Had a lunch with a good friend on Thursday who always provokes stimulating discussion. We rambled through a variety of topics, most of which I fully intend to plagiarise for this blog, but one topic that's had me thinking all weekend is the Scottish Conservatives.
Now, I'm not a member of that political party so it may seem a bit strange for me to be discussing the role that they can play in Scottish politics, but I am first and foremost a democrat and democracy works best with a range of viewpoints contributing to the political discussion. I think Scotland needs a strong centre-right perspective in order to best develop policies which can take the country forward - the wider the debate the better the conclusions.
If you listened to the media then you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland is a completely left-wing country with no expression of right-wing politics anywhere. This impression has been sustained by the dominance of the Labour Party over the past half century, and the recent advent of the SNP who, at least on a surface level (and in specific parts of the country) bill themselves as a centre-left party. Indeed, out of 129 MSPs only 17 come from a recognisable centre-right perspective. Hardly prime ground for the success of a party going against the political consensus.
But this picture doesn't reflect the situation accurately. In much of Scotland - Dumfries & Galloway, the Borders, Edinburgh and the Lothians - there is a significant proportion of the population who hold conservative viewpoints. Within living memory (well, admittedly not my living memory, but it's not completely lost in the mists of history quite yet), the Conservatives were the dominant party in Scotland, with MPs across the country, including industrial urban hubs such as Glasgow.
The biggest problem the Conservatives face is that they are seen as being Thatcherites Who Attack The Scots. I apologise for the crude acronym that this makes, but it is a word that I have heard being applied to them on numerous occasions. Part of Cameron's resurgence has been that people in England have really started to forget Thatcher, and indeed in some cases here rehabilitation has commenced. Not so in Scotland. She possesses a part of the Scottish psyche, a loathing which will not be dropped for many many years - if indeed ever. One only has to look at the feelings that are still held about Edward I or 'Butcher' Cumberland to see that Scots are willing to hold grudges for centuries, even when people haven't actually read the history behind it. The Scottish Conservatives possess a popular leader and some competent MSPs, but they are still seen as Thatcher's weans. This is a major hurdle to try and overcome.
Talk has been made of trying to rename the party in order to escape its history, but this would be unsuccessful and a mistake. Unsuccessful because the public are not so daft that they would be tricked into thinking its a different party, and a mistake because they would be cutting off a long and proud history which may present the roots of a recovery in Scotland.
Because they have been making a recovery. With the continuing dwindling of the Scottish Lib Dems, who appear to be sliding into obscurity, and the struggle of the smaller parties to regain the ground they lost at the 2007 Parliamentary elections, the Conservatives are the main alternative to the SNP and Labour in Scotland. In fact, they are the only major party who are outlining significantly different policy visions for Scotland - their problem is that people don't necessarily like these policies. But still, difference is a selling point in politics, particularly when your main opponets are the governments in Holyrood and Westminster.
The other crucial area for the Conservatives is that they are the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party - this provides them with the opportunity to try and become the 'Defenders of the Union' in the ongoing constitutional wrangles. Labour can argue that it really presents the best defence of the union (I'm still not convinced that Cameron wouldn't sacrifice it if he felt it would assist him) but there is a strong tendency towards separation bubbling below the surface amongst elements of the party - it would only take a Conservative administration at Westminster to see more calls for independence from some Labour members. The Conservatives don't really have this issue and so can claim undivided loyalty to the Union as a selling point.
Underpinning all this has to be a return to a key part of Conservative, and indeed conservative, political policy - pragmatism. For in many ways Thatcherism was a revolution in Conservative history, an upheaval which was not necessarily welcomed by all of the party's members. Thatcherism was a major ideological approach to politics, rooted in a view of the world and a desire to reshape it according to that view. Conservatives for decades had prided themselves as pretty much being above the petty mess of ideology - they were rather rooted in a desire to see the world continue to function successfully. A return to a proper pragmatism could be popular with the public - I don't mean the 'pragmatism' of the Lib Dems, which can at best appear indecisive and at worst fencesitting in the extreme - but rather a principled pragmatism based on a consistent ethic of small government, devolution of power from the centre to the community and empowerment of individuals. This could appeal to a part of the Scottish identity and stand in contrast to much of the consensus which exists at present. Would it see a Conservative administration at Holyrood? Unlikely, however it would see the Conservatives playing an even stronger role in the devolved establishment and a clear representation of a consistent element of Scottish public thought.
The Scottish Parliament needs debate and disagreement - the people of Scotland deserve it. They may not be quite ready for it yet, but the Conservatives are a part of this process - the question is whether they can deliver and break away from the legacy of Thatcher.
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