THE Conservative high-command, declared The Economist last week, is “intellectually dead”. It meant the UK party leadership, and it made a compelling case. Now that a Nationalist agenda has taken hold of the “natural party of government”, any room for political philosophising has gone out of the window.

For Nationalists – be they British or Scottish – generally begin with a conclusion (Brexit or independence) and work backwards. Policy is viewed largely as the means to a pre-ordained end, not an end in itself.

Take the SNP’s latest relaunch/reboot/reset: independence, we’re told, is to be repackaged as a left-wing alternative to Conservative rule, which is confusing as I thought it already was that. But then lots of Nationalists, like Brexiteers, are more comfortable with sloganising than deep political thinking.

For many years now, the same has been true of the Scottish Conservatives, which spent so long trying to halt seemingly interminable decline it neglected policy and core philosophy, but nevertheless there have recently been welcome signs of life.

Several columnists, in these pages and elsewhere, have already responded to Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s long piece on the website UnHerd, urging her party to “reboot capitalism”. Now this wasn’t perfect – stronger on political diagnosis than cure – but at least it exists. You’ll search in vain for anything comparable from the SNP.

With the UK Conservative leadership, as The Economist noted, distracted by the ongoing Brexit farce, Labour indulging itself rather than updating the socialist case and the SNP clinging on to centrist whatever-works Blairism dressed up as radicalism, there’s a real opportunity for the Scottish Tories to set the policy agenda.

And fascinatingly, the party has begun rediscovering some of its own political and philosophical traditions. In her article, Davidson drew upon Adam Smith, observing (as had Mrs Thatcher and Alex Salmond before her) that he wasn’t the free-market ideologue of caricature but actually someone who believed in balancing the “wealth of nations” with the public good.

Davidson did not mention Noel Skelton, a long-dead (and sadly long-forgotten) Scottish Tory MP who in the early 1920s wrote stimulating essays on how the UK Conservative Party ought to respond to the “modern era” of mass voter participation and, more pertinently, a newly-invigorated Labour Party.

“If Conservatives are not to fight with one hand tied behind their backs,” he wrote in 1923, “the active principles of Conservatism must be felt anew, thought anew, promulgated anew.” The party, he believed, had to combat perceptions that it stood only for the interests of the few and instead promote “fair play between all classes and the desire of each to farther the common weal”.

Skelton also outlined detailed proposals, which he summarised as the creation of “a property-owning democracy”, by which he didn’t mean home ownership but agricultural and industrial profit sharing and co-partnership. Intriguingly, he also sought to “secure” the electorate “against sudden assault” by means of referendums on contentious political questions.

Since the (recently-expanded) franchise could no longer be denied to those without assets, argued Skelton, then those without property had to be provided with enhanced opportunities to acquire assets and develop the “character” that came from the responsibilities associated with ownership.

Although the Scottish Tory policy review is in its early stages, I understand that the party is keen to breathe new life into Skelton’s idea, combining the idea of an “asset-holding democracy” with a muscular, “Nationalist Unionism”, itself another very old, and once very successful, Scottish Conservative tradition.

That’s the philosophical underpinning, but the hardest part will be detailed and, of course, vote-winning policy. The approach, as one senior Scottish Tory MSP puts it, will be: “What’s wrong with Scotland and how would we fix it?” Again, it’s early days, but education, health and housing are viewed as the three key policy areas on which the party has to advance an agenda between now and the 2021 Holyrood elections.

Davidson touched on two of those in her UnHerd article, talking of a “huge investment and expansion of technical education” and promoting “help to build” policies rather than the current (and arguably not very successful) “help to buy” approach to getting young people on the housing ladder.

She wrote that Britain didn’t feel equal, “when a generation’s only hope of home-ownership rests on the lottery of home-owning parents dying suddenly – and without massive care home fees.”

James Kirkup (formerly political editor of The Scotsman) at the Social Market Foundation think tank has clearly reached the same conclusion. In a recent article he claimed that, following an election in which everyone lost, there remained a “prize to be claimed” by the party “with a convincing plan to help more people own more things — and not just houses”.

The SMF will soon publish research showing how government could help “all young Britons start adult life with a decent nest-egg of cash and other investments”. And it believes there could also be a new role for the State in owning things too. Public ownership of some rail franchises is now a mainstream idea, while municipal power companies are attracting a lot of interest. As Kirkup concludes, there “are many ways to give people a stake in their country”.

Storytelling will also be important. Just as Noel Skelton promulgated a Conservative “view of life” in his 1920s essays, Ruth Davidson needs to tell an upbeat story about what her devolved Scotland would look like, much as Alex Salmond did to great effect before and after the 2007 election. And that, importantly, will not necessarily be a traditionally Tory narrative.

Soon the Scottish Tories will use the 20th anniversary of the 1997 devolution referendum to make the unpopular but valid point that 18 years of the Scottish Parliament hasn’t exactly delivered on the promise of transformative change. Nor has a decade of Nationalist rule – the SNP devoting more energy to denying it has the power to do things (to help, for example, the female pensioners who have lost years of entitlement) than actually legislating in a progressive way.

Modern politics – either in Scotland, the UK or the United States – is not an arena in which good ideas flourish, but with hard work, an open mind and a bit of luck, Ms Davidson’s brand of what Skelton called “Constructive Conservatism” could be something to watch over the next four years.