It has been said that the Conservative Party is the natural party of government. Yet the Tories have not secured a majority since the 1992 general election. A quick glance at any national campaign map reveals part of the problem: the distinct lack of blue north of the border.
There are now more giant pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs. Worryingly, this sorry state of affairs has been tacitly accepted by the party’s hierarchy. Much like the Romans, many Conservatives are content to peer nervously from their outposts at the ‘unconquerable’ wolds.
Yet things were not always this way. At the 1955 general election, the Tories won a majority in Scotland with 36 seats. Even as recently as the 1979 general election, the Conservatives held a healthy position in Scotland.
North of the border, the Conservatives are often viewed as an ‘English party’. There is some good reason for this – the Tories did not win a single seat in either Scotland or Wales at the 1997 general election, and have only had a single Scottish MP since 2001.
In the past, Scottish Conservatives have been reluctant to promote themselves as a party of Scottish values and heritage for fear that it would dilute the unionist message. But this is incorrect. The vast majority of Scots have always been comfortable with the dual identity of being both Scottish and British. Wrapping oneself up in the Saltire is not the same as turning ones back on Britain – it is simply a matter of taking pride in your homeland, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.
This reluctance on the part of Scottish Conservative has left the door open to the SNP. The nationalists wave the Saltire so frantically and frequently that anyone might think they had taken it as their party’s official emblem. Labour have, traditionally at least, been the party of the people rather than of the flag. So the SNP have been allowed to corner a market that the Conservatives are afraid to even explore.
It is worth noting that the Scottish Conservative Party has only officially existed since 1959. Prior to this, the Scottish Unionists were the main party of the centre-right. The Scottish Unionists were able to call on a solid sectarian base, were perceived as home-grown, and certainly never shied away from their Scottishness. The rebranded Scottish Conservatives, however, lacked cultural acceptance from the beginning.
It is not that Scots are unwilling to vote for a centre-right party. The problem is that they cannot bring themselves to vote Tory. For all the talk of David Cameron’s efforts to ‘detoxify’ the brand, the legacy of Thatcherism lives on.
Granted, there has long been a heavy reliance on public sector employment in Scotland, and one might reasonably surmise that this would result in an inclination to support social democratic parties. Yet, as many an Englishman will tell you, Scots are well known for their personal financial discipline (in other words, they’re a tight bunch). Furthermore, and without wishing to plunge too deeply into generalisation, Scots are a conservative people with a great respect for their heritage. Scotland is also a far more rural country than England. These ingredients should, in theory, make Scotland ripe