Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The future of the Scottish centre-right

The PM is a Conservative, they head up a majority Government (albeit with junior coalition partners) and they have wrested back control of the country from over a decade of Labour Government.

You would think this is a good time to be a Conservative.

And of course in most of the country, putting aside the bitter sting of failing to secure outright control, you would be right, Conservative activists are revelling in David Cameron’s ascent to power and the chance to bring their own ideological approach to Government, scaling back the power of the state and bringing back the all important right of the ‘countryside’ to hunt foxes.

However, one key part of the Conservative membership remains in the doldrums, the national success tainted by their own failure. This is the activists, supporters and elected representatives of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

At a time when their party has seen gains across the UK, including the continued resurgence of the party in Wales, the Scottish aspect of the Conservative Party has remained stagnant and, under the electoral system of First Past the Post which the Tories hold so dear, effectively irrelevant in the Scottish Political scene at Westminster.

There are numerous reasons for this situation, with the spectre of Maggie “Milk-snatcher” Thatcher looming over them all, but one of the fallacies which I think is trotted out too often is that Scotland is an unchangeably left-wing country. It is true that centre-left politics have appeared to dominate Scottish national politics in recent years – all but 17 of Scotland 129 MSPs hail from self-defined parties of the centre-left after all. However, this misses out the realities that flow underneath the party definitions and which actually demonstrate that there is a vibrant centre-right tradition in Scotland which lacks the correct political outlet.

The Conservative Party used to be a dominant force in Scottish politics, with the oft quoted statistic that they are the only party to have secured over 50% of the popular vote in Scotland at a national election. Seats in Glasgow used to be safe for the Conservatives – now the city is an electoral wasteland for the party, their candidates often lucky to finish in the top three. Seats such as East Renfrewshire, which should be safe Conservative seats according to demographics, remain firmly in the Labour column, whilst the Conservatives impact in the rural constituencies (other than in the Borders) remains minimal, restrained by the Liberal Democrats and SNP.

The problem for the Conservatives is that their brand of ‘conservativism’, particularly since Thatcher’s individualistic revolution of the 80s, does appeal to the Scottish conservative tradition. Scottish culture actually lends itself well to many small ‘c’ conservative traditions – self-reliance, the value of hard work, loyalty to the church and state, moral conservativism. Yet it is also infused with a strong tradition of community loyalty and moral responsibility to the wider society. This fitted with the historic Conservative Party, but the link has been lost in the self-serving greed of the Conservatives in recent years.

This was summed up perfectly on a BBC Scotland programme screened just after the election entitled “Why didn’t Scots vote Tory”. During the programme, in which Sally Magnusson followed Conservative candidates in the Borders and East Renfrewshire, a female voter in East Renfrewshire was asked whether she would ever vote Tory. She answered negatively, explaining that although a vote for the Conservatives would like benefit her and her family financially, as they were relatively well-off, she believed that she had a moral duty to think of others who were less fortunate when she cast her vote.

This position was mocked by the Conservative candidate who felt she should think only of herself – and in doing so he clearly demonstrated the gulf between his party and the Scottish electorate. If Cameron truly believes in the Big Society concept which he has promoted throughout the campaign (albeit without much in the way of definition) then he needs to harness exactly that sort of socially responsible mindset – yet his party still doesn’t get it, still doesn’t see that they are the ones who need to change in Scotland. It is not just a case of waiting patiently until no one remembers Maggie anymore; it is a direct requirement to adapt to the desires and motivations of the people of Scotland.

The fact is that just now small ‘c’ conservative voters are tending to cast their vote for either the Lib Dems or SNP in Scotland, depending upon their geographic location. The Lib Dems of East Dunbartonshire, for example, would not look out of place in the Conservative Party in the South of England, whilst the SNP in the NE of Scotland bears very little resemblance to their party colleagues in Glasgow. Small ‘c’ conservative voters are there but many of them have abandoned the Conservative Party to cast their vote in other directions.

A common suggestion has been that the Conservative Party in Scotland needs to rebrand, to redesign itself and start afresh. This would have been possible – the Conservative resurgence in Wales has been fuelled by their active participation in devolution, reinvention of a strong and proud Welsh identity, and community led campaigning. The Scottish Conservatives had this opportunity – they opposed devolution and electoral reform but those very measures gave them the chance to rebuild from the nightmare of the 97 wipe out. However, they have failed to do this. They have reached a number which seems to be their maximum and minimum, a stagnation which allows for a pretence of success whilst hiding the fact that they are in many ways achieving the bare minimum. Their leader in Scotland, Annabel Goldie, is a popular character, however this popularity is partly rooted in the knowledge that her influence is kept minimal, unable to directly control the country. The chance of using the Scottish Parliament as the jump start that the party needed has been missed and is probably now gone forever.

