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.