmly, retaining her popularity.

Years ago, Annabel Goldie (below) was willing to provide informal support to an SNP government to advance some of her priorities.

The National:

Compare that with what we face in Scotland. In the run-up to the Holyrood election, both the Fraser of Allander Institute and the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted, with some surprise, the limited extent of economic debate in Scottish politics.

They pointed to the universal welcome that greeted plans to have a Scottish Child Payment of £20 per week as evidence of how Scottish and (in effect) English political priorities differ.

Last week’s Scottish Budget confirmed the higher child payment will begin next year. In many ways, that commitment is excellent news. It will have a substantial impact on rates of child poverty. Everyone should welcome it.

The problem is that individual spending commitments quickly mount up. The Finance Secretary knows there is demand for more spending than she can fund in the Budget. The Scottish Fiscal Commission has advised her that with reductions in the block grant as Covid spending gradually ends and slow growth of Scottish income tax receipts, she needs to prepare for a substantial budgetary squeeze in about two years.

Just about the same time as the First Minister plans to have an independence referendum, the spending commitments in the SNP’s manifesto will come up against the reality of the funding constraints of the current devolution settlement.

This won’t be about withdrawing £100 million from several plans, as Kate Forbes had to do this week.

Instead, the challenge will be to find perhaps as much as £3 billion, of lower priority expenditure, which can be quietly dropped. Or, more likely, pushed through in the face of noisy opposition from those losing out.

When countries face such a problem, they usual turn to conservative politicians. They can take the scalpel to public spending with the conviction that it is the right thing to do. Recalling Michael Foot’s dismissal of Norman Tebbit, the hypothetical conservative party which I am imagining would be like a semi-house-trained polecat in the Scottish Parliament, cheerfully disturbing the cosy consensus and holding the government to account. Facing its criticism should be unpleasant for ministers.

WE saw a few glimpses of what this sort of opposition might achieve when Adam Tomkins was an MSP, repeatedly questioning the willingness of government to use blunt legislative powers to decide matters which seemed to him to require much more delicate tools. Yet, Professor Tomkins has had enough after a single term as an MSP.

In much the same way, the Scottish Conservatives were supposed to have found a new type of leader in Ruth Davidson (below). But her differences with the Prime Minister – certainly on policy and, perhaps, in temperament – led to her premature retirement and ennoblement. Unless she follows the example of Labour’s Lord Foulkes, she will merely be a spectral presence in Scottish politics, at least until independence.

The National: Ruth Davidson

Nothing demonstrates the distance which Scotland needs to travel if it is to become a normal country better than the Scottish Conservatives’s political trajectory over the last 20 years. Constitutional questions have replaced the ordinary ideological differences of policy as the substantial dividing lines of Scottish politics.

Opposed to devolution, the creation of the Scottish Parliament gave the Scottish Conservatives the representation they needed to enable something of a comeback. Viscerally opposed to independence, the shift in support from Labour to the SNP over the last 20 years gave them a new purpose: no longer consistently conservative; always Unionist.

They had the chance to be explicit about that. Seeking to become party leader in 2011, Murdo Fraser proposed it should become fully separate from the British Conservative Party and relaunch as the Unionist Party. He lost the leadership election, but his political intuition was correct.

Under Ruth Davidson and her sundry successors, the party’s seemingly self-limiting but consistent, success has been in appealing to the quarter of the electorate who live in North Britain.

That is enough for them to have become the largest opposition party. But there is no route for them into government. Their blind Unionism, and knee-jerk opposition to whatever the Scottish Government does, makes them unlikely partners for any of the other parties.

There is an obvious solution to this problem: independence. Even our conservatives need it to become their better selves.