Political Promise

The Conservative Party Has To Stand Up and Be Counted in Scotland

In Thomas Gibbs on May 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Thomas Gibbs examines the future of the Scottish Conservative Party in the wake of the Scottish election results last week.

Alex Salmond and his motley crew of supporters have won a crushing victory in the recent Scottish elections. The Scottish political balance, at least in terms of Holyrood, looks as one-sided in 2011 as Britain’s did in 1997 or 1983. The Nationalists are rampant.

The hammering, or ‘shellacking’ as Obama would call it, suffered by the two principal opposition parties in Scotland, coupled with the now urgent need to state afresh the case for the Union, offers conservatism the chance to stand once more on the frontline of Scottish politics. However, the road back will be long and arduous. The Conservative party being in government in Westminster is not particularly helpful, especially at a time when difficult economic conditions have forced the Coalition into severe but necessary cuts- the ramifications of which will be felt more in Scotland than elsewhere due to its public sector dependency. The Scottish Conservatives must not be afraid to defend those actions, and make a principled argument for them, while restating in the simplest possible terms their main aim (and arguably the main aim of the party for the last 65 years)- increased social mobility and aspiration. At the same time though, they need to ensure that they show themselves as a devolved party that relishes the business of devolved parliament and administration for their own sake, rather than just Westminster-lite pantomimes.
The easiest solution to the question of how the Tories are to become a mainstream force, in the wake of a thumping SNP victory, would be a rebranding: why does the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party not become simply the Scottish Unionist Party?
By separating itself from the London party, such a move would immediately show that Scottish conservatism does not always have to be the same as Home Counties conservatism, and would help to establish them as the genuine and direct opposition to Alex Salmond’s left of centre Nationalists. SNP vs. SUP has a certain symmetry and simplicity to it, which could appeal to voters, who as the AV referendum proved are still quite keen on a bit of adversarial politics. There is still majority support north of the border for retaining the Union, and rebranded Scots Tories should be trying to ensure that, from the pack of shocked parties reeling from electoral disaster, they are the ones giving voice to this sentiment in the Scottish parliament. The SNP has shown that a ‘one-issue’ party- in their case, a nationalist one- can win power at Holyrood with broad multi-issue support, and the Tories, if they are to become the torch bearers for unionism, could follow their lead.
This is undoubtedly a gamble, but it is not as if the Conservatives start with a strong electoral position to throw away. Only one seat stayed blue in 2010, and that was adjacent to the border, while they only have 15 seats in the devolved assembly. Of course, strong ties would have to be retained between a rebranded and more independent SUP and the Conservative Party in England and Wales. The relationship could be set out in detail in a Party Constitution that would prevent overly dramatic separation in ideas, and whether or not candidates in Westminster elections stood under the banner of the SUP or Conservatives is up for discussion. With the resignation of Annabel Goldie, the chance to seize the day has come. If it is content muddling along on the outskirts of devolved politics, it can pick another safe pair of hands. But an institution with the history of the Conservative Party should be more ambitious. They need to choose a leader who recognises that it is time their party gave Scotland its own voice for aspiration, and its own independent voice for unionism.

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