The campaign that I have launched for an independent centre-right party in Northern Ireland is running in parallel to a campaign for a similar scenario in relation to the Scottish Conservative Party. Each campaign has been launched in the wake of electoral failure.
In the General Election which took place a few weeks ago, the Conservative party won just 1 seat in Scotland. It did not gain any from its opponents and its share of the vote hardly changed from 2005.
The problems affecting the Scottish Conservatives and the potential solutions for responding to them were, to some extent, understood by Conservative leaders 3 years ago. In April 2007, Fraser Nelson, writing in the Spectator revealed that the Conservative leadership was seriously considering the idea of setting up an independent Conservative Party for Scotland. Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, supported the idea at the time. Seeing the approaching electoral disaster in Scotland, he repeated his call for a new party in November last year. He said:
“The Cameron effect has not reached Scotland like it has in Wales or the north of England. If the progress in Scotland is as limited as it looks like it might be, we should revisit the idea of creating a Scottish party with its own identity. It would help them break free from the Thatcher years.”
Understanding why the Conservatives find themselves in this position is not a straightforward exercise. From the evidence that I have seen, the decline in Scottish support is not entirely down to what happened under Mrs. Thatcher. History suggests a multiplicity of reasons.
The starting point is 1955 when the Scottish Unionist Party won 51% of the vote and 36 of the 71 seats in Scotland. Their decline, later as part of the Conservative party, came about over many years. The following graph shows Conservative vote share since 1955 in Scotland, England and Wales. Please click the graph to enlarge it.
In 1959, after the General Election of that year, the Scottish Unionist Party became known as the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. By 1965, the party had become fully merged with the Conservative Party of England and Wales. According to Wikepedia, these changes had serious implications for the identity of the party.
Wikepedia goes on to cite the consequences of this merger which include the loss of empire, secularism and ecumenicalism. The clear implication is that the SUP previously benefited from sectarian and factional identity-based support as do parties here today in Northern Ireland. Those affinities continued to be linked with the party, albeit with decreasing strength, during the early part of the troubles, with many Scottish Presbyterians identifying with the Unionists in Northern Ireland. Those links appear to have become extinguished when Mrs. Thatcher signed the Anglo – Irish agreement in 1985.
The Conservatives will obviously be much more concerned about other reasons for the loss of their support base in Scotland. There is a general consensus amongst political commentators that the failure to support Scottish devolution and the implementation of the poll tax, using Scotland as the guinea pigs for implementing the new tax, were key reasons for the decline in Conservative popularity.
Other commentators have advanced more subtle reasons. Jamie Cooke, in his blog, ‘Not a village at Westminster,’ indicates that a large reason for the decline in popularity is the perception that the Conservatives had become the party of self-serving greed replacing an older principle of community loyalty and moral responsibility to the wider society. He said,
“The problem for the Conservatives is that their brand of ‘conservativism’, particularly since Thatcher’s individualistic revolution of the 80s, does appeal to the Scottish conservative tradition. Scottish culture actually lends itself well to many small ‘c’ conservative traditions – self-reliance, the value of hard work, loyalty to the church and state, moral conservativism. Yet it is also infused with a strong tradition of community loyalty and moral responsibility to the wider society. This fitted with the historic Conservative Party, but the link has been lost in the self-serving greed of the Conservatives in recent years.”
Those who previously supported the Conservatives, but no longer do, have transferred their support in almost equal proportions between the Scottish Nationalists, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Whatever the cause of the Conservative decline, there is general agreement that normal campaigning will not regain their previous support. There have been calls to re-brand. Some are calling for the “death” of the Scottish Conservative Party to be replaced by a new Centre-Right Party. Jamie Cooke argues that the party is not fit for purpose.
“The reality is that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is not fit for purpose as the vehicle of the centre-right in Scotland. The betrayal of the Thatcher years, the radical departure of the Conservative direction since the 80s, and the effective disdain demonstrated by the party in recent elections towards Scotland have served to sever the connection between the Scottish electorate and the Conservative Party to the point where, although they will continue to attract the support of a certain proportion of the Scottish population, they cannot realistically expect to make any electoral breakthroughs.”
He calls for a new centre-right party to fill the political vacuum which the Conservatives are not able to.
“Scotland needs a new effective centre-right political movement, unhindered by the toxic legacy of the Conservative Party and freed from the Orange card politics of official Unionist definition. Constitutional politics in Scotland are frequently exaggerated – plenty of people voted for the SNP in 2007 who don’t support independence, and a significant proportion of Labour’s membership and support favour an independent Scotland regardless of the party’s official standing. Therefore regardless of whether the new centre-right party took an official policy of either unionism or nationalism it should avoid defining itself as such – there is little electoral benefit to doing so and, in the context of the centre-right in Scotland, a very strong chance of alienating potential supporters.”
There is already a Centre Right party in existence which would certainly wish for the Scottish Conservatives to fall on their sword. One such movement is the Progressive Action Party.
Tim Montgomerie has renewed his call for the formation of a new Scottish centre right party. All of this leads me to believe that Mr. Cameron will be debating this option very seriously with his colleagues. If I was David Cameron, I would now be opening links with Progressive Action Party to discuss a possible merger with the Scottish Conservatives. Should David Cameron consider a similar plan for Northern Ireland?
There are significant differences between the two sets of problems.
(1) There is no dual nation identity problem in Scotland
(2) To all intents and purposes, Scotland has normal politics and Northern Ireland does not, which is the reason for proposing neutrality on the future of the Union.
(3) In Northern Ireland, unionism is an extremely toxic brand. In Scotland, unionism only seems to work against the Conservatives when it is presented in an over-condescending manner. The Labour Party and the Lib Dems are, after all, unionist parties too.
(4) In Northern Ireland, the extent to which the Conservative brand is toxic is less certain than it is in Scotland.
There is also commonality between the two sets of problems. In both cases, re-branding is a proposed political antidote being advanced as a solution to the problem of toxicity.
That is why I am optimistic that Conservative leaders will take the NI Centre Right proposal very seriously.