The slide towards extinction in Scotland has persuaded the Tories to draw up a blueprint for separation, says Fraser Nelson. The Scottish Tories would split off — and Cameron’s Conservatives would become the English party
For the son of an Aberdonian stockbroker, David Cameron has had an uneasy relationship with Scotland. It is a land of massacred Conservatives, even less hospitable to his party today than it was during the great Tory wipe-out ten years ago. In his visits north of the border, the Tory leader has not so much tried to lead the remaining Scottish Tories to victory, but to check their pulse. In London, there is serious concern that the patient is not responding.
No clear protocols exist for declaring a political party dead, but the Scottish Tories offer a few clues. Some of its candidates, for example, have been campaigning for the Scottish Parliament elections on 3 May using only their own names, knowing that the word ‘Conservative’ is a liability. With only four weeks to go to voting day, the Conservatives have dropped to a mere 11 per cent in the polls. Strip out staff members and their blood relatives, and this is as close as a supposedly national party gets to rock bottom.
It is never difficult to distinguish between Francis Maude and a ray of sunshine, and the party chairman — as ever — is warning against false optimism in Scotland (not much of that about, it must be said). But, I can reveal, he has gone one further. Mr Maude’s officials have been secretly drawing up the outline of a ‘velvet divorce’ with the Scottish Conservatives, 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. However benignly it was presented, such a split would, in effect, mean the final Tory retreat from Scotland, a historic fissure in British Conservatism, and the death of a party defined in many minds by its One Nation Unionism.
But the harder one examines the situation, the clearer it is that there is little left to salvage and little face left to save. As Sir Malcolm Rifkind puts it, being Conservative in his motherland is now seen as ‘something done by consenting adults in private’. The party is no longer hated, as it was in 1997 (when its share of the vote was 18 per cent), nor even pitied, but simply ignored. 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.
Those involved in the secret break-up plan describe it as a win–win situation for Mr Cameron. Should the new Scottish party slide into extinction, then he would not be blamed. In the event that the new movement triggered a centre-right revival in Scotland, and started sending MPs to Westminster, they would sit and vote with the Tories. And — in strict historical fact — the proposal is not, in fact, a betrayal of Conservative heritage at all, but implies a return to the pre-1965 arrangement when the Scottish division of the party was independent and its candidates stood as Scottish Unionists, who voted as a bloc in Westminster.
As the present Tory marriage is only 42 years old, there is a good chance of a quickie divorce. The Scottish Conservatives are already operationally and financially independent; all that unites them with the London-based party is the brand-name, which would change, and the leader — Mr Cameron — who would abdicate his Scottish throne. The new party may call itself the Unionists, and its prospective members have been discreetly mulling a range of options for years. ‘We should call ourselves the Effing Tories,’ an MSP once told me. ‘That’s how they refer to us in Scotland.’
In spite of the upbeat claims, the plan, if enacted, would be Mr Cameron’s first real defeat as party leader. His predecessors always said that the Conservatives did not deserve power in Westminster unless they could revive in Scotland; a claim Mr Cameron has been careful not to repeat. But, as his aides argue, it is not a matter of recovery for Scottish Toryism now, but of resurrection. The task is simply beyond earthly powers.
Mr Cameron asked David Mundell, the party’s sole Scottish MP, to prepare a memo on the situation in June last year. The reply was bleak. There is a ‘simple lack of thinkers’ in Scotland, the shadow Scotland secretary said. ‘There are more obvious problems than solutions emanating from Scotland from a party point of view.’ In other words: if the Scottish Tory party were a horse, it would be shot. Or, more diplomatically, rebadged and cut adrift, with every good wish from Notting Hill.
All this could not contrast more sharply with the bullish rhetoric you will hear from shadow Cabinet members as they campaign in Scotland, offering full backing to a team they are planning to orphan. This is why they will vigorously and predictably deny any plan to split the party. But well-placed sources, on both sides of the border, say that a ‘name change’ (the preferred euphemism for formal separation) is already being discussed at high levels, and is likely before Christmas. Crucially, Lord Laidlaw, who effectively bankrolls the Scottish party, is said to have reluctantly given his consent.
The 3 May elections will by no means be all bad news for Mr Cameron. Conservatives are likely to do well in the 312 English councils being contested. The Welsh Conservatives are looking perky (and, therefore, are in no danger of being evicted from the mainstream Tory fold). Even in Scotland, the dire state of the Tories is at least sweetened for Mr Cameron by the anti-Labour mood sweeping the governing party’s heartlands — and Mr Brown’s old campaign tricks are demonstrably failing. The Scottish National Party is leading every poll.
Yet, for all this, support for independence — as distinct from SNP support — is no greater than it was a decade ago. This is not about breaking up the Union. As so often, the Scottish voter is longing to give authority a slap — but this time authority is wearing a red, rather than a blue, lapel. The second-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, can hardly profit from anti-Labour sentiment after having been in coalition with them for eight years. The Scottish Tories are a danger only to themselves. The SNP vote is being almost entirely powered by an anti-Labour whirlwind.
The other storm rising is that of English nationalism, which may well start to power the wind turbines of the newly branded English Conservatives. This is the second aspect to the split. Just as devolution has accentuated Scottishness, English sentiment is also on the rise — most visibly during the World Cup last year, when fans universally adopted the St George’s cross rather than the Union flag. And — as Mr Blair knows — today’s football trend is tomorrow’s political movement.
In particular, there is growing resentment about the role of Scottish MPs. Why, for example, should they have been the decisive factor in the vote to raise university tuition fees in England three years ago when the Scottish Parliament has used its slush fund to ensure Scottish universities have no up-front charges at all? In a few months’ time, there may be an even greater provocation to English sensitivities in the form of a Scottish prime minister with a Scottish constituency. Mr Brown will be the living embodiment of the infamous West Lothian question: why should Scottish MPs decide issues for England that do not affect their own constituents? There is also the small issue of the £11 billion subsidy Mr Brown already ships each year to Scotland. New analysis by The Spectator shows that this represents an annual levy of £450 from each English taxpayer.
For years, such issues were only rarely raised in Westminster, a
s all parties had votes to lose in Scotland. But freed from such electoral constraints, the new English Conservative party would have a field day exploring the constitutional and financial imbalances bequeathed by devolution. Why do Scots enjoy Scandinavian levels of public spending? Why should Scottish MPs vote for foundation hospitals for England when the Scottish Labour party has rejected it as a dangerous idea for Scotland?
Another scenario may very well present itself: that Mr Brown goes into coalition with Sir Menzies Campbell after the next general election. Here are two MPs from Fife who were first in coalition when they went hillwalking in Scotland together in the 1980s in the wonderfully named Radical Ramblers club. The idea of them reunited, discussing England’s governance on the aircraft back from their Scottish constituencies, is one which would infuriate voters.
The new English Conservative party would not need to blow any dog-whistles: Mr Cameron would be only too happy to pose as a St George tilting at the Lib–Lab dragon. As the Conservatives won the most votes in England in the 2005 general election (a fact it mentions far too seldom) they can reasonably expect to have the most seats in England. If Messrs Brown & Campbell used their Scottish MPs to block a party with a clear mandate for England, there would be outrage south of the border, and rightly so.
Strategically, therefore, the secret plan for a Conservative party split has much to recommend it. The break-up, if it happens, would be tactically humiliating. Mr Brown would crow — and claim that he, alone, now champions ‘Britishness’. But Mr Cameron may judge that Mr Brown is welcome to do so — and that the smarter money now lies in the post-devolution game of commanding English politics.
Yet, for all the advantages, it would remain a tough and emotional decision for many Conservatives. George Osborne was asked about this privately just after the last election. As shadow Chancellor, he said he saw the tactical advantage in jettisoning the Scottish wing of the party. But there is something quintessentially British about the Conservatives, he explained. As guardian of the Union, it would stay intact just as it has for years fought to keep the United Kingdom intact.
Many think as he does. ‘A name change would not help the Scottish party any more than changing its logo to a bloody tree has helped,’ says one former Cabinet member. Mr Cameron would be mocked for his failure to reach beyond his own metropolitan heartlands. Hiving off the tough parts of Britain is no way to win an election, it would be argued. And the Tory party in Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle cannot be jettisoned so easily.
This is why Mr Cameron must tread carefully. He can argue, with technical accuracy, that the Scot-free Tories would be no less British than they were under Churchill. But he cannot be seen to be cutting the Scots adrift against their wishes. This divorce can only work if it is amicable, and must ideally be presented as the idea of the Scottish Tories (even if it is no such thing). This may take some doing. At present, their official line is that any split from the UK party is ‘complete nonsense’ and suggestions to the contrary are wicked rumours spread by nationalists.
But the idea is increasingly popular with the party’s grassroots. Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential ConservativeHome website, describes the split as an obvious solution to an intractable problem. ‘With independence, a new name and new personnel, the Scottish Conservatives can break free in one leap,’ he says. ‘They will no longer be seen as stooges of a London establishment.’ And if, after this leap, the new Scottish party ends up in oblivion — well, it will be no fault of David Cameron’s.
The Scottish Parliament was designed to ensnare and kill off the Scottish Nationalists, yet the Scottish Tories now look likely be the first casualty. If Mr Cameron proceeds with the split, he will be taking a big gamble that the party’s new English identity will be more robust and focused than the faltering British version. He will be calculating that the party is, after all, stronger apart than together —and that a Tory election victory in 2009 or 2010 will be a suitable requiem for the British Conservative party.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 7, 2007