The end of the Scottish Conservatives?

Leadership favourite Murdo Fraser vows to disband the Scottish Conservatives and set up a new centre

It is the ultimate detoxification strategy. Murdo Fraser, the frontrunner for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, has announced that he will disband the party if he wins the contest next month. The Scottish Tories will be replaced by a new centre-right party that will contest all elections north of the border - council, Scottish Parliament and Westminster.

In a relationship analogous to that between the German CDU and the Bavarian CSU, the new party would be affiliated to the Tories and any MPs elected would take the Conservative whip in the Commons. There is also a historical precedent. Until 1965, when they merged with the Conservative Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Tories were a separate party known as the Unionist Party.

It's not hard to see why Fraser believes this dramatic step is necessary. The Tories have not managed to win more than one seat in Scotland for 19 years and have haemorraghed votes to the SNP. Fraser's calculation is that a new party will win the financial support of business leaders reluctant to associate themselves with the Scottish Tories, as well as the electoral support of the country's middle class.

Whether his strategy will succeed is another matter. It may well be dismissed by voters as a cynical rebranding exercise. "Different name, same shit," is one slogan you can imagine doing the rounds. The move also has significant and potentially dangerous implications for the Union. In calling for the creation of a new centre-right party, Fraser has effectively conceded that Scotland is a no-go area for the Conservatives. A separate party for a separate country is the conclusion that some will draw. Michael Forsyth, who served as Scottish Secretary from 1995 to 1997, argued: "I think the strategy is one of appeasement of the nationalists and I think it is one that will fail. Any policy which appeases nationalists is damaging to the union by definition."

But it's worth noting that Fraser enjoys the support of several senior Conservatives at Westminster, including Francis Maude, who has long argued for a breakaway Scottish party. David Cameron was informed of the plan in advance but intends to remain neutral during the contest.

No one doubts Cameron's sincerity when he vows to defend the United Kingdom with "every fibre in my body", but not everyone in his party feels the same way. A 2009 ConservativeHome poll of 144 party candidates found that 46 per cent would not be "uncomfortable about Scotland becoming independent". This laissez faire attitude is hardly surprising. Of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland that would automatically be lost, 41 are Labour-held but just one is Conservative-held.

But whether Fraser's plan is enacted or not, it's clear that Scottish politics, neglected by Fleet Street for so long, is about to become very interesting indeed.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.