Friday, 13 August 2010

The Scottish Conservative Party should not be made 'independent'.

Any vaguely unionist Conservative will be familiar with the plight of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party. Since a heydey in the middle of the last century as a strange coalition of Scottish political parties led by the Unionists, it merged with the southern party in the sixties and has declined since, with a total collapse at the end of the last Conservative administration* leading it to its presently parlous state of being Scotland's fourth party.

This sorry tale has clearly done serious damage to the psychology of Scottish Conservatives. Some, such as the blog New Right (whose Europhilia I share) are advocates of fiscal autonomy for Scotland. Other times, a story of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party calling for an expensive memorial centre to be built on the site of some rebel victory will filter through. There are signs that the Conservatives north of the border are trying to ape some SNP stances, or at least appeal to their electorate. And then, in the wake of an election where Scotland again swung towards an unpopular incumbent, the likes of Norman Tebbit again bring up the idea of making the Scottish party independent.** As a Conservative but especially as a Unionist, I think this would be a very bad idea.

Firstly, there's the fact that those who simply wish to 'undo' the merger tend to have misunderstood the state of the Scottish political right before it. I read somewhere that the 'Scottish Progressive & Unionist Party' should be refounded - no such party ever existed. The right in Scotland during the mid-century heydey was a coalition of the soft-protestant Unionist Party and a motley assortment of people who used labels such as National Liberal, Liberal Unionist and yes, Progressive. This state of affairs was the product of decades of political evolution north of the border to say the least - it cannot simply be reconstructed by severing links with the Scottish party.

Assuming then that the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party became independent as a single party, how would it then relate to the Conservative Party? The Conservative Party would even more than now be viewed as a 'strictly English' political party, and when making cuts would be deeply unpopular in Scotland. The new party - who after all have been created solely to boost their electoral fortunes - would have precious little reason to be loyal to the London Conservative government.

Indeed, much might be gained by beginning to score political points off it. Assuming for a moment that the party's stance on unionism did not continue to soften into non-existence, it is not hard to envisage this Scottish party evolving along the lines of the 'Little Ulster' unionists in Northern Ireland. A centre-right 'Little Scot' party that 'defends Scotland' from London as strongly as it fights the SNP might well be more popular than the current Scottish Conservatives, but is it really one the Conservative Party should be in the business of creating? Given the noises that intermittently come out of the Scottish Party, it is perhaps expecting a miracle for an independent party to remain (if that is even the right word, perhaps 'become') a vociferous champion of integrated unionism north of the border. And in my view, the Scottish electorate deserve such an option.

And finally, what would an independent Scottish party mean for the Conservatives - especially under Cameron? In one of his most admirable strains of political consistency, Cameron has shown himself to be the most enthusiastic unionist to take the helm of the Conservative Party in a long time. He has taken a big risk in attempting (and continuing to attempt in the face of setbacks) to establish the Conservative & Unionist Party as a pan-UK party, including rebuilding links with what was once the Conservative Party surrogate in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party. Is he seriously willing to countenance undoing all that at a stroke by confining the Conservatives to England, Wales and Northern Ireland? It seems ridiculous. Experience with the UUP is also telling - I for one would not consider creating a Scottish UUP-equivalent an attractive proposal for restoring the fortunes of post-1997 Scottish conservatism.

In a way, it again reinforces the consistent theme I have noticed that unionists are veritable Picassos of pessimism. After our defeat in 1997 even O'Neill is saying that the Conservatives "are never going to be again the second, never mind first, party in Scotland". Why not? In the 1950s, when the Liberals had 5 MPs, I don't suppose any of them thought they'd be in government again. Like the Scottish Conservatives, many of them remembered a bygone golden age. But they persevered, and continued to hold true (ish) to their beliefs. What is it about having 5 Liberal MPs in an age when 97% of the population vote Labour/Tory in an FPTP system that is so much more inspirational than being the fourth party (although not by much) in a more proportional electoral system? Nothing I can see, unless you accept the much-pushed 'Thatcher killed the Scottish Conservatives' mantra.

