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26 September 2011

The Scottish Conservative leadership race: the contenders

The next leader of the Scottish Conservatives will have to embrace the new nationalist consensus

By James Maxwell

The deadline to enter the race to be the next leader of the Scottish Conservative Party passed last Friday, with four candidates – Murdo Fraser, Ruth Davidson, Jackson Carlaw and Margaret Mitchell – officially confirmed in the running.

The contest to replace Annabel Goldie, who led the MSP group for six years, exploded into life after Fraser announced that, if elected, he intended to abolish the party and establish a new one completely independent of Westminster control. Alone among the field of contenders, he also expressed support for a move toward full fiscal autonomy. This sent many Tory traditionalists, who view any further transfer of power from London to Edinburgh as a betrayal of the Union, into uproar and could prove fatal to his chances.

Scottish conservatism has been in crisis for the best part of the last two decades. Scotland’s experience at the hands of Thatcher was traumatic – unemployment and poverty rates doubled during her premiership – and since the 1980s the Tories’ share of the vote north of the border has steadily declined. At the last Holyrood elections in May it received a lower percentage of the total votes cast than it did in 1997, when it lost every one of its Scottish Westminster seats.

This slow-motion collapse has been accelerated by the rise of the Nationalists, who have successfully courted elements of the Scottish business community with a much vaunted pledge to lower corporation tax. As a result of Alex Salmond’s championing of the fishing and agricultural industries, lots of right-leaning rural voters have also been drawn into the SNP fold.

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Goldie’s successor faces an additional challenge – one of the demographic rather than the political sort: Tory activists in Scotland are literally dying out. Between 1992 and 2011 membership fell from 40,000 to 10,000, while the average age of those members who remained is around 70.

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Counter-intuitively, this could work to the advantage of Davidson, who at 32 is one of Scotland’s youngest politicians. There is no question that the party is in desperate need of radical image make-over and Davidson, a gay former BBC journalist with a relaxed, engaging style, may be best equipped to provide it.

But like Carlaw and Mitchell, she is yet to produce any substantive proposals for the overhaul of the party’s internal structures and is instinctively hostile to greater devolution. Indeed, with the exception of Fraser, all the candidates sit far to the right of the Scottish mainstream on the issue of constitutional reform. The irony, of course, is that the Scottish Conservatives best hopes for survival lie in making a decisive break from the UK party. Perhaps more than just Fraser’s own political future rests on his success.