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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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).