Unionists should buck up and learn to believe in themselves and their cause. And the Conservative & Unionist Party should remain the pan-union party it has so recently started to again become.

*This 'It Was Thatcher' interpretation has gained wide currency but seems to overlook the fact that in the 1992 election Scotland swung towards the Conservative Party, and the Tories became the second-largest party north of the border.

**I would normally at this point furnish links, but typing 'Norman Tebbit Scottish Conservatives' into Google provides a cornucopia of material.


  1. In 1992 our vote went up 'cos we chucked her out ...

    But as to your argument.

    Frankly you are arguing for a maintainance of the status-quo; which isn't an option anymore.

    If 1997 was the weakup call, 2010 was our death on the slab. Reform is the only way to save Scottish Conservatism from oblivion.

    Look back at the years before the merger, one of our unique characteristics was being percieved as being nationalists for Scotland. Today we are seen as apologists for English Tories.

    But over and above that, our policies are weak. We advocate retribution justice [despite Cameron taking a different view for England and Wales], we oppose alcohol pricing [again, despite Cameron's alternative view]. We are lead by a mediocre and frankly temporary care-taker in Goldie, and there are no bright stars to replace her...

    if we are defeatists, there are plenty of damn good reasons.

    Little or no policy imagination, opposing the Cameron reforms to the broad policy and tone of our party, we are little changed from 1980s and early 1990s. But the electorate has changed.

    If accepting fiscal autonomy, and ending the merger can save us [the Unionist voice] then it isn't be be balked at.

  2. Fiscal autonomy is scarcely unionism worth the name, its the same sort of Northern Irish DUP particularist 'Unionism' that has them clinging to the block grant.

    The Conservative vote is not far behind the LibDem or SNP vote in numbers terms. If the leadership is weak, ditch it. But cutting off from the main party to become ultra-devolutionists isn't in the interests of the Conservative & Unionist Party. If you want to found such a party go and found it - don't try to take Conservative & Unionist resources to do it.

  3. Dilettante,

    I find that comment truly surprising. How on earth can you claim that devolution isn't compatible with unionism? Unionism equates to a union between Scotland and England, devolution doesn't detract from that - indeed localism, communitarianism and decentralisation are at the heart of the Conservative & Unionist movement you claim to love so much.

  4. Nationalism is not. I am fine with devolving power to county councils, towns and individual citizens - but making power and nations coterminous serves to aid the breakup of the UK. Cosmopolitan unionism should be aiming for a future where nations have withered away, not entrenching nations in the constitution. Sufficient devolution renders the Union nothing more than a pretty flag and a memory.

  5. Dilettante,

    The way to destroy nationalism is through the EU and its supernationalism. The Scottish people having a parliament is neither here nor there.

  6. The Scottish people having a parliament is a nationalist triumph - of course it is. It is the practical outcome of the belief that power and nations should be coterminous. The EU is a long way from any meaningful position of statehood and even further from beginning to come 'first' in people's minds as the state they identify with. The Union is presently in this position and is undermined by nationalist triumphs such as devolution.

    The UK is and should remain a unitary state - arguing that Scotland should be fiscally autonomous is an implicit if not outright explicit acceptance of nationalist logic.

  7. The UK has never been a unitary state. Since the union of 1707 we have had our own education and legal systems. The add on since then other differences even before devolution such as the administrative separation of the Scottish health service from that of England and Wales with its own bureaucracy. I know - I worked in it.

    The law in the UK has never been "unitary". For a start even before devolution Scotland had a different law of murder - the law itself has roots in a ruling in 1601. A unitary state would have a unitary court system. Never has been. The House of Lords had no criminal jurisdiction in Scotland due to the Scottish Parliament pre-1707 being stripped of most of its criminal jurisdiction by reforms enacted by James V. Today the UK Supreme Court still has no criminal jurisdiction in Scotland beyond cases where the European Convention of Human Rights is involved.

    I lived in Manchester for a while and was quite shocked about the level of ignorance about the differences in Scotland.

  8. Concerning the fate of the Scottish Tories, here is my suggestion/analogy of the dealing of a right-wing toxic brand in Canada---

    "a story of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party calling for an expensive memorial centre to be built on the site of some rebel victory will filter through."

