By David Torrance
Two windows in a flat facing the Edinburgh International Conference Centre had been put to creative use. ‘TORY SCUM BACK TO YOUR CASTLES YOU SPOILT LITTLE BRATS,’ screamed the one on the left, while that alongside added: ‘NO TO FOOD BANKS. EAT THE RICH. YUMMY.’
This caused a degree of amusement among delegates at the Scottish Conservative Party conference, but then I guess it was supposed to. It was also well targeted, for quite a few Scottish Tories do actually live in castles, so-called knights of the shire that once dominated the party in the 1950s and ’60s.

Some of them still exist, for example Sir James McGrigor (Baronet), the Highlands and Islands MSP and, though a peer, Lord Strathclyde, who’s chairing the Scottish party’s devolution commission. But then, as is widely known, Scotland’s original Tartan Tories aren’t the force they once were.

Richard Keen QC, the party’s relatively new chairman, also looks like he probably owns a castle, and on Friday introduced the Prime Minister (an Old Etonian for the uninitiated) in beautifully clipped tones. Weirdly, he couldn’t pronounce the First Minister’s name properly and was somewhat wooden; his picture in the conference programme also made him look a little like Alan B’Stard.

A few weeks ago Keen told the Daily Telegraph that he could envisage the Scottish Conservatives, who currently have 15 MSPs, being Holyrood’s majority party within a decade, while on Friday afternoon Baroness Goldie spoke of the party she used to lead forming part of a future coalition Scottish Government.

Standard goals for a minority party, certainly, but also quixotic ones for a political organisation that once dominated Scottish politics. But if this was fantasy politics of the Right, the same afternoon I also witnessed fantasy politics of the Left in the form of Tariq Ali, who delivered a lecture on behalf of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) at Edinburgh University.

Now Ali is a major figure for those who like that sort of thing, but his intervention in the constitutional debate (trailed in the Guardian) didn’t amount to very much. He caricatured, for example, recent Scottish political history, talking about the ‘rise’ of the SNP in response to the ‘ravages of Thatcherism’ (in fact the SNP didn’t ‘rise’ until much later).

There was also the usual hyperbole about Maggie ‘dismantling’ the welfare state (which begged the question: what’s being ‘dismantled’ now?), while Ali portrayed the economic problems of the 1980s as somehow never having gone away. Lastly there was the Scottish Left’s favourite new myth, that somehow Labour ‘hemorrhaged’ votes as a result of its move to the Right. Only it didn’t. Even at the 2010 general election the party of Blair and Brown managed a swing of nearly three per cent.

To be fair, Ali had some nice lines. ‘At the moment,’ he said, ‘it’s incredibly depressing living in England; living in a land without any opposition.’ He meant the absence of an SNP-like force south of the border; the independence referendum, he added, meant Scotland was a ‘much livelier place to be’, with more politicised voters and the creation of a new ‘mode’.

But beneath the fantasy politics of both Left and Right, there lurked good, legitimate points and developments. This weekend the Scottish Conservatives finally found themselves in a sensible place on the constitution, comfortable with devolution and committed to delivering more of it. The key line in the Prime Minister’s speech alluded to Ruth Davidson wanting more powers after a ‘no’ vote and the fact that he agreed. Delegates even applauded.

And Ali, although irritatingly black-and-white in his observations, did at least point out that envisaging an independent Scotland along free market lines ‘does not work’ because neoliberalism ‘creates a Scotland which isn’t socially just’. ‘Being part of the wonderful neoliberal world doesn’t make any sense at all,’ he said at one point, ‘the system is in crisis.’

Try telling that to Mr Salmond, who remains quite attached to neoliberal dogma about cutting taxes to undercut the City of London and fuel economic growth. Ali said New Labour had ‘bought into the Thatcherite myth’, but then by that analysis so too has the SNP. He also had a pop at the last UK Labour government for having been elected by just 22 per cent of the electorate, but then the same is true of the present Scottish Government.

Ali strayed back into Left fantasyland when he said it was ‘perfectly possible’ that an independent Scotland could forge relations with Ecuador (another small nation that had ‘rejected neoliberalism’), Bolivia, Venezuela, China, and so on. More widely, and more accurately, he said the independence referendum was the ‘most important political event in the history of these islands possibly since the Second World War’.

[As an aside, Pete Ramand and James Foley of the RIC have just published a book called ‘Yes: The Radical Case for Independence’, which I look forward to reading. Curiously, it opens with a dig at my 2011 biography of Alex Salmond, claiming that ‘history thumped…in the face’ my ‘forecast’ that the 2007-11 Scottish Government would be his first and last. I say curiously because I didn’t predict that. The original edition, published in late 2010, did not call the 2011 Holyrood election, while the paperback edition, published after the election, obviously covered the beginning of Salmond’s second term in office.]

Meanwhile, over at the Tory grassroots website Conservative Home, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was claiming that for the ‘first time’ in her lifetime the Conservatives had ‘good reason to claim that we stand foursquare aligned with the values of the majority in Scotland’. This, however you look at it, is quite a claim, even though it could be argued that the referendum campaign has given its activists a bit more energy. 

