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The Scottish Conservatives' Phoenix Moment

13/06/2014 15:55 BST | Updated 13/08/2014 10:59 BST

When the outlook is bleak, and has seemingly been ever thus, reacting positively is not a simple task. Faced with this in our personal lives, most of us seek personal and professional support. Rarely would we proceed headlong into the abyss manically cackling that, if we just stick to the plan, all will be well. Throw in a moment of existential reflection and this mix has all the ingredients for a tragic end.

This is precisely what the Scottish Conservatives have been doing since devolution blossomed to life in 1999. Over the course of four elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Tories have mustered a paltry percentage of the popular vote - between just 15.5% and a 'high' of 16.6%. One has to admire the consistency at least.

Though ably led in that time, there has been no coherent or compelling vision for what the Scottish Conservatives can deliver to the Scottish people. Quite the opposite. For the last fifteen years, the Tories have been seen - not unfairly - as the party most opposed to devolution.

Against this backdrop, the SNP delivered their promise to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. If dealing with devolution posed a challenge, the referendum struck to the heart of the Tory party. What, exactly, are they for?

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has been attempting to answer that question for the past three years. Salmond's campaign to dissolve the three hundred year old United Kingdom accelerated the need to answer. Davidson realised that, for the Conservatives to have any place in the debate to save the Union, she had to conjure the vision so evidently lacking heretofore.

In concert with Lord Strathclyde - a hilarious, charming, fiercely intelligent and affable hereditary peer - Davidson has answered both how the Conservatives can help in the fight to deliver a No vote on September 18 and what the Tories North of the Border are for.

Modern Scottish Conservatism stands for responsible, transparent and radical devolution. This brand supports remaining in the Union, an abiding constitutional settlement, further fiscal devolution, decentralisation of power within Scotland (a continuation of the Pickles localism agenda pursued in Westminster since 2010) and transparency in government expenditure. Yet to be turned into a pithy slogan, this is, at least, the intellectual muscle behind the answer to the vision question.

This set of ideas also gives the Conservatives something to say in the independence referendum debate. Stepping back for a moment, the latest What Scotland Thinks poll of polls shows support for Yes at 42% and No at 58% - a marked narrowing since last year. The story of the better financed and better organised Yes campaign has not changed the impression that, come September 19, the Union will remain fully intact.

Complacency, then, would have been all too easy for Davidson to lapse into - much like the past fifteen years. Credit to her that, instead, she is articulating a strong modern Conservative vision of what a No vote might mean. Instead of the relentless negativity which has all too often characterised the Better Together campaign, Davidson is offering a form of 'Devo Max' that fits into an optimistic, positive, vision of what's next.

Muscling in on the territory occupied by Labour and the SNP will not be easy. Labour were the party that gave us devolution and fast claimed the position of socially just champions within the new settlement. The SNP are part independence standard-bearers, part the socially just party that Labour failed to be.

Within the independence debate, therefore, the Scottish Tories have, hitherto, found themselves crowded out. Davidson has now taken the first steps toward a more confident modern Conservative party. Her first test will be how prominent she can project the party in the fight to save the Union and offer a post-vote vision. After that, comes the even more difficult task of rebuilding the Scottish Tory brand.

This blog first appeared on the website of Bright Blue, an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism.