Margaret Thatcher said that being powerful is like being a lady; if you have to tell people you are, then you aren’t. Lady Thatcher was immensely powerful of course, and the primary reason she was powerful is that she was in power. It is because she won.

This may seem an unnecessarily obvious assertion, but it is worth reiterating today as we think about the future of her successors in the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

This is a party which will soon be without a leader, after Douglas Ross departs. It will be fascinating to see whether its 31 MSPs ask themselves a difficult, fundamental question: why am I here? Am I here to win? Or am I here to simply stop the SNP from winning?

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, as Scotland’s party of the centre right, is unique in northern and western Europe. From Germany’s CDU to Finland’s NCP; from Ireland’s Fine Gael to Sweden’s Moderates; from Belgium’s Christian Democrats to Venstre in Denmark, there are centre-right parties all around us which win, regularly. They are powerful in government because they are in power, and they are powerful in opposition because they could be.


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The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is not powerful. Its leaders are not powerful. Because it cannot win, for a political and for a practical reason. Politically, the party’s constitutional positioning means it cannot win enough votes to be the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. As the recent census confirmed, two-thirds of Scots have a Scottish-only identity, with the remaining third having a British-only or dual identity. By design, the Tories do not appeal, or try to appeal, to anyone who does not consider themselves British, thereby reducing their pool of potential support to one-third of the electorate.

That one-third, of course, are not all of a centre-right disposition. European norms would dictate that only around half of them are, meaning that the natural ceiling for the party is around one-sixth of the population (which is roughly the support polls record for them today). That is an insufficient vote share to be the largest party.

And there we encounter the practical reason the Tories cannot win. One-sixth of the vote is enough to be the third party, and kingmaker to a prospective government. But the party is third behind two parties of the centre-left, Labour and the SNP, both of whom are permanently sworn to never work with the Conservative Party.

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is locked out of power and, remarkably, it has turned the lock itself, and thrown the key down the toilet.

There are many, many leading party members who will be reading this just now shouting “what about Ruth you idiot!”. Emotionally desperate to disprove the thesis I have outlined so far in this article, and which I have been outlining for at least 15 years, they point to the upswing in party support under Ruth Davidson’s leadership and draw the conclusion that the right leader can take the Tories on the path to power.

I understand why they cling to this. The votes Ruth Davidson won were real, with at times over one-quarter of Scots ticking the Tory at the ballot box. However her supporters never seemed fully able to understand that she was attracting these votes not because she was Ruth Davidson, but because she was a unionist.

In the wake of the independence referendum, with a credible threat of a second one, and with a Tory government in Downing Street able to stop it, natural Labour-supporting unionists flocked to the Conservatives. Some of them even got elected. They stayed long after Ms Davidson had gone, because independence had not gone. Mr Ross, lest we forget, returned the same number of MSPs in 2021 as Ms Davidson had in 2016.

However, independence is now moribund, at best. It is off the table. And with it, these transactional Tories are off to Labour. This is no slight on the leadership of Ruth Davidson; she had a unique and generational talent and, as leader of a Scottish Fine Gael or a Scottish NCP or a Scottish Venstre, may be sitting in Bute House right now.

It is simply a reflection of the fact that the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party does not really matter. He or she has no power. No influence. His or her votes are driven by factors outside of their direct control.

And so, here we are again. Next month, the party will be third, behind two parties of the centre-left, polling in the teens. In 2011, when the future of the centre-right was last seriously discussed, the party was third, behind two parties of the centre-left, polling in the teens. In 1999, at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, the party was third, behind two parties of the centre-left, polling in the teens.

Nothing has changed. Nothing will change.

Russell FindlayRussell Findlay (Image: PA)

I understand that Mr Ross’s supporters, and by extension the powers-that-be in the Scottish party, many of whom are based at Westminster, have chosen their continuity candidate to succeed him.

I am told that that man is Russell Findlay. Mr Findlay, from the 2021 intake, has made a name for himself. Sharp and very able, with impeccable unionist credentials, he would be an excellent choice to carry on the work of his predecessors as an anti-independence agitator. The smart money, even at this early stage, is on him.

But the real question is not who should lead the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party in permanent opposition. The question is who should lead Scotland’s centre-right into power.

I believe that someone will ask that question. There are now so many MSPs in the group of Tories at Holyrood - over half in my estimation - who question the value of a relationship with the UK party that a contest is likely.

The existential question will be asked. Are you unionists, perpetually re-fighting a battle against nationalists which you’ve already won? Or are you conservatives, fighting a battle against the left which you have to win if you want to be in power?