    I take it that you are referring to Murdo Fraser calling for a new centre at Bannockburn. Bannockburn was not a "rebel victory" but a battle to preserve the Scottish nation. Even 99% of Scottish Tories would find calling Bannockburn a "rebel victory" insulting.

    You would not refer to the Liberation of Paris as a "rebel victory" would you?

    Concerning the granting of home rule to Scotland, thankfully it happened despite opposition from both within the Tories and until the late 1980's within the Labour Party. And it was gained without even a broken nail - compare and contrast to the stubborn attitude towards Irish home rule and the problems it caused. Even Simon Heffer in "Nor shall my sword" acknowledged that London should have listend to Parnell in hindsight.

    Concerning the Tory fortunes in Scotland - in 1992 Major went around claiming the SNP were on the cusp of victory and of course he was more palatable than the Bogey Woman as Dean rightly pointed out. He seemed to point the way back to the old paternalist Toryism.

    Then his government chucked it away with the proposed gerrymandered reforms of local government in Scotland - preserving Tory strongholds and proposing non-contiguous local government boundaries (merger of Clackmannan and Falkirk whilst excluding Tory friendly Stirling) of hostile areas.

    And of course another factor in 1992 alluded to by Andrew Marr in his 1993 book "The Battle for Scotland". That the Tory vote had been boosted by the many English "white settlers" (I hate that term) who came to Scotland to escape the 1990's recession. But the term is better than "Guffer/Guffie")

  9. Right, what I can read from this:

    - I didn't know that the battle in question was Bannockburn. Although you are entirely right in saying this was not a 'rebel' battle (apologies), it is nonetheless not something I think the Scottish Conservatives should be giving prominence too. "Look, we socked it to the English there!" isn't something unionists should be encouraging.

    - So we are clear before this causes more confusion, I would not have given Ireland independence. I'd have been one of the Liberals or Peelites who fought for Catholic emancipation back when Catholics simply weren't fussed about the union, but I would not have given Ireland independence - in the face of armed revolt or not.

    My position on the Scottish parliament is that in an ideal world it would be undone, but even if not going that far Conservative & Unionist Party members should be making as integrationist a case as they can.

    - Yeah, Major's government was a bit of a disaster, but even your argument admits that a genuine return to patrician, one-nation Conservatism could yield results.

    - Your definition of unitary is mistaken. The UK is still, technically, a unitary state - as central government is supreme, unlike in a federal nation where even the theoretical powers of the central government are limited by the absolute rights of the states. England and Scotland having different law, lamentable though that was, doesn't stop the UK being unitary.

    On a final note, I have Scottish relatives and am well aware of the fact of Scottish difference in legal matters - please do not imply I am ignorant (or impugn my city!).

    Nice to have comments though!

  10. Dilettante,

    "but even your argument admits that a genuine return to patrician, one-nation Conservatism could yield results"

    Absolutely it can. But then, I would say that eh? lol.

    A critical factor is moderating the party in Holyrood At the moment I feel we are represented by bed blockers, who are preventing the chance for newbie to rise through. And our policies need re-launched, and in regards to our prisons and minimum pricing polcies brought into line with Cameron and the modernisers in England.

    As for a unitary UK, I worry. Unitarists tried and failed in the first Yugoslavia; though I accept this isn't a perfect comparison.

    My point is merely, that we urgently need to keep in mind that unionism must reflect the popular views of the Scots mainstream. It is important for it not to become a fringe viewpoint.

  11. The Aberdonian,

    "I take it that you are referring to Murdo Fraser calling for a new centre at Bannockburn. Bannockburn was not a "rebel victory" but a battle to preserve the Scottish nation. Even 99% of Scottish Tories would find calling Bannockburn a "rebel victory" insulting."

    I'd be one of the 99%! LOL

  12. We'll avoid discussing Bannockburn I think - a conversation for another time. Suffice to say, I used the phrase 'rebel victory' thinking it was some later battle - but I would be one of the "1%". Regardless, I don't think that calling for big commemorations of Scottish victories over England is something a unionist party should be doing.

