An endangered species in Scotland has been saved from near-extinction. Not the wild boar nor the wolf, which misguided naturalists want to see once more roaming the Caledonian Forest. The sub-species that has clawed itself back from the brink is the lesser Scottish Tory, thought to have been wiped out in the 1997 general election. Then, the Tories lost all their Scottish seats. They were so demoralised by their annihilation and the clear message that Scots regarded Tories as enemies of the people that their own supporters believed that the only course was to form a new party and give it a new name.
Now, the Tories are a significant presence in the Scottish Parliament and are expected to pull off what was unthinkable 32 months ago. They are poised to win a by-election in a Labour-held seat in Scotland for the first time in 33 years. From his years of experience of Labour dominance, Malcolm Rifkind has said the reason the Scottish Tories have bounced back quicker than their English colleagues is because “we’re more used to being hammered”. But the real irony, which the Scottish Tories shamelessly accept, is that they owe it all to the two things they opposed bitterly: the Scottish Parliament and PR.
Although they could not win a single first-past-the-post seat, PR gave them 18 list members in the Parliament. That has restored some of their political credibility, raised their profile from non-existent to recognisable, and allowed the emergence of the virtually unknown David McLetchie as a surprisingly effective leader. They are favourites to take the Ayr by-election for the Scottish Parliament on 16 March.
It could hardly be otherwise – Labour, defending a majority of only 25, seems determined to hand it to them on a plate. With Donald Dewar’s administration lurching from crisis to catastrophe, the by-election could not have come at a worse time for his party. No wonder the Scottish Tory leader is gleeful: “If we had been asked to name the place to have the first by-election for the Scottish Parliament, we couldn’t have picked a better one .” Ayr is one of the few well-organised Tory constituency associations in Scotland. Many are virtually moribund and the party is heavily dependent on single donations because rank-and-file finance has dried up. The four-year contract of the party’s hyperactive spin-doctor Gerry O’Brien is funded by a Scots tax exile, an electronics multimillionaire. On the hustings in Ayr, McLetchie said: “To win here would be an enormous boost for us and for the party generally. It would demonstrate we can win seats first-past-the-post and that will be crucial in terms of the general election.”
After the debacle of 1997, McLetchie, who had led the voluntary side of SCUA (the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association), suddenly found himself leader of all that was left. Despite 30 years in the party, his only experience of frontline politics was when he fought Edinburgh Central in 1979 in a bid to defeat Robin Cook. He resisted all attempts to assert Scottish independence, insisting: “We are a Unionist party. It would be odd if we were to declare UDI from the UK party. We are Scottish, we are Conservative, we are Unionist and that is the name of our party.” He admits the contradiction that his party has been rescued from obscurity by the very institution whose existence it fought tooth and nail: “The Scottish Parliament has been a lifeline for us. Every day of the week, we are making news, we are quoted and our profile has been raised. Without the Parliament and the PR system, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to do any of that and we would have been heavily handicapped in a general election campaign in Scotland.”
Despite the affront of the leaders of the “No, No” campaign drawing hefty salary-and-expenses packages as Tory MSPs, McLetchie claims brazenly: “We have demonstrated that we are a genuine and legitimate Scottish party and have as much right to that label as Labour and the Liberal Democrats. We have lost the tag that we are some kind of branch office of an English party.” He admits that the party in Scotland has “rounded some of the sharp edges” of Conservatism and presents himself and his MSPs as “the only group representing a centre-right position in a system that has been captured by a politicall y correct elite who misrepresent Scots and the opinions of Scots.”
Although he was regarded as the most unlikely of the Scottish party leaders, his image of a staid, dependable Edinburgh lawyer is an asset. Like Dewar, he is seen as principled and above the nasty business of day-to-day politics. In fact, he is as much of a bruiser as anyone in the debating chamber and has imposed firm discipline on his MSPs. He is also further to the right than he cares to admit – as his reaction to the issue of asylum-seekers and possible dispersal of immigrants to Scotland will show. He will gratefully accept a victory in the Ayr by-election as confirmation of a Conservative comeback in Scotland. A more accurate reading would be that if they cannot win here, they will have no chance anywhere else.