Andrew Hills on the political baggage of the Scottish Conservatives and what one member is doing about it
Murdo Fraser, the Member of Scottish Parliament for Mid Scotland and Fife, has recently announced his plans to dissolve the Scottish Conservative Party; news that I am certain will warm the souls of Scots everywhere. But hold the champagne, Mr Salmond, he will create in its place a new centre-right party, one which he hopes will be free from the baggage which haunts David Cameron’s Tories.
It is a drastic solution to an issue that has plagued the party since the Right Honourable Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The Scottish hatred of the Tories stems predominantly from Mrs Thatcher’s attempted overhaul of the Scottish economy, for decades dependant on coal, textiles and metalworking. In the 1980s, all of these industries were making a loss and relied heavily on government subsidies in order to survive; Margaret Thatcher attempted to modernise the economy by cutting these subsidies and allowing failing industries to die. The immediate consequence of this was mass unemployment and very real hardship for millions of Scots. In the first two years of her rule, one in five Scots lost their jobs as countless industrial sites were closed (of the 15 Scottish coal mines in 1980, only two remained by 1990). These issues were compounded by the poll tax and a perceived lack of government aid (although in reality, there were record levels of public investment) and culminated in the Conservatives being regarded as ‘anti-Scottish.’
Perhaps the most enduring criticism of the party is the fact that they are, as they have for decades, ruling with ‘no mandate’ in Scotland. Many feel that Scotland is a nation distinct from the United Kingdom, and one which has elected only a handful of Tory Members of Parliament in recent history; despite their clear disdain for the party, Scotland continues to be governed by the Conservatives. This criticism seems a little misplaced when aimed at the present coalition, who can claim 36% of the Scottish vote in the last election, though of course most of these were for the Liberal Democrats, who are themselves in danger of causing irreparable damage to their reputation.
The Scottish National Party and Labour parties in Scotland have capitalised on this national disdain for the Tories by posing as the ‘defenders of Scottish interests’ in the face of what they portray as a hugely damaging Tory alternative. As a consequence, these two parties have thrived as they have jostled over the loyalty of the anti-Tory majority in Scotland.
Murdo Fraser has claimed that there are many in Scotland who are politically centre-right but, showing off the kind of insight that guarantees success in politics, observed, ‘they don’t vote for the Conservative Party.’ In truth, there is no reliable means of discovering the true number of undercover right wingers in Scotland; any survey that led one to believe Scotland had left-wing tendencies could be the consequence of a pre-existing distrust of the Tories rather than of right-wing politics.
While we can’t know if there is any truth in Fraser’s assertion that ‘Scotland leans to the right after-all’, he is undeniably correct in saying that the Conservatives need to rid themselves of their anti-Scottish image. Fraser’s plans are certainly dramatic but it is far from clear that they will redeem his ailing party. As far as I can tell, the new proposal is based on the premise that once the Scottish centre-right loses the name ‘Conservatives’, all will be forgiven. If he were proposing an overhaul of personnel in the new party, perhaps this claim would be more convincing, but no such revamp has been planned thus far. So it seems as though Murdo Fraser’s ‘brainchild’ is a party with centre-right policies, staffed by former Tories. This leads one to ask, how much is really in a name? David Mundell, Scotland’s only Tory MP, doesn’t think that Fraser’s proposal will erase decades of perceived neglect, saying: ‘I think fundamentally changing the party name is a rather simplistic approach to the issues that we face.’ Perhaps, as the only Tory to have won the hearts and minds of the Scottish people, he knows what he is talking about.
Concerned Scottish Conservatives (all seventeen of you) can take solace in the knowledge that Murdo Fraser is, if nothing else, doing something to restore Scottish faith in the Tories. The efforts of David Cameron were fruitless at best and destructive at worst as the Tories suffered immensely in the 2010 elections in Scotland. Fraser has, if nothing else, realised that something must be done. So an A* for effort Murdo, but time alone will tell if he will succeed in restoring the image of the centre-right in Scotland; all I know is that this new name had better be unbelievable!
Image Credit- Wsdouglas