We live in strange times. Wind the clock back a quarter century and Scotland was an unsightly pimple on the alabaster edifice of Thatcherism and about to get handbagged by the Sermon on the Mound. To suggest then that the Tory party would voluntarily disintegrate to placate the Scots would have got you certified. Yet that is exactly what Murdo Fraser, leading contender for the poisoned chalice of Tory leadership in Scotland, is advocating.
Now, Murdo is neither daft nor inexperienced—although he may be a little punchy, having, like most of his colleagues, been comprehensively gubbed in every constituency election since the early nineties. But he believes ‘Tory’ “has become a toxic brand” in Scotland, so his solution is “to wind up the Conservative party in Scotland and re-establish it as a new centre-right Scottish party.”
There are two major problems with this logical—and possibly even sensible—proposal:
- It is actually called “The Conservative and Unionist Party”. Ignoring for a moment that the ‘unionist’ bit refers to union with Ireland, there is a real cognitive dissonance about a unionist party splitting to preserve a union.
- Despite the obvious advantage to English Tories in offloading Scotland with its stubborn insistence on sending anyone but Tory MPs to Westminster, there is almost no support, either in Cameron’s cabinet or in the twinset-and-pearls party backbone for ditching us Scots, however intransigent.
This makes the job to which he aspires almost impossibly hard: he either fights his party, dominated as it still is by the harumphing backwoodsmen of the English shires; or he faces a Scotland resurgent with prickliness towards being told what to do or being treated as another region of England—both longstanding Tory habits. When elections were a straight fight between Tory & Labour, the battle was a familiar one to Tories—fought on the same left vs right lines, whether in Bishopbriggs or Bishop Stortford.
But Scottish politics has changed significantly. Voters of all stripes are now happily following Aladair Gray’s dictum: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. For all Tories claim to be the party of business and progress, that mantle sits comfortably on a dominant SNP; Tories are scrambling to find relevance. Their clear ‘right-of centre’ rôle in England finds little relevance in Scotland any more.
It is not simply enough to trace the almost total extinction of Tory MPs in Scotland, from a majority in 1955 to a persistently risible 1 since devolution. The rot is also deep at local level. Trailing as the fifth party in councils (dropping 30 councillors to 143 in 2007—fewer even than independents), Tories verge on irrelevant, with partial control in only three administrations (out of 32). In my own East Lothian, their vote has slipped from a 15,500/28% second place to a 5,300/16% poor third. More telling is that their in-with-the-bricks local radar of councillors had dropped from seven to two.
And it is here, in growing, dynamic areas like East Lothian that Tory shortcomings hit home. Not only are they perceived as an alien party right across the county but they have lost ground in their ‘natural’ support—the 10,000 aspirational residents in new estates across the county; those have gone solidly for the SNP. More than anything, this explains why Murdo’s party keeps on flatlining.
This weekend’s Mori Poll puts the SNP on 49% and the Tories on 12%, which implies that, whatever the course taken, they must do something to escape electoral oblivion.
“I think that what Murdo Fraser is saying is very refreshing. In broad terms, I welcome it.”—Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, once of East Lothian, whose faith in a Scots Tory future might be deduced from his now representing Kensington & Chelsea.
After over a decade in this state, it takes a brave soul to predict a recovery and an even braver soul to prescribe the radical medicine that will pour life into as stiff a cadaver as the Scottish Tories have become. Murdo Fraser may be just that radical soul. But, while some may wait with bated breath for Murdo on the Ormiston Express, my (and, I suspect the smart) money will be going on And Then There Were None.