The reality is that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is not fit for purpose as the vehicle of the centre-right in Scotland. The betrayal of the Thatcher years, the radical departure of the Conservative direction since the 80s, and the effective disdain demonstrated by the party in recent elections towards Scotland have served to sever the connection between the Scottish electorate and the Conservative Party to the point where, although they will continue to attract the support of a certain proportion of the Scottish population, they cannot realistically expect to make any electoral breakthroughs.

Scotland needs a new effective centre-right political movement, unhindered by the toxic legacy of the Conservative Party and freed from the Orange card politics of official Unionist definition. Constitutional politics in Scotland are frequently exaggerated – plenty of people voted for the SNP in 2007 who don’t support independence, and a significant proportion of Labour’s membership and support favour an independent Scotland regardless of the party’s official standing. Therefore regardless of whether the new centre-right party took an official policy of either unionism or nationalism it should avoid defining itself as such – there is little electoral benefit to doing so and, in the context of the centre-right in Scotland, a very strong chance of alienating potential supporters.

A new centre-right party in Scotland could make a valuable contribution to the political scene of the country by questioning the huge size of the public sector and its impact on economic success. It could ironically cut across party lines easier than the current Conservatives can, working with the centrist wings of Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP. If such a party could demonstrate its vibrancy in the slightly sterile environs of Scottish politics, then it could draw in the centre-right support which has drifted from the Tories to the Lib Dems and SNP, potentially finding in that a very effective core vote which could propel it into government at Holyrood.

Currently the other parties refuse to work closely with the Tories at a Scottish level (despite close relationships between all of them at local levels) even when there are natural alliances to be made. A new party could allow partners to avoid this historical baggage, appealing to common sense rather than negative name recognition.

A good example for a new movement would be the Reform Scotland think tank. A centre-right grouping, officially unaligned to any political party, it has quickly propelled itself into the forefront of the Scottish political scene through efficient self-promotion, impressive research publications, and a legitimate expression of the centre-right stream of thought in the Scottish conscious. They have benefited because they are not the Conservative Party and because they are Scottish – this has allowed them to carve a niche for themselves, unchallenged by any rivals.

A centre-right party which derived its motivation from this think tank could be a very vibrant force in Scottish politics, attracting voters unable to bring themselves to vote for the Conservatives and indeed challenging the Conservative Party, which has been shown to offer Scotland very little in recent years.

A new party would need to tie into the stream of Scottish social conscience and responsibility which is a hallmark of our country. In the same way that all US politics tends to be to the right of British politics, a successful Scottish centre-right party would probably be closer to the centre than the UK Conservatives, in some ways more akin to European Christian Democrats. It would certainly believe that there is such a thing as a society – Scotland is underpinned by this very notion – whilst at the same time encouraging and rewarding individual attainment and success.

I believe that such a party could be a success in Scotland. It wouldn’t be overnight – it is remarkably hard for new political movements to make breakthroughs, even in proportional systems – but as it would fill a gap and tie into a strong strand of Scottish culture, both current and historical, it would be of interest and relevance to a potentially large strand of Scottish society. The centre-right is alive and well in Scotland – it is just not voting for the Conservatives.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Election 2010

Well, I certainly chose an exciting period in British politics to stop blogging didn't I!  I must admit I had hit a bit of a disconnected phase in my life, the demands of a new job etc meaning that blogging and the like got put on the back burner.  However, with political debate seeming to be at an all time high in the country just now, I figured it was about time I started to put my money where my (electronic) mouth is.

I have several topics that I would like to blog on and will try and cover them over the next wee while.  However, it would seem logical to start with a brief analysis of the General Election and where the parties now stand.  Of course analysis has been done to death and I know that I will not add anything new to the debate; I do think, however, that this election will have ramifications for the political environment for years to come and it is therefore important to take stock of where we are.

Conservative Party

It has been interesting that to date the only party with talk of backbiting and infighting has been the Tories, the party which has just taken office after 13 years in the political wilderness.  At the end of the day the election was a success for them - they came first by a clear margin in the popular vote; took a big increase of seats; and, crucially, now have David Cameron in office as Prime Minister ready to implement the Conservative manifesto over the coming years.

Of course this success should not be downplayed following the Conservative struggle since 1997.  However, it does contain within it some worrying aspects for the party.  Firstly, this was an election that was in the bag, that was meant to be a landslide of 97 proportions.  With supposedly the worst PM ever in office and the country in financial difficulties, the eloquent young Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition had been confirmed in office months before the election took place, the media falling over each other to debate the scale of Labour's annihilation.  And then the election happened, and it turned out that whilst the public were indeed ready for Labour's time in power to finish, they were not exactly bowled over with what the Tories were offering.  A win is a win and being in power is what matters, but in the end the Tories had to be helped across the finish line by their new BFFs in the Lib Dems rather than romping over it as they had expected.

