Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Tangled Up In Blue

The Scottish Parliament is due to reconvene tomorrow, for the swearing in of the MSPs and, theoretically at least, for these new MSPs to elect a new Presiding Officer. At Westminster, there is a quaint old ritual that the person elected Speaker is ceremonially dragged to the chair, feigning reluctance all the way. At Holyrood, though, it is beginning to look like the reluctance is very real indeed.

Due to the excruciatingly tight parliamentary arithmetic, neither Labour nor the SNP are keen to let any of their number take the position. However, the person whom all sides agree is the stand-out candidate, Conservative Leader Annabell Goldie, is also ruling herself out at this stage, emboldened by what she sees as her achievement in having led her party to a better than expected result last Thursday.

I've said before that Goldie had a good campaign. Having taken over her party in difficult circumstances, she steadied the ship and saved them from meltdown. In gaining one constituency from the Lib Dems, but losing two on the list thanks to a slightly depressed regional vote, all things considered it was a reasonable night's work. But that really is about all you can say for them, since the harsh reality is that they remain no further forward than they were four years ago.

I'm afraid that this is as good as it's ever going to get for Goldie as Tory leader. She'll be safe for a few months, but then the vultures will start to circle, as others look for someone who might be able to kick-start the Scottish party's fortunes in time for the Westminster elections. There is a huge gulf between the appeal which Cameron's Tories have in the south, and the performance of their Scottish brethren. As admirable an individual as Goldie is, it's hard to see how she, Dave's favourite auntie or not, is going to do anything to revive her party's fortunes by trotting out another four years of dreary slogans about 'bread and butter'.

For many Scots, the Tories are, whether fairly or unfairly, still seen as being beholden to the party in London. The way forward for the Tories is to re-examine their relationship with the London party and to begin to crystalise their professed desire for more powers for Holyrood. Both will likely require the slaying of some sacred cows, and as a member of the old school, die in the last ditch of the union variety of Scottish Tories, it's a task for which Goldie is almost certainly psychologically unprepared.

Whether she realises it or not, the greatest contribution Goldie could make to her party right now is to stand aside as leader, receive the gratitude of her party for services rendered, and thereby allow the reinvigoration of Scottish Toryism which her presence currently inhibits. However, having done so, a greater contribution still could then be hers to make, providing she allows herself to be elected as PO.

Although Tories no longer routinely apologise for their existence in Scotland any more, for many Scots they are still on something of an extended penance. Albeit for different reasons, they face similar issues of trust and competence to those faced by the SNP only a few short years ago.This is where they might find it instructive to look at George Reid and the SNP.

While George Reid resigned his SNP membership upon becoming PO, people never forgot that he remained a nationalist. By common consent, he was an outstanding PO, helping steady the Parliament and entrench it at home, while building a profile for Scotland overseas. I would say that during his period in office, he probably did more to dissipate the ridiculous image of Scottish Nationalists being the hairy-arsed haggis munching mouth-frothing impossibilists of unionist nightmares, than just about anyone else. For that reason alone, the SNP owes him a particular debt of gratitude.

Goldie as PO could perform a similar rehabilitative role for the Scottish Tories, bringing them back firmly into the mainstream in the eyes of the voting public. Since they have already no desire to be in government in Scotland, the Tories have nothing to lose from allowing her to take on the PO position. Even leaving aside the fact that she's far and away the best candidate for the post, if the SNP experience is anything to go by, then arguably the Tories would also have the most to gain by so doing.

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