Ideas, as a fictitious terrorist once said, are bulletproof. This might be stretching the truth a little, but at the very least they are not easily slain. So long as they appeal to someone’s sentiments or self-interest, no amount of logical dismemberment is enough to put them down for good.
The zombie stalking the discourse today is the suggestion that the Scottish Conservatives should split away from the national party. This zombie has grown no less horrible since Tory members put it in the ground by electing Ruth Davidson ten years ago. So, let’s break out the gasoline and the matches and see if we can’t see it off for good this time.
Boris Johnson has never been popular with the Scottish Conservatives. They perceive him, rightly, as a drag on the party’s vote. Nor have they the same grounds as their comrades in England and Wales to thank him for the 2019 election result, which saw them lose half their hard-won gains from two years before (even if this owed more to Labour’s collapse than anything).
A section of the Scottish party is committed to the idea of a split. No matter that when the idea was put to the members in 2011 by Murdo Fraser, it was decisively rejected. They believe an independent centre-right party would outperform the Tory vote.
They may be right, at least in the short-term. One need only look across the Irish Sea at the hegemonic position until recently enjoyed by the Democratic Unionists to see the dividends that pork-and-bunting unionism, unmoored from national commitments, can deliver. Such a richness of seats, salaries, and other spoils is enough to turn otherwise-level heads.
But in the longer term, a split would turn the Conservatives from a vital pillar of the Union into yet another force slowly eating away at its foundations.
First, there is no consensus on what relationship a separate party should have with the Conservatives. When I questioned Murdo Fraser on this subject in 2011, he said that his new party would be a ‘sister party’ to the national Tories, taking the same whip and with a Scottish MP eligible to be elected Prime Minister by the combined caucus.
Yet in the wake of his defeat, one of his most senior aides described it quite differently:
“‘Not a new version of the Conservatives; not a replacement for the Conservatives; not a club for former Conservative members, but a new party, with new people, advocating new policies. It would be a Scottish party taking the London whip at its own discretion; not a London party cracking the whip in Scotland without knowledge or consideration.’
Setting aside the very SNP tone, who was right? I believe that Murdo Fraser was being straight – if not, he need not have made his controversial plan the centre of his leadership pitch – but at the very least he was rallying to his standard people who wanted a more decisive break.
In fact, that dynamic seems inevitable, given the entire point is to attract people who refuse to join the existing party. Like devolution, a tactical party split looks set to become another version of Tam Dalyell’s famous ‘motorway to Scottish independence’.
Ten years on, this problem hasn’t been solved. If the new party adopts a CDU/CSU relationship, the whole thing will be pointless: voters are clever enough to recognise that the Tories would still be the Tories.
But if they sit separately, they condemn pro-UK voters in Scotland to the fate of those in Northern Ireland, with their representatives sitting impotently with the ‘Others’ rather than playing a full part in government and national life. (Nor would MPs for a separate party be able to play a direct role in bringing down Johnson, as Ross and his colleagues currently can. Just saying.)
Yet setting the practicalities to one side, the blow this would deal to the basic premises of unionism would be even more severe. It would in fact be, as I argued at the time, a wholesale practical, intellectual, and spiritual capitulation to the principles of Scottish nationalism.
Despite what the more radical (or desperate) devolutionaries might want you to believe, the United Kingdom cannot endure without Britishness. Britain has to remain a legitimate community for shared political government, and that has to be embodied in national institutions conducting a national debate.
By breaking away, especially at the behest of the sort of person who views British governance as ‘cracking the whip’, the heirs to the Scottish Tories would find themselves in the dangerous position of asking voters to reject the SNP’s conclusions even as they themselves tacitly conceded the nationalists’ most important and dangerous premises.
The end result could only be, as in Ulster, a slow drifting apart as the centrifugal dynamics of devolution do what they always do, and politicians draped in the Union Jack trade away a functional Union piece by piece in exchange for short-term electoral success.
Has the treatment of Northern Ireland over the past few years been an advert for alienating a part of the UK from the national politics of the UK? Would a Conservative party shorn of its Scottish wing be more sensitive to Scottish concerns than the present one?
Or would it simply provide a handy bogeyman for the ‘nationalist unionists’ to strike poses against as they stick to selling a voters a narrow and essentially mercenary unionism based on fiscal transfers – one which, in the absence of a British nation and thus a British taxpayer, has no long-term future?
Being a part of something important means taking the rough with the smooth, and working to improve our common inheritance rather than stalking out with whatever you can carry.
Conservatives and Unionists owe it to the cause to reconcile themselves to the fact that they share a party and a country with Boris Johnson – if certainly not to his leadership of either.