Thursday 6 October 2011

Does the Tory Party have a Future in Scotland?

That is a future other than stagnating at around 16% of the electorate.  This a question for all the Unionist parties, but is particularly urgent for the Scottish Tories as they are in the middle of a leadership election.  And one of the candidates - Murdo Fraser - has come up with a novel and rather daring solution to the crisis of Toryism in Scotland.  His solution is to disband the current party - The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party - and begin afresh with a new party with a new name.  Alan Trench has written an interesting piece here, showing that this proposal is in tune with developments elsewhere in the world.
There is a lot to be said for this idea, and at the very least shows that some Tories are aware of how much Scotland has changed over the last two or three decades.  Which is more than can be said of either the LibDems or Labour.  However merely changing the name is unlikely to make much of a difference.  If a new centre-right party is to succeed then it needs to accept the key reality of politics in Scotland now.  All opinion polls, not to mention actual votes, confirm that the overwhelming majority of Scots want their politicians and their political parties to put Scotland first.  To stand up for Scotland as it is often popularly expressed.  In the key constitutional question this translates into an expressed demand for the Scottish Parliament to be given substantially more powers, including financial and economic powers.  Indeed most Scots want their Parliament to have more or less full control over taxation.  Instead of a block grant coming from London to Edinburgh, the Scottish Government would send a cheque down to London to cover Scotland’s share of the remaining UK matters - primarily defence, foreign affairs and whatever else was felt to be better dealt with at a UK wide level.
Such a policy change to what is often referred to as fiscal responsibility, should be natural territory for a centre-right party.  It would ensure that future Scottish governments could only promise to spend what they were prepared to raise in taxes.  There would be no-one else to blame.  This is the kind of thing the Tories are always going on about - getting rid of the dependency culture, standing on your two feet, taking responsibility etc.
This policy has the great added advantage of making it clear that the new party is indeed a Scottish party, beholden to no-one else.  The new party could and probably will have clear links with the Conservative party in England and Wales, but it would in fact and in deed be an independent party.  Maintaining the UK would remain a key part of their programme, but the emphasis would clearly be on Scotland.  Since polls show that this is want most Scots want - a more powerful parliament, but remaining within the UK - the new party would for the first time in decades be in tune with majority opinion in Scotland.  
The other advantage that would come from such a policy change is that the new party could expect to attract a lot of popular support for its centre-right policies.  For despite appearances to the contrary, Scotland has historically been a predominantly centre-right country.  The only party to win over 50% of the popular vote in a general election was the old Tory party, way back in the mid 1950s.   There has been a steady decline since then, which became a flood with the rise of Thatcherism which was massively rejected by almost all sections of Scottish opinion.  The final blow came with the rise of the SNP, who were originally dubbed the Tartan Tories by their political opponents.  This would seem to indicate that there is fertile ground for a  centre-right party that is seen to be authentically Scottish and one that puts Scottish interests first.
But herein perhaps lies the rub.  For the current Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party seems to have become reduced to primarily representing those who are more attached to the UK than to Scotland.  It is telling that of the four candidates standing for the leadership, only one, the aforementioned Murdo Fraser, is calling for this radical change in direction.  The party seems to be bitterly divided over this proposal.  The danger for the Tories is that if they reject Murdo Fraser and his vision, they become an even more marginalised party.  A rump of embittered right wing unionists who would deep in their hearts really like to the the Scottish Parliament disappear and all would be well in the world again as in the glory days of Mrs T.  Alas for them, such a Scotland never existed.
Fiscal responsibility is of course, not just a Tory idea.  It has been LibDem policy, or at least some version of it has been.  The LibDems are after all the historic party of Home Rule and are theoretically at least in favour of a Federal UK.  Strangely Fiscal responsibility has never much appealed to the Labour party.  In this Labour too faces the prospect of a slow decline à la Scottish Tories.  They are in serious danger of becoming more and more defined by their visceral opposition to any further change and to maintaining the UK at any cost.
If the Unionist parties are to succeed in persuading a majority of Scots to stay with the UK, then paradoxically they need to become more independent and Scottish first.  Most Scots want their political parties to represent Scotland and not to be primarily branch parties of the UK.  We will shortly find out if the Tories, of all people, have seized their chance to respond to this key dynamic of Scottish politics.

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