Andrew Willshire

Should the Scottish Tories join forces with the Lib Dems?

Should the Scottish Tories join forces with the Lib Dems?
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Scottish politics is stuck. As with Brexit across the wider United Kingdom, the 2014 independence referendum has permanently shifted attitudes of the majority of the population into Yes/No camps, with little room for compromise. The SNP government stumbles from one crisis of service delivery to another yet continues to consistently poll around 40 per cent. In first-past-the-post Westminster elections, this is sufficient to return a clear majority of MPs, and probably to still be returned as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament in the scheduled 2021 election.

The problem for Scotland is that the SNP believe this to be a mandate to speak “for Scotland” in broader constitutional matters, like Brexit. Fair enough, you might say. After all, only 38 per cent of Scots voted for Brexit. But those two fifths should still be represented.

The great disadvantage for the unionist voter is that the three UK-wide parties are all chasing their vote, but none of them are currently very convincing. In the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, Ruth Davidson’s most effective ploy was to establish the Scottish Conservative Party as the dominant Unionist voice in Scotland. She was assisted in this by the habit of SNP politicians defining the Conservatives as their principal enemy but also by the invidious position of the Scottish Labour party.

A large proportion of the once solid Labour block vote from Scotland’s Central Belt, particularly in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Dundee, has moved into the SNP/Independence camp with little sign of them returning. This is partially because Nicola Sturgeon has moved the party much further to the left, at least rhetorically, than would have been possible under Alex Salmond. The SNP was also able to attack Labour for having jointly campaigned with the hated Tories in the Better Together movement. There are plenty of votes in Scotland for whoever makes the best job of publicly hating Tories, and currently that’s the Nationalists. This culminated in the recent European Elections where Labour came fifth in the poll, with less than ten per cent of the vote.

What's more, all three Scottish unionist parties have been shafted by their Westminster counterparts in recent months. Clearly Ruth Davidson struggled with Boris Johnson winning the leadership and with the “no-deal-if-necessary” policy that came with him. With the arrival of her son, she decided that she was no longer to make the sacrifices the job entailed, depriving the Tories of one of their most valuable electoral assets. But “no-deal” was always going to be a hard sell in Scotland, and the SNP’s repeated lament that “Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against its will” would have gained additional teeth in such circumstances. It is also arguable that the Tories hit their electoral ceiling in 2017 with 28 per cent of the vote and would struggle to make further gains in a country where Thatcher’s legacy still looms. Even some of the Union's most prominent supporters will say that they have never voted Tory, despite their admiration for Ruth Davidson. The historical and current baggage of the Conservative party is a millstone round the neck of the pro-Union campaign.

Meanwhile Corbyn and McDonnell have plainly realised that they are not going to get into government with 35+ Scottish Labour MPs as every Labour government since 1923 has done. Instead they have elected to rely on the anti-Tory block vote on the SNP benches in order to govern England, with a second Scottish independence referendum dangled as the carrot. (Although how they would govern if the Scottish MPs did end up exiting the House of Commons is far from clear.) While stopping short of any formal coalition, Labour are calculating that the prospect of the SNP voting with the Tories on almost any issue is negligible, particularly with most domestic policy areas being devolved to Holyrood.

And then just last week, Jo Swinson announced that the Lib Dem Brexit policy is to revoke Article 50 without a further referendum provided that a majority of Westminster MPs were elected on that platform. Given that the SNP returned 35 out of 59 Scottish MPs in 2017 and a colossal 56 in 2015, this is catnip to the SNP faithful. There had already been calls from within the nationalist camp to change their manifesto to something similar. It must be obvious that the Scottish Lib Dems cannot support such a policy on Brexit while credibly opposing the SNP offering a similar policy. The backup policy of holding a second referendum on Brexit while denying one to the SNP isn’t much better.

With the unionist parties so riven, the SNP will continue to exploit its “blocking minority”. The ruling party is too weak to deliver on its signature (some would say only) policy, but too strong to be easily removed from office.

The most feasible solution would be for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to fold into a new Unionist party, possibly welcoming moderate Labour defectors as well. In fact, one of the Scottish Tories’ most senior figures has made noises in this direction. In a recent article for the Scottish Mail on Sunday, Professor Adam Tomkins suggested that a Better Together-style party was needed – possibly the “Scottish Liberal Unionists” or “Enlightenment”.

Intriguingly, he suggested that the party would only exist for the purposes of Holyrood and council elections, which would allow Scottish MPs to be cabinet ministers in a future Westminster government. This would avoid the obvious problem of ending up like the Scottish equivalent of the DUP, but would bring its own issues, for example, the SNP might still return the majority of Scottish MPs to Westminster, to vote principally on issues that don’t affect Scots. The answer to that might be some sort of electoral pact in Westminster constituencies.

There is bound to be opposition to this move from within the Scottish Conservatives. Indeed Ruth Davidson was elected as leader in 2011 in opposition to Murdo Fraser, who had proposed something similar at the time. The current interim leader, Jackson Carlaw, has also voiced his opposition to the plans.

However it is clear that something needs to change in Scottish politics – and soon. The fixation of the SNP on independence is at the expense of schools, policing, transport and health, all of which are declining under the current government. Scotland deserves better and it is the duty of the opposition parties to work out how to provide it.