Four years ago the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson ran an essay on plans for a “velvet divorce” in the Conservative party, “which would give the Scottish Tories a new name, a distinct identity, and make the Conservatives officially as well as in practice a party exclusively devoted to seeking power in England and Wales.”
The article was full of exquisite detail about the depths to which Conservatives saw themselves as having sunk. David Cameron was said to have gone north in search of the parties pulse, and found the patient was not responding. Nelson reported Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s view that “being Conservative in his motherland is now seen as ‘something done by consenting adults in private’. … Voting Tory is seen as a harmless perversion, like Morris dancing or cricket. A despised party could at least repent. But there is no hope for a forgotten party.”
It is this analysis that has led Murdo Fraser, the leading contender to win control of the Conservatives in Scotland, to propose disbanding the party and the creation of new right of centre, unionist banner. Mr Fraser believes that the Conservative brand has become so damaged, so loathed, that no new leader will be able to get voters to change their minds about what the party stands for. This genuinely radical conclusion, which would leave the Prime Minister with no party apparatus, and no capacity to campaign in Scotland, has injected rare controversy, and indeed strategy, into the leadership race which was otherwise unlikely to raise an eyebrow.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, which got the scoop on Mr Murdo’s plans:
“In an electoral pact with the Conservatives, successful Scottish MPs of the new party would then take the Conservative whip in the Commons and be eligible for ministerial posts in any Conservative government. The arrangement would be similar to that which has operated in Germany for many years between the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria.”
The influential Fraser Nelson and the Spectator are supportive of this move on the grounds that “Scottish Conservative has, alas, become an oxymoron. Murdo Fraser is right: it’s time to start again.” Francis Maude is also reported to be in favour. Michael Forsyth (Lord Forsyth of Drumlean), who was the Scottish Secretary from 1995 to 1997, meanwhile is scathing:
“I think it is naive and simplistic in the extreme to think that changing the name of the party and cutting it adrift from the rest of the Conservative Party could somehow bring electoral success. In fact, electoral success is delivered by having credible policies. I think the strategy is one of appeasement of the nationalists and I think it is one that will fail. Any policy which appeases nationalists is damaging to the union by definition.”
It is going to be interesting to see who is right. My own view is that there are many more people in Scotland with “conservative” values than there are voters of the Conservative party. The Labour party in Scotland has always targeted socially conservative “working families”, and the SNP has successfully attracted votes from countryside conservatives in the north-east. Of course, being conservative does not equal being Conservative but neither do the differences in social attitudes in Scotland explain the inability of the political centre-right to reinvent itself. There are many areas of voters’ emotional and value laden cores that a competent party of conservative values could compete for in Scotland, where the political discourse is focused on conserving a national way of life, including political and social privileges, in the face of relative economic decline.
However, there is such a distrust of political Conservatives that Conservatism has come to be seen as anti-Scottish, or incompatible with Scottishness, in both profound and superficial ways. Such is this backdrop that anyone associated with the party is taken to believe and not to believe in certain things whatever they say or do to the contrary. In other words, this prejudgement of Conservatives fatally undermines their credibility before they have even opened their mouth.
With Labour’s Scottish hegemony well and truly over and the SNP’s political raison d’être looking more and more unclear there is room for change in Scottish politics. If Murdo Fraser wins, proves a competent leader and finds a way of separating his policy voice from the England’s Tories, I predict that their performance can only improve in future polls.