Turnout at the EICC was good, perhaps more than 1,000 people, a similar number as attended the RIC’s gathering in Glasgow late last year, but the trouble is that neither the Scottish Tory Right nor the Radical Scottish Left holds much broader appeal. Just as Richard Keen, David Cameron and Theresa May preached mainly to the converted over the past couple of days, Tariq Ali – however lucid and experienced – simply told some old (and indeed far from old) lefties what they wanted to hear. This is not territory on which the referendum campaign will be won or lost.


call me dave
2014-03-15 21:24

I have read your articles here and elsewhere and it put Ming Campbell’s incoherent mutterings this week into perspective for me. Both you and he never quite ever make a relevant point, it’s just words without any meaning.

What do you stand for? On second thoughts Ach!…let’s just leave it at that.
2014-03-15 21:36

No offence David but for a political journalist you seem wonderfully naive.

Either you are too young to have experienced some of the history you refer to or are too willing to ignore how they influence the Scottish independence debate.

Yes Blair and Brown achieved a swing to the Labour party but this was at the cost of moving the Labour party to the right hence Mr Ali’s comments that there is no opposition in England.

In England there are only parties of the right.

To cast Alex Salmond as right wing due to cuts in corporation tax ignores his similar commitments to increasing childcare, re-nationalising the Royal Mail and removing Trident to name a few. Which of these commitments align to a “noeliberal dogma” ?
2014-03-15 22:49

David Cameron did not agree to devolving any more powers to Scotland and David Torrance should know that if he had cared to listen to the speech and report the facts honestly. In fact, Cameron said absolutely nothing. His speech was full of nothing. Quite an achievement! He talked about more tax raising responsibility which has already been passed with the legislation coming into force in 2016. We will collect some income tax but nothing else. We will not control the taxes such as corporation tax and APD which would allow us to encourage business. Instead the Calman legislation could cost us dearly.
2014-03-15 22:52

The point that’s missed here is that ,after a YES vote,a consensus in parliament and among the people will easily be built around the general thrust of the White Paper.After a NO vote any new powers granted by Westminster will fall way short of what the vast majority of the Scottish people and probably the Scottish parliament want.The radical Scottish left may be on the fringes,which is why they’re described as radical after all,but they’re much nearer where the Scottish people are than Better Together can ever be.
2014-03-15 23:22

I just think we’ve moved beyond articles of this kind. The issues are too important for political chatting.
2014-03-16 08:41

At some point you will have to have an original thought and figure out how to express it Mr Torrance. Writing a biography of someone is not an original project and four years later putting references to it in virtually every piece of writing you do makes you look desperate, and without a clue what to do next.

I’m with callmedave, this is just prolix sophistry, a loud of sound and perplexity signifying nothing.

Must try harder.
2014-03-16 09:22

His “take” is certainly not mine. Just where in his speech did Cameron “promise” anything.
So to push such a line is misleading, and shows your hand.
2014-03-16 09:31

What Happened to Wee Ruthie’s Line in The Sand? – did the tide of increasing support for YES come in and wash it away.
2014-03-16 10:21

Scratching my brain where I heard it, but Devo-anything doesn’t address the issue. As a counter argument to the principle that people want to make their own decisions, through Devo-max or more powers, you concede the principle is correct.
Independence all at once, or step by step by modules, share a common logic and ultimate objective. But therein lies the hypocrisy; no dispute in the logic of self determination, but the illogical contention we are sound enough in faculty to decide some things, but not all.
If you back Devo-anything, your argument has the same vocabulary as independence, but you apply the principles inconsistently.
Lucky for you, the Unionists conspired to spare you this dilemma by making the option for independence absolute.
So goes the Unionist argument: more powers are appropriate in a referendum which they made all or nothing.
2014-03-16 10:28

Now I’m really confused – fortunately though not as confused as Mr Torrance!
2014-03-16 11:48

I just meant you can’t argue for any Devo-max type proposal without commending the principle of making your own decisions.

Follow that logic and you arrive at independence.

Why practice the triple jump when you’re entered for the long jump event?

2014-03-16 11:41

B- as usual, Mr T, and especially your closing: “This is not territory on which the referendum campaign will be won or lost“. That’s patently not so.

The Tory conference gave us a new wave of increasingly risible scare stories across the media, especially the BBC, along with a “pledge” Cameron didn’t make and which will have to be resiled come the debates.

Contrariwise, Tariq Ali won’t win for Yes but RIC might just with their grass roots campaign aimed at C2DE non-voters.

Compare this article with “unionist in broad terms” Eric Joyce’s article on WoS The nasty parties:…/

I’m no great fan of Mr J but at least his article provides a modicum of sense.

More immediately, I wonder what Mr T made of today’s FM interview with Marr, Marr’s defence of Barroso and yet another Gideon & Ed B sofa moment?
2014-03-16 12:24

Sir Alec Douglas Hume another castle holder like Cameron, solemnly promised full tax raising powers to us to scupper the 79 referendum. The tories are at it again with the same drivel.
If anybody listened to the phone in in any answers bbc4 radio at 2pm yesterday, Sat 16th March, they will realise the BBC anti Scotland agenda continues
Auld Rock
2014-03-16 15:59

Re Cameron’s speech, “can” is a long, long way from “WILL”. As somebody said Alex Douglas Home all over again just a different time and different city but same Tory Spring Conference. Did anybody else notice just how difficult cameramen had to work to avoid the huge gaps and lack of bodies even for Cameron there were many empty seats.

Auld Rock
2014-03-16 16:14

Vote No and get Devonix.

Tories and UKIP will call the shots under the heading UKOKIP.

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