    Dean - I have no problem with One Nation Conservatism (I thought I was countering The Aberdonian, hence the combative tone) - and I think it would be a fine position for the Scottish party to take. What I don't want to see is an independent scottish party going off the rails and fermenting particularism i.e. your fiscal independence proposal. The Conservative & Unionist Party, of all parties, should promote and defend the integrity of the union.

  13. When dealing with the English in general there does tend to be ignorance on Scottish affairs unless there is a personal link. It is not unique to Manchester.

    The blame lies squarely with the media. When living in Manchester there might as well have been a glass plate across the border which blocked news going south but miraculously did not stop news of what was going on in England north. Ditto I am sure there is such a "glass plate" across Offa's Dyke. Since 1997-1999 things have improved slightly.

    Also the education system (certainly pre-devolution) in England probably did not look into the situation north of the border. NI no doubt because of the troubles but otherwise.

    Dean uses a very useful paradigm of Yugoslavia when Belgrade wanted a unitary state in the first years of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which caused unnecessary friction. Alexander I tried to forcibally integrate the peoples through breaking up the traditional boundaries (from the Habsburg era etc) and trying to mix them up. The result was ultimately his assasination.

    Tito (albeit within a one-party state) recognised this and federated the state along with traditional boundaries constructed by the Habsburgs, the Ottomans and the former kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro.

    Yugoslavia collapsed when Milosivic tried to reverse the federalisation by first ending the autonomy of Vojvodina in the north of Serbia and then turning on Kosovo to do the same thing. Slovenes and Croats decided to bolt.

    "but I would not have given Ireland independence - in the face of armed revolt or not."

    And maybe with the Empire as well. Waging perpetual war against Indians, Africans etc?

    Look we can all go back and say the dissolution of the Roman Empire was a mistake but -----

    While there seems to be a strong streak of "sovereigntists" in the UK Tory movement, the Tory party will be seen as an imperialist English party backed by "lackies and lickspittles" to use the term the Scottish journalist Rab McNeil puts it.

    The Europhile Scottish Tory author Allan Massie always said he (whilst formerly very hostile to devolution) could not get his head around why so many English Tories were so opposed to Scottish self-government/exceptionalism but demanded the same within the EU for the UK----

  14. OK, a few things:

    1) The empire was a different because unlike Ireland the component states of the Empire were not an integral part of the United Kingdom - although had I lived in 1900 I would doubtless have been calling for an Imperial Parliament, the World Wars put paid to the feasibility of maintaining the Empire and British attitudes were not in favour of integrating it. With Ireland, there was a school right from the beginning that demanded the abolition of Catholic Disabilities and full integration, so the situation was different. To draw a parallel with another country, I would have opposed France surrendering Algeria - not least because there were more Harkis (pro-French government fighters) than rebels, but mainly because Algeria was a part of France in the way much of their Empire was not. The way they have integrated French Guiana etc. is something I think we should repeat.

    2) I do not suffer from the hypocrisy that Allan (surely Alex?) Massie describes - I am a euro-unitarist. I would have a unitary European Union if I possibly could.

    3) Although I would have to dig out the material now, I read that the break-up of Yugoslavia was deliberately engineered by Milosivic - he was a Serb Nationalist, not a unionist, and his vision was of Greater Serbia - a kind of Yugo-Serbia, if you will. :P

    4) I entirely agree with you, I wish matters in Edinburgh etc. were broadcast round the union.

  15. Dilettante,

    Unionism isn't hostile to devolution [or particularism as you call it]. In the late 1970s we embraced it, standing on a Scottish Assembly platform - something which if we had done when in government in the early 70s could have denied the rise of the SNP.

    My point in part is simple; you sometimes have to pre-empt the seperatists, by conceding ground. Fiscal federalism has the potential to kill nationalism stone dead, it is a moment like the 1970s and the Scottish Assembly proposal - we cannot endanger the union by missing the window.

  16. Wasn't devolution meant to "kill nationalism stone dead" - I think that was the exact phrase Labour used at the time. Conceding so much ground won't stop the Nationalists fighting, it will surely just bring their goalposts closer.