Murdo Fraser’s announcement last Sunday, that if elected as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, he would disband the party and establish a new, separate, party of the Scottish centre-right, has caused much excitement among political journalists, commentators and activists. The new party would have its own leadership and policies, but sit with the English and Welsh Conservatives at Westminster. There’s news coverage from the BBC here, the Telegraph here, and Scotland on Sunday here. A short article by Fraser is here, and his speech launching his leadership campaign is here. Without doubt this would be a radical step, but it’s also one that has compelling logic. I’ve already made some general observations about party systems in regionalised or federal systems like the UK (below, or HERE). In this post, I am concerned directly with the implications of Fraser’s proposal. It’s worth noting that the other declared leadership candidates, Jackson Carlaw and Ruth Davidson, clearly don’t share Fraser’s approach, as well as some key party funders – so this is far from a done deal, even if Fraser is widely regarded as the front runner in the election.
What Fraser is proposing – two geographically distinct parties occupying much the same political space, and collaborating in state-wide politics but otherwise ploughing their own furrows – is all very reminiscent of Germany. That’s the relationship between the Christian Social Union in Bavaria and its relations with the CDU in the other Länder. While the Sanderson review of the Conservative Party in Scotland (discussed HERE) recommended a distinct Scottish structure and leader for Conservatives, it also recommended that the Conservatives remain a UK-wide party. It considered but rejected the ‘Bavarian’ option, with some care. Fraser’s position is a forceful rejection of the Sanderson recommendations as not going far enough.
Fraser has said clearly that he is aware of how toxic the Conservative ‘brand’ is in Scotland. This is not simply to do with people ‘not liking the awful Tories’, though that’s part of it. Fraser is well aware that survey evidence tells us that Scottish voters have on the whole pretty similar values to those elsewhere in Britain. They may be somewhat more communitarian, compassionate and inclined to support collective welfare provision, but not by much. But the Scottish Conservatives cannot persuade people who are happy to consider voting Conservative in England (or Wales) to vote for them, because of the link with the party down south. David Cameron was able to a significant degree to ‘detoxify’ the party in England when he became leader (see Tim Bale’s excellent book on The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, discussed HERE, for more details), but that didn’t do the party much good in Scotland. The belief that the Conservatives couldn’t win in Scotland becomes self-fulfilling, as voters appear to have decided not to vote for a party which they didn’t consider that it had a good chance of winning. As most of those voters are anti-Labour, first and foremost, their votes have tended to go to the Lib Dems or the SNP.
This is all rather a contrast to Wales, where under Nick Bourne’s leadership the Welsh Conservatives were able to overcome the perception that they were an ‘English’ party, and make themselves a competitive party in many parts of the country. While Labour has attempted to stigmatise them, those efforts have been pretty unconvincing for most of the past ten years. The Conservatives’ wipe-out in both Scotland and Wales at the 1997 Westminster elections (and their weak recovery since) gave the party in both countries considerable room for manoeuvre – when you’ve already lost everything, the advantage is a degree of freedom in deciding what to do next. The party in Wales made greater use of that freedom than in Scotland, and to greater effect, so it could win eight Westminster seats last year as well become the official opposition in Cardiff Bay after this year’s poll. All this, of course, was against the backdrop of the Conservatives having one organisation across England and Wales, supporting the view that it’s not the institutional framework that’s key but how parties are able to communicate what they stand for.
In Scotland, though, the best the Conservatives have seemed to be able to hope for is the sort of position they occupied after the 2007 election – available to give a parliamentary majority to a minority government, but requiring policy concessions in return for their support. The prospect of forming part of a government has seemed completely beyond them, and certainly would be if they were in office in London. It would be very hard for a government including the Conservatives in Scotland to deal with a Conservative one in London, given broad Scottish support for a generous welfare state and the approach of English Conservatives.
Fraser’s move, if it happens, would offer a number of advantages to the Scottish right. They’d be able to contest elections without the associations with the Conservative Party which damage them so much in many Scottish voters’ eyes. Their ideas would be able to compete on their merits rather than be damaged by association with that unpopular Conservative Party. They would also be able to take up positions which might be unpalatable to the Britain-wide Tories, but which would enhance their position in Scottish politics. (The CSU in Bavaria is considerably more welfare-friendly than the CDU as a whole.) They’d also be able to ‘stand up for Scotland’ in a way that only the SNP at present can – Labour, in particular, has yet to find a way of showing that it’s able to do so.
The party most threatened by a separate right-wing party would be the SNP. The SNP’s success in attracting the business and professional communities by some right-ish policies coupled with a general air of competence and an ability to win office has been important for both its fundraising and its performance at the polls. The SNP would face much stiffer competition for that money and those votes if there were a non-Conservative party to its right. Intriguingly, the argument of the only SNP politician to have put their head above the parapet (Joan McAlpine MSP in the Guardian, here) is that they would be the ‘same old Tories’ – a good line for now, though one wonders how the SNP would respond if the new party were to prove itself different.
The change would also mean that the new party would have much greater freedom to negotiate the troubled waters of Scotland’s constitutional debates. It’s clear that the Conservatives’ present position – accepting Calman and the Scotland bill rather – is an internal compromise. Between 2006 and 2010, I heard several times of impending radical ‘major statements’ about constitutional matters from the Conservatives, which turned out to be damp squibs in every case. Whatever traction more radical positions had had was lost when speeches or articles came to be finalised, and many might suspect that was the doing of CCHQ or senior figures from Westminster. A purely Scottish party wouldn’t be subject to such restraints. It would be able to argue a Scottish unionist case, from a position that was unquestionably both Scottish and unionist – something the other unionist parties have struggled to do so far.
There’s some hostility to this proposal on the ground that it would weaken the Union further (see the Telegraph’s leader here, for example). The problem is that that form of the Union no longer exists (so far as it ever did). Scottish politics are now very different to that in England: different parties, different policies, and different ways of appealing to an electorate that prizes different things. It’s been much easier for the SNP to adapt to that system than it has for the unionist parties, and the SNP has reaped the benefit of that. If the unionist parties do not similarly adapt, they run very great risks of being left behind by events.
Murdo Fraser has decided that the rules of the present game are too great a handicap for the Scottish Conservatives. In response, he has decided to change the rules of the game – not tweak the game a bit, or moan, or carry on losing. His goal in changing the rules is to get ahead of the current game line, rather than lurk a long way behind it as the Tories have for many years. It’s a brave move, and if he wins the leadership election it will significantly change the nature of Scottish party politics, and in due course public policy as well.
UPDATE, 12 September: There’s some interesting commercial polling data about the way the Scottish Conservatives are perceived, available on ConHome here. Clearly this underpins Murdo Fraser’s view of the need for a game-changing approach to the party’s problems, as they’re perceived as the party least concerned with Scottish issues.