The report of the Sanderson commission on the structure, functions and operations of the Scottish Conservative Party was published on Friday. The Commission was chaired by Lord Sanderson of Bowden, former chair of the party and overall grand panjandrum. Building for Scotland: Strengthening the Scottish Conservatives, is available here. There’s news coverage from the Scotsman here and BBC News here.
The Sanderson report is a pretty critical document, though few of the criticisms it makes are new. Many of them – regarding the tainted nature of the Conservative brand, the disengagement of the wider membership, problems in selecting candidates and supporting them and other elected office-holders – could have been made at almost any time in the last 20 or 25 years, and most were. More interesting are the prescriptions for dealing with the party’s problems. The report regularly draws on models from Wales for how the party and its elected representatives should engage with the wider membership. It’s so rare for Wales to be used as a model by any Scottish organisation that this is particularly noteworthy.
The key question, though, is how the Scottish party relates to that in other parts of the UK. Here, they have a number of recommendations: improved liaison between the party in Scotland and at Westminster, a single ‘Scottish leader’, but no change in the constitutional relationship with the UK party, so the Scottish Conservatives would remain an autonomous self-governing part of the UK party. It points out the advantages this offers in terms of resources and overall ‘clout’, and the difficulties that would arise with alternative approaches like the ‘sister party’ relationship of the CDU and CSU in Germany. While the report recommends no formal change, it clearly envisages a more active use of that autonomy by the Scottish party, going so far as to say (p. 26):
We are not troubled by policy difference between the Scottish Conservatives and the UK Party. It is an inevitable and healthy consequence of devolution that there will, from time to time, be a difference of opinion, policy and emphasis between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Scottish Conservatives should not be uncomfortable, after proper discussion and liaison with colleagues in London, to take a different position.
Whether such a prospective ‘agreement to disagree’ would in fact stand up in the face of inevitable political and media pressures if there were real differences on policy is open to question, especially as the institutional framework to address this sort of difference, rather than keep the Scottish and UK ends aware of each other’s thinking and actions, is weak. And this issue may not be an abstract one: the one tangible policy idea the report floats – less than a week before the bill implementing the Calman report is due, which the UK Tories seem to think is the last word on the matter – to call for a ‘comprehensive debate on the issue of fiscal devolution’ (p. 27).
In this context, the position of the ‘Scottish leader’ is likely to become particularly important. This has been treated in media coverage as largely some sort of attack on Annabel Goldie. What the report proposes is that there should be a single identifiable Scottish leader, elected by the membership at large, after a Scottish Parliament election and to serve for the term of that Parliament. That election should be contested (no coronations!), and the candidates need not be MSPs. This certainly wouldn’t guarantee Goldie the job, if she still wanted it after May (by which time she’ll have done the job for 5 1/2 years) . But the recommendation has further-reaching implications than that; it means there would be a leader with real authority of a sort that couldn’t be conferred in any other way. By using the term of the Scottish Parliament as his or her duration of tenure, it implies that the key orientation of the party has shifted to focus Holyrood first and foremost. But with no requirement to be an MSP, there is not just flexibility, but also potential for undermining that link. Moreover, the report emphasises that there should be active associations in every Westminster constituency, not Holyrood ones. How campaigning should be organised and which legislature the party sees as the chief focus of its activities is therefore unclear.