The Tories' showing in Scotland was also disastrous.  At a time when the country was supposedly ready for ChangeTM (damn you President Obama for making that word so pervasive in our political lexicon!) Scotland indicated that it is still not convinced by the Tory project.  Some of this is the lasting legacy of Thatcherism, however it also reflected the fact that the Conservative Party did not seem to care terribly much about Scotland.  In contrast to Wales, where the Conservative Party has embraced its Welsh identity and is reaping the electoral benefits, the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party remains unfit for purpose, irrelevant across the country.  Indeed, given the circumstances perhaps David Mundell retaining his seat should be treated as a success!

The final aspect of this brief overview is of course that we now have a Con-LD coalition government.  As I will discuss in a minute I think this poses more problems for the LD than for the Tories.  Whilst they would have obviously preferred to govern alone, the fact is that LD in the Cabinet will not drastically alter the Conservative administration's plans and could act as useful fall guys for the difficult decisions that will be made.  Cameron has been able to show his statesmanlike qualities in the arranging of the coalition - if at times the LD have seemed a bit desperate, the Conservatives have in contrast seemed assured.  There will be rumblings beneath the surface and I think that the coalition will be used as ammo for elements of the Conservative Party to attack Cameron - sections were already discussing the idea of replacing him on at least a couple of previous occasions - but in the meantime Prime Minister Cameron has what he wants.

Labour Party

Labour's election ended up being the mirror image of the Conservatives.  It was a failure - after 13 years the Labour Party no longer forms the Government and therefore the election campaign did not succeed.  There are numerous reasons for this, and I will return to them in more depth in a later blog, but essentially the public got fed up of the party in power.  The energy of the first couple of terms in office had fizzled away and it had become a collection of the same old faces.  New ideas seemed in short supply and Gordon Brown as PM had reached a stage where it was virtually impossible for him to do anything right.

Yet, the election didn't turn into the rout that had been widely predicted.  Labour managed to hold a number of very vulnerable seats (and lose a few that shouldn't have been so vulnerable!) and in Scotland saw a dramatic improvement in its fortunes with majorities increasing across much of the country.  Labour's loss was partly down to Gordon Brown's standing, but its achievement of a remarkably small defeat was also testament to his popularity in parts of the country.  The media would have you believe that everyone hates Gordon, subjecting him to a level of vitriol which I don't think any PM has suffered before - and there are indeed strands of the South of England who agreed with this venom, despising him for his beliefs, Scottishness or lack of media polish.  However, it turned out that actually many people in the North of England and Scotland have respect for him and objected to the smear campaign.

Labour also benefited from the fact that this wasn't 1997.  In 97 two elements were at play - the country desperately wanted rid of the Tories, but it also wanted Tony Blair and Labour in power.  In 2010, the country was indeed tired of Labour - 13 years is a long time in power by British standards - but were not convinced by David Cameron or by his protestations that the Conservatives had changed.  Underlying this was the resurgence in Labour's fortunes in local government elections in England - true the party had reached the nadir in recent years, but they did demonstrate that an improvement and fightback was possible and indeed underway.

Labour goes into Opposition now at a time when very difficult decisions will have to be made regardless of who is in power, and knowing that in parts of the country at least the Lib Dems have dealt themselves a very major blow.  It is crucial that the leadership campaign is an open, positive and exciting one, but this has turned out to not be the dark time that many in the party had feared.

Liberal Democrats

The election's biggest winners or biggest losers?  Only time will tell.  Choosing to enter a coalition Government with the Conservatives, ushering David Cameron into power, has given the Lib Dems a role in British political life far beyond their wildest dreams.  It would have been inconceivable until very recently for Nick Clegg to be Deputy PM and his colleagues in Cabinet, or that that they briefly would have been first in the polls.  But the success of the Leaders' Debates (well the first couple anyway) propelled the Lib Dems into a position far beyond their target.

Except of course that it didn't, the media reports of major Lib Dem breakthroughs turning out to be wide of the mark.  I, like many others, was sceptical of the exit poll when it showed the LD doing pretty poorly, but in the end it turned out to be pretty spot on.  It is not to take away from a few Lib Dem successes and also their success in holding seats against the Conservatives, but in the end a loss of a couple of seats, given the context of the election, marks a disappointing result.

