TO listen to the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Annabel Goldie, is to understand that while Tories, either in Edinburgh or in London, are unlikely to confess as much publicly, painful lessons have been absorbed since Thatcherism left the party a spent force in Scottish politics.
David Cameron, the man who looks ever more likely to be the next Prime Minister of Great Britain, may seem to Scots – the way Thatcher did – as English as clotted cream and country houses; but where the Iron Lady effectively forced her will on Scotland Cameron, Goldie is assured, will respect the mandate of whoever sits at Holyrood and allow the Scottish Tories to dictate their own policy agenda. Devolution, the horse the Tories previously wanted shot at birth, has bolted. Cameron, though, wants devolution to work, and to work better.
In an exclusive interview ahead of the party’s Scottish conference, Goldie praised Cameron’s honesty and courage in “reconfiguring” the Tory Party, and said he had made it clear that if elected he will work with Scottish politicians in a spirit of co-operation.
Having gained leadership of the party in Scotland around about the same time as Cameron was chosen to head up Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, Goldie, who now attends Shadow Cabinet meetings at Westminster, described their relationship as one of mutual respect. “From the word go we got on with each other and that has grown to a very constructive political relationship because David Cameron is a highly intelligent man who is eminently easy to talk to,” she said. “In amongst taking the Conservative Party and making it fit for purpose in the 21st Century he has still found time for Scotland, in which he takes a very keen interest. I literally can phone him any time I want to.
“He and I have discussed at length how to get devolution to dovetail better with Westminster, whether it’s at party level, parliamentary level or government level. It’s interesting that the Labour Party, essentially the architect of devolution, has offered the most lamentable illustration of how to conduct relationships between the two parliaments.
“Holyrood and Westminster should not be in competition – they both have vital and different roles to discharge. David Cameron says ‘if I am elected Prime Minister, I will respect the role of Alex Salmond as First Minister. I may not agree with his policies, I may not agree with his politics, but he’s a democratically constituted First Minister and I must respect that and engage with him.'”
Any incoming government will have to get to grips as best it can with the parlous state of the UK’s public finances and the possibility of a very slow economic recovery, realities which are likely to mitigate against the traditional Tory policy of tax cuts and put an enormous fly in the ointment of welfare reform, a keystone in Cameron’s mission to heal “the broken society.” Save to observe that Cameron is under no illusions about the severity of these challenges, Goldie was light on the specifics of how he will set out about resuscitating either society or the economy, but she did pay tribute to the way in which he has energised and modernised his party.
“David Cameron has taken decisive and courageous decisions as leader of his party, both on party issues and policy, and that is the character of the man that will be demonstrated as Prime Minster of this country,” she said. “The Conservative party of all parties is not an easy entity to reconfigure, and yet he effectively said to it, ‘go and think about yourselves and the issues that are going to confront your children and your grandchildren, and understand that time moves on and that there are new issues emerging that are just as significant as the ones we considered were of paramount political importance 25 and 30 years ago.’ When he talked about green issues and the environment and society being broken in the context of broken families and social breakdown, I think people thought the Conservative Party saw itself as slightly remote from all that. But David Cameron has made the party face up to these things.”
According to Goldie, those who portray Cameron as being out of touch with the average Joe deliberately misconstrue him. “It’s easy for sections of the media to parody him as a toff and an Old Etonian and so that’s what they do, but at the end of the day he’s a husband and a father and I believe he is, genuinely, in touch with the lives of ordinary people,” she said. “He and George Osborne are saying there are tough decisions and they are being fair and square with the electorate on that. We are stepping into a situation in which the British economy is in hock up to its oxters and to that extent is burdening not just the current tax-paying population but the next generation and arguably a generation beyond that.
“David Cameron is very clear that there is no silver bullet to all of this – he is not going to go into the election claiming it will all be wonderful under a Conservative government. What he will say is that we face a very challenging situation that will require leadership and courage and that he is prepared to provide both.”
Part of this interview appeared in the Sunday Herald