For a party that excites little interest (and much opprobrium) in Scotland the leadership election of the Scottish Tories has become something of a newsworthy event. In 2005 David McLetchie was forced out as leader over his parliamentary taxi bill (a clear refutation to those who say that Scotland is behind English politically: we were at fiddling expenses first). Now, as his successor Annabel Goldie steps down after a poor showing in the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, the front runner, Murdo Fraser, has again thrust the contest into the spotlight by suggesting the Scottish Conservatives should formally split from the rest of the party and rebrand themselves to reinvigorate one of the most moribund political parties in Scotland.
The Scottish Tories’ present malign situation is said to have begun in 1997 when they lost their 11 seats in the Labour landslide, itself the fruit of the perception that the Tories were arrogant about and contemptuous of Scotland. However, the situation is more complicated than that. Since the 1960s, the Conservatives in Scotland have been on a broadly downward trajectory. Until 1965 the party was in fact the Scottish Unionist Party and one effect of this merger has been to “Anglify” the party in the eyes of the Scottish voters. This was not helped by the fact that the Thatcher government was often perceived as cavalier in its treatment of Scots. Scotland has not forgotten that it was the testing ground for poll tax.
Detoxifying the brand, therefore, seems a sensible way to atone for the sins of the past. Cameron managed this effectively in the run up to the 2010 elections, even as much as changing the party’s logo and advocating ‘hug a hoodie’ have been lampooned. But in Scotland the problem is not just perception. In fact, it is of a much more fundamental problem. Quite simply, the Scottish Conservatives are not good politicians.
The 2007 Scottish Parliamentary Elections illustrate this perfectly. In 2007, the Scottish political landscape leveled out with near parity of seats between Labour and the SNP. But, more interestingly, the Tories overtook the Lib Democrats. The idea that the Tories were toxic in Scotland and could never figure prominently in the political process was clearly untrue.
Most importantly, however, the Scottish Tories had a chance to lead the debate in the media on behalf of the opposition. With Labour leaderless and in disarray, a vacuum was left in the opposition for the Tories to fill. But the Tories did not fill it. In fact, four years later they managed to lose seats at the expense of the SNP. And the reason for this stems from their failure in 2007 to take control of the opposition. But the vacuum to be filled was not an issue of policy: it was one of pure politicking.
The central political force in Scottish politics since 2007 has been the SNP; and central to any SNP manifesto is its call for a vote on Scottish independence. The SNP had gained much political mileage out of this: while the other parties rejected a vote, these parties could not give a good enough justification for this rejection. Though the public didn’t care about, or indeed want, independence, the SNP used the issue strategically to portray the other parties as aloof and arrogant, refusing to listen to the voice of the electorate.
Refusing to agree to a referendum was a mistake. The unionist parties should have called SNP’s bluff and agreed to one. Lest they appear to be politicking themselves and waiting for the optimum time for the vote, pressure could have been applied to the SNP to arrange the election quickly. Given that independence has commanded at most 30% of the vote, the SNP would have likely lost the vote and their key policy, the party’s raison d’être, would have become a non-issue. Witness the internecine fighting and declining fortunes of the Bloc Québécois in Canada after losing the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.
In the absence of leadership on this issue from Labour and the Lib Democrats, the Tories could have agreed to support the SNP bid for a vote, maneuvering the Tories into a position where their voice would be listened to in the media. Moreover they would have embarrassed Labour and the Lib Dems, reinforcing the image of them as contemptuous of the electorate’s opinions. Most importantly, for both the Scottish and British Conservatives, they could have rehabilitated their image with the Scottish electorate, making themselves seem less arrogant and more willing to listen to the Scottish electorate. The Banquo’s ghost of the Poll Tax would be exorcised once and for all.
The key challenge for any Scottish leader, therefore, is not one of policy, or of pursuing a scorched-earth policy regarding the party’s image, but rather being able to deal with the formidable political abilities of Alex Salmond. They need less of an Obama, and more of a Machiavelli. But this does not happen because the Scottish Tories, quite simply, are not up to the challenge of taking on the SNP.
The Scottish Parliament has been seen as a great way for the Tories to engage with Scotland and Scottish issues without prompting accusations of imperialism from London. But Holyrood is part of the problem. The best Scottish politicians are quickly snapped up by Westminster. In the current cabinet, some of the biggest beasts are from Scotland. Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith are all Scottish and big players in the cabinet. Even in Conservative intellectual circles the siren-song of London calls: Andrew Neill and Fraser Nelson are two important voices with a distinctly Scottish lilt, both based in London. Yet the SNP’s best politicians stay up North, meaning the quality of the average SNP politician is a cut above the rest. While this Conservative brain drain continues, no amount of rebranding will solve the problems of the Scottish party.