In addition they managed to do the impossible and prove the Labour Party right!  Labour campaigns about "Vote Clegg, get Cameron" had been attacked for being negative and unfair, failing to represent the progressive heritage of the Liberal Democrat party.  In the end it turned out that the campaigns were spot on.  Clegg and his colleagues represent the new direction of the Lib Dems, a move away for the centre-left policy of Ashdown, Kennedy and Campbell towards centre-right Orange Book liberalism.  This is obviously a decision that the party itself is happy with; I'm not so sure the public necessarily agree though.  Nick Clegg used the Debates as an opportunity to attack the 'Old Parties', to set out the clear water between the Lib Dems progressive policies on immigration, Trident and the EU.  Now, we are in the sad position of seeing Simon Hughes trying to justify his description of the Conservatives as progressive and radical.  There is a radicalism in the Conservative Party it's true, but is the radicalism which Margaret Thatcher used to reshape Britain.  Now the Lib Dems are part of a Government which is anti-immigration (they will now support the cap they opposed); pro-Trident renewal; anti-Europe and implementing £6billion of immediate cuts (which Nick Clegg had branded as "economic masochism so early in recovery" and that they would "risk pulling out the carpet from under the feet of the British economy").

Will there be a public backlash against the decision?  I think so, but it is not clear how long that would last for.  Needless to say Labour, the SNP and the Greens will blast the Lib Dems over this, reinforcing in the public conscious that the LD are now a party of the centre-right.  There is no doubt that the Tories will happily let the Lib Dems carry the fall out for any popular decisions if they can - any sensible party would.  And in particular the Lib Dems, through Secretary of State for Scotland Danny Alexander, carry the unenviable job of justifying Conservative decisions to a Scottish electorate which firmly rejected those policies.

The biggest loss however is that of introducing a proportional voting system.  This was possible, albeit difficult, with Labour but will never happen with a Conservative administration - they see it as electoral suicide to do so.  AV is not proportional and will not help the Lib Dems make the breakthrough they need - it might even, if there is a lasting backlash, see them punished in a few seats by other parties rallying against them.  It therefore seems that the Lib Dems have sacrificed their long term success and real political reform for the short term attraction of seats in Cabinet.  I don't envy them the decision they had to make - I don't think there was an easy answer and the decision they took was the most straightforward - but I think they may regret it.  On election day the electorate demonstrated that there was a progressive majority of voters, yet ended up with a non-progressive administration.  Perhaps the centre-right is indeed now dominant in the UK - if not, the Lib Dems may suffer for their choice of partners.


The SNP had a terrible election yet may well have been saved by the Lib Dem decision.  Salmond in his bombast had set the party up for a fall - 20 seats always looked wildly optimistic given the nature of Westminster elections and in the end the lack of any increase, coupled with the expected failure to hold Glasgow East, was a major set-back, albeit the vote increased nationally.  In Glasgow the SNP had expected to lose East and it had become apparent that they would not manage to take Central, however the thrashing that they received in both was serious.  Salmond is now on a losing streak - he confidently called Glenrothes, Glasgow NE and 20 seats and has been dramatically wrong in all of them.

Of course there is a tendency at Westminster elections for Scots to view the SNP as an irrelevance and this is doubly the case when the Tories are the favourites to win, with voters returning to the Labour Party as their best defence.  However, the SNP campaign was pretty unconvincing, their more Nats, less Cuts slogan failing to connect with the public.  The Holyrood elections next year are a completely different prospect, however there must be unease in the SNP camp that they will be able to retain power.

The Lib Dem decision to join with the Tories, however, helps to remove one of the biggest threats the SNP faced - namely supporting a  Conservative minority Government.  Now the Lib Dems can carry the blame for Conservative policy, and Labour and the SNP can fight over who defends Scotland the best.  It doesn't have much of a direct impact on seats for Holyrood - the Lib Dems are a relatively peripheral party in the Parliament - however I think it will become the defining drive of the respective election campaigns.


Greens - huge breakthrough in Brighton Pavilion, personally I think it was a great day for British democracy - this wasn't a by-election, but the real deal.  They are already doing the sensible thing of trying to tempt over disillusioned Lib Dems and this could be a successful policy.  Key issue for them is to move beyond just being the few key figures who are elected - Caroline Lucas in England, Patrick Harvie in Scotland - in order to broaden their appeal.

BNP - absolute disaster of an election for them, both nationally and locally.  And it couldn't have happened to a more deserving party.  Hopefully this can be a turning point, with their empty rhetoric of hatred and violence being consigned to the rubbish bin where it belongs.

UKIP - who?  So much for breakthroughs - don't think that was the publicity that Farage had been exactly looking for!

So overall it was a fascinating election leading to a very interesting and exciting period in British politics.  I will aim to get back to regular blogging - I don't claim to have any coherent thought to add, but at this time of debate and discussion it is vital that as many citizens as possible take part in what's going on.