Alex Massie

Reviving Scottish Conservatism: A Lost Decade?

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A reader asks, not without reason, what I think of the Scottish Tories attempts at a makeover since their wipeout in 1997 and whether, given that I'm generally, broadly speaking, in favour of the reformers when it comes to Project Cameron or Project GOP, I'm also happy with the Scottish Tories softer than softly-softly approach to decontaminating their "brand".

So, not too much to chew on there. The first thing to be wary of is our old friend the Pundit's Fallacy. That is, the erroneous belief that a given political party's electoral prospects would be transformed if only they were sensible enough to tailor their policies to fit my own particular prejudices. Secondly, the extent to which the Scottish Conservatives were despised makes the English Tories' problems look like nothing to get terribly upset about. Thirdly, one should remember that pundits have a bias for "bold" action that is not necessarily shared by the electorate.

Not only did every Scottish Tory MP lose his seat in 1997, but the voters then thoroughly repudiated the Tories in the referendum that approved the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. In other words, the Tory wipeout in Scotland was much more than the rejection of the Thatcher and Major governments. The Tories' opposition to devolution may have been principled, but it doomed them for years. Indeed, a decade on from the first Holyrood elections the Tories still feel the need to say they accept devolution and are determined to make it work.

Not that this has done them huge quantities of good. One MP north of the border and just four elected on the first-past-the-post ballot at Holyrood. Even the optimistic hopes of winning half a dozen seats at the next Westminster election would still leave the party worse off than it was at any point in the Thatcher years.

So has this been a wasted decade for tartan conservatism? It's tempting to conclude that it has and that the recovery - still far from complete - has been much slower than it could or should have been.

Paradoxically, the specific ghastliness of the situation the Tories found themselves in made reform less, not more urgent. Proportional representation ensured that so long as they outpolled the Greens there would be Tories at Holyrood and the party would survive and, once its past sins had been forgiven, had a base from which to rebuild. The Conservatives may have been wiped out at Westminster but they were given a handout by the parliament in Edinburgh they opposed and that many of their supporters actively despised.

Avoiding the threat of total extinction meant that the evolution of a new Tory party could take its time. There was less urgency than you might have expected. The realisation that much of the electorate actively hated the Scottish Conservative & Unionist party left the party stunned and feeling defensive. That feeling persisted for years and even today there's still a slight sense in which the Tories are busy apologising for being, well, Tories.

So one can see why the party chose a measured, cautious approach. In any case, the electorate demanded that they keep quiet for a spell and be properly thankful for the thin gruel handed out at the Holyrood workhouse. Crushing defeat demands a period of reflection before you present yourself to the public for another go.

And, in any case, as I say, PR in Edinburgh gave the party some time to think and just enough numbers to remain quasi-credible. The four party system also helped by ensuring that the Tories were out of the spotlight. This too gave the party room to rethink its approach and re-gird its loins.

Yet one may also fairly argue that the Tories did not make as much of this opportunity as they could have. Far from being a crowded landscape, Scotland's four party (plus Greens and assorted Socialist nutters) system gave the Tories plenty of room to be bold and adventurous.

 

After all, every other party in the parliament shared certain basic assumptions on the role of the state and the wickedness of the market. The Lib Dems often seemed to have abandoned their liberal traditions while the SNP's approach was dirigiste when it wasn't simply contradictory. There's little that need be said about Scottish Labour's capacity for policy innovation, so we shall move on. In other words, there was plenty of deep blue water for the Tories to explore.

Granted, moving right would not have been a path to electoral triumph and might even have seen the Tories reduced to ten MSPs at Holyrood. But, in this particular instance, carrying the country is less important than winning the battle for ideas - even if some of those ideas take time to be accepted. In other words, what was needed was a kind of Tartan Barry Goldwater whose defeats would at least contain the kernel from which future victories might spring.

A Radical Tory agenda might also have appealed to some of those who were so disappointed by the Scottish parliament's performance in its early years. Clearly, tacking to the intellectual right would have been a bold and risky move, but a dozen years of hugging their enemies and wearing sensible shoes has not exactly left the Tories in a position of power. Boasting of screwing £250m out of John Swinney for Tory ideas is all very well and good but, in the end, it's not quite good enough. Is it?

Admittedly, the Tories recovery was not assisted by the fact that the areas in which Holyrood has most responsibility - health, education etc - are not areas in which the Tories are traditionally strong. But that did not mandate the timidity they have shown on, for instance, education. It is quite something - even quite galling - that Michael Gove's plans for reforming schools in England are so very much more radical and enterprising and ambitious than anything the Tories have proposed in Scotland.

Yet education was one area obviously ripe for Tory innovation. Given that none of the other parties are prepared to go into coalition with the Tories - evidence of how, in some respects, the "decontamination" mission has been futile - there would have been less to lose and much to gain by being the intellectual outliers and punching far above their weight rather than, as was too often the case, not punching at all.

As I say, I can understand why the Tories chose to keep quiet for a decade and, in some ways, this was a sensible and perhaps even winning notion but I'm not sure it was the only choice open to the party or necessarily the only one that could have led to even a modest Tory revival.

In other words, it's because the Tories would be excluded from power regardless of their moderation that the grounds for moderation seem weaker (if also, in fairness, attractive to a shell-shocked party) and that, because of this, the Scots Tories found themselves in a rather different position to that faced by their English brethren or the Republican party across the water.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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