Political Promise

Conservatism in a Cold Climate

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2010 at 2:03 pm

By Carina Elizabeth Lewis

Working for Conservative candidates in several Scottish constituencies prior to the recent general election, neither I nor the team I worked with suspected the dismal results which would take place; in fact, optimism abounded as almost a sixth of Scottish constituencies were designated “target seats”, and the vast majority of activists were confident of Conservative gains in the area, even if only by one or two seats.

Of course, this was not the case; after May 6th only one Scottish Conservative MP returned to Westminster, which some interpreted as a death knell for the party north of the border, a signal that a Conservative-dominated government had no mandate in Scotland. Immediately the rush began: to analyse, to criticise the party’s strategy, to see what improvements could be made to the reputation of Scottish Conservatives. After such optimism, what could have gone wrong?

North of the border, a number of perceptions continue to be held about the Conservative party which deter many potential voters. In many areas, Conservatives are seen as cold and uncaring, an English party concerned with English issues and indifferent to the welfare of the Scottish. Many of these perceptions have their roots in the policies of Margaret Thatcher, whose name continues to be synonymous with evil for many. To give just two examples, Thatcher is accused of hating Scotland and of deliberately attempting to destroy Scottish industry. Of course, these statements are somewhat one-dimensional against a more complex reality: whilst it would be true to say Thatcher was not in agreement with the Socialist culture she saw in parts of Scottish life, she devoted a great deal of attention to the country as a whole and did not disrupt public expenditure levels a great deal. Industry had been in long-term decline before the Thatcher era and suffered more from the global recession of the early 80s and the increase in foreign imports than any government policy. Regardless of the truth behind these myths, however, they continue to be strongly held among large sections of Scottish society.

What, then, can be done to change the public perception of the Conservative Party? In the post-election period a number of solutions have been offered: for example, senior figures have suggested that the Conservative party needs to play a more dominant role in all aspects of political life in Scotland rather than simply focussing their efforts on the election period. Amongst the more concrete action taken, Mike Crow, the party’s media strategist, was sacked soon after the election. Whether this will make any difference, however, is a matter of opinion: as one ex-candidate put it, “To be honest I can tell you there was no media strategy, the Party were obsessed at central office with statistics, number crunching and canvass figures spending huge amounts of money on pestering folk in the middle of their tea or Coronation Street to ask for their voting intention.”.

One of the more radical suggestions is that in order to preserve the future of the Scottish Conservative party, we must look into its past. Prior to 1965, the party was known as the Scottish Unionist party, and enjoyed great success, particularly at the 1931 election in which Scottish Unionists won 79% of the available seats. Some of this success has been attributed to the perception of the Scottish Unionist party as separate from the main UK Conservative party, with a focus on the specific concerns of Scotland. It was also able to appeal to the working classes by emphasising the connection between local industries and the Union. By appealing specifically to Scottish patriotism and working class values, then, the party was able to enjoy electoral success that it has never been able to achieve since merging with the UK Conservative and Unionist party.

Is the answer, then, in a return to the past: a separate party with a separate name to clear the negative perceptions of the past? No one can say for definite how successful a modern-day rebranding of the party would be, however, what is clear is that a radical shake up of strategy is needed to atone for the pitiful performance witnessed at the last general election. Whatever new strategy is adopted, the next test will be the elections to Scottish Parliament next May. These are the results which will be critical- a real indication of whether recent electoral failures were a death knell, or a wakeup call to the Scottish party.

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