As someone who had only undertaken the same number of interviews as there are pandas in Edinburgh Zoo, the prospect of carrying out a telephone interview was both a new and nerve-raking concept. The sole benefit, as opposed to the face-to-face conversation I was used to, was that one could be flexible with one’s outfit. I could have worn my pyjamas and dressing gown if I had so desired! However, I thought it would be for the best if I remained professional and so sat in my kitchen wearing my suit and tie as I placed the call to Baroness Goldie, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives and the MSP for the West of Scotland.
I had arranged to discuss the upcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections, set for May 5th, as well as looking back to the recent general election, which had seen somewhat of a political earthquake disrupt the entire Scottish political landscape.
Just before we began, I was relieved that one of my fears surrounding a telephone interview was alleviated. As we both struggled to put our respective telephones on ‘speaker mode’, I knew that my technophobia was not a one-sided issue!
After resolving our technical difficulties I asked for Baroness Goldie’s assessment of the recent general election result. Her reaction was summed up in one word: “disappointing”. Despite being “absolutely delighted” by the re-election of our sole Tory MP, David Mundell, the inability to send him back to Westminster with any additional Scottish colleagues was obviously not what the party had hoped to achieve. However, Baroness Goldie is correct to place this disappointing result in its given context. “When you look at Labour in Scotland only managing to return one MP and, of course, the Lib Dems only managing to return one MP, you do begin to understand really the force of electoral influence that was supporting the SNP”. But the former Scottish Tory leader is quick to point out that, despite this swell in SNP support, “that doesn’t give the Conservatives any room for complacency”.
Turning to the upcoming Holyrood elections, Baroness Goldie stated that she had “not known a situation since devolution began when the stars…were arranged so propitiously for the Conservatives in Scotland”. The sitting MSP then proceeded to rattle off the list of factors that are creating this potential perfect storm for the Scottish Tories in May: “we’ve got a good leader, we’ve got a weakened Labour Party, a non-existent Liberal Democratic Party, we’ve got good policies, we’ve got good candidates [and] we’ve got people in Scotland who respect what David Cameron and George Osborne are trying to achieve”. As a result of this possible perfect blend of electoral issues, Baroness Goldie concluded, “I think things are looking more hopeful for us next year than perhaps they have for a long time”.
As well as this, it is worth noting the increased powers that this new Scottish Parliament will possess thanks to further devolution from the Conservative government in Westminster. These new powers are particularly significant concerning the Scottish government and taxation, as the ability to set income tax bands has been devolved to North of the border. For Baroness Goldie, this additional devolved power has significant electoral repercussions too as “for the first time since devolution began, voters know that who they vote for is actually going to affect their pocket”. She continued, “when voters begin to look at the choice of parties through that prism I really think that the Conservatives, with Ruth at the helm, are going to plead a very powerful and a very persuasive case”.
We also discussed the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson who, despite being in post since November 2011, will be leading the party for the first time in a Scottish Parliamentary election. Once again, Baroness Goldie’s assessment could be reduced to a single word: “superb”. While expressing her wish on stepping down as leader that she’d be followed by someone from the younger generations of the party, Baroness Goldie continued with her praise of Ms. Davidson stating, “She is highly intelligent, she’s an engaging person, she is a very capable and skilled communicator and debater and she has won plaudits in Scotland, and further afield I may say, for her competence in performing and rightly so”. Indeed, according to the Baroness, “Ruth is part of this constellation of propitious stars that I see as we approach next May”. However, she is also keen to point out that these were not just “hackneyed platitudes of a docile, sycophantic follower”.
Moving away from insular discussion on the Scottish Tories, we began to look at the upcoming election on an issue-by-issue basis and how this may affect certain party’s standing come May 5th. Beginning with the future of the Union, we both expressed our shock at the decision by new Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, to welcome both supporters of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ into the party should a second referendum on Scottish independence take place. From this, Baroness Goldie stated her belief that now “there is only one party that is going to stand up for you and secure the Union and that’s the Scottish Conservatives”. Whilst describing that as a “powerful” issue for the Scottish Tories to campaign with, she also used this policy divide within Scottish Labour to describe the problems that this party is undergoing: “I just think in terms of any political party trying to present voters with a clear, coherent picture of what they stand for Labour is struggling hugely”.
Onto Trident and Britain’s nuclear defence policy, not only did Baroness Goldie view this as an issue that is “opening up clear blue water between the Conservatives and both Labour and the SNP” but also a further example of a Scottish Labour party in internal disarray. “In the Labour Party in Scotland their leader, Kezia Dugdale, believes in trident, she’s a multilateralist, but now her party in Scotland has said ‘that’s not going to be our policy, we’re going to be unilateralists and get rid of trident'”, a position that Baroness Goldie correctly points out has caused some degree of “confusion” amongst the Scottish electorate.
Finally we turned to Europe, something that will dominate political discussion for the next few months and has the potential to overshadow the domestic debate in Scotland given the referendum on British membership of the EU just one month later. Baroness Goldie made her position quite clear, “I think Scotland would suffer, frankly, if we weren’t in the EU”. This view is one shared not only by Ruth Davidson and the only Scottish Conservative MP, David Mundell, but also most of the political class in Scotland and every one of its 59 Members of Parliament in Westminster. In relation to this, I asked about the possible performance of UKIP in the Holyrood elections to which the Baroness’ response was: “I can only go on previous performance…I think they’ll struggle”. Anyway, given the relatively broad consensus on British membership of the European Union in Scotland, Baroness Goldie argued that “it’s not a stick to beat us with” in terms of issues that may affect the outcome of the Scottish Parliamentary elections.
In wrapping up our discussion, I attempted to wheedle out a prediction from Baroness Goldie concerning the potential performance of the Scottish Tories in May. However, this was to no avail! The self-described “battle-scarred old warhorse” said that she’d been through enough election cycles to make her “reluctant to make predictions” but was able to say: “I certainly feel, with greater confidence than I’ve possibly felt before any other Scottish Parliament elections, that we are poised to do well”. She added, “Ruth is determined to go out there with a really positive battle cry to reach voters in Scotland” and also that “there are people in Scotland…who are uneasy about the, if you like, almost monolithic dominance of the SNP”, similar to the comments made by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Scottish Conservative conference last week, and therefore may be more open to our message as a consequence.
Anyway, with a constellation of propitious stars visible above the Scottish political landscape, while sharing Baroness Goldie’s reluctance to make predictions, one must share her optimistic conclusion that “we can expect, across the piece, to see a significant increase in the Conservative vote”.