Scottish Conservatives hope to end siege mentality
Party is banking on promises of greater devolution to halt a 40-year decline
A session of the Scottish parliament, sitting in Glasgow, in 2000. The Conservatives currently hold 15 seats in the parliament. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA
A few hundred Conservatives met in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in March, surrounded by crowd barriers manned by police.
Such security is, unfortunately, the norm for many political conferences in Britain today, particularly one where the prime minister of the day is due to attend.
However, the Edinburgh gathering was striking in one respect: there was not a single sign outside to tell passers-by who was meeting within.
The sense of siege is justified. The Conservatives hold just one of Scotland’s 59 seats in the House of Commons, along with 15 Scottish parliament seats and one Scottish seat in the European Parliament.
Dreadful though the figures are, they mark an improvement in the Conservatives’ fortunes: in 1997 they won not one of the 72 Commons seats then allocated to Scotland.
Newfound beliefNow, however, the Conservatives hope a newfound belief in additional devolution for Scotland offers the prospect that a decline that began 40 years ago can be reversed.
In June, the Conservatives proposed that the Scottish parliament – it is now 15 years since its return after a near- 300-year gap – should get the power to set all of Scotland’s income tax rates and bands.
Currently, the Holyrood parliament can vary the basic income tax rate by 3 per cent up or down, though it has never done so. New powers already agreed would give it more powers next year.
The Conservatives’ new proposals, drafted by House of Lords leader Lord Strathclyde, were met with “incredible” scepticism by colleagues in London but they got through, said Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.
“Having a parliament with the power to spend money but little or no power to raise it and therefore no proper accountability is an inherently unConservative thing to do,” said Tory Murdo Fraser, who represents Perth in the Scottish parliament.
“It makes it a difficult political environment for us. If all you are doing is spending money then you end up in a bidding war with others about how much you are going to spend and you never have to worry about the other side of the equation,” he said.
Three years ago Fraser, during a contest for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, argued that the Conservative brand had become so toxic that it needed to be abandoned.
Instead, he said then, a new Radical Party should rise, offering a home to all those Scots who are conservative but who would never vote Conservative.
History in Scotland indicates that branding is important. The Scottish Unionist Party, nicknamed “the Church of Scotland at prayer” by some, which was Scotland’s most successful party during the 20th century, was formed by a merger of Tories and and Liberal Unionists who had opposed Gladstone’s Irish home rule Bills.
In 1955 the Unionists – whose MPs always took the Conservative whip when they took their seats in the Commons – won 50.1 per cent of the vote and 36 of the 71 seats at Westminster.
By 1965, however, the Unionist Party’s fortunes had begun to fade. In an effort to refresh its identity, the party decided to rename itself the Scottish Conservatives – a disastrous choice.
During the 1980s the party’s fortunes declined further during the years in power of Margaret Thatcher, who was blamed for creating an artificial recession that laid waste to much of Scotland’s industrial heartland.
Sectarian, conservative Unionists were not just Conservative clones. In the 1920s, for example, they backed building 200,000 council houses; though the tenants who got them matched the profile of those who were likely then to vote Conservative.
If voters reject independence, the Conservatives’ plans will allow “us for the first time to get on the right side of the devolution debate, not to be seen as the people who are somehow against Scotland,” Fraser told The Irish Times.
Galvanising effectTightening opinion polls in May had “a galvanising effect” on those who oppose independence, he said.
“Many up to that point were fairly relaxed: they really didn’t feel that they had anything to worry about.
“Then there were headlines saying there is a prospect that the Yes side might win. We found that the numbers volunteering to come out canvassing with us shot up. That kind of wobble had a major impact.”
Some Scots believe promises of more devolution will wither if they vote No in the September 18th referendum on independence, arguing that they will have thrown away their bargaining power, but Fraser rejects the notion.
“What would be the consequences if that happened? There would be a huge backlash against the Unionist parties. There would be a resurgence of support for the SNP and another referendum within a few years, sooner rather than later,” he said.
There is anecdotal evidence that the referendum has opened up significant divisions in small, rural communities where Yes supporters are vocal and those in favour of the union stay silent, he said.
“I haven’t experienced that but I can see why it would happen,” he added.
“If it is a narrow win [for the No side] you can see how that bitterness will get worse. If it a comprehensive victory for No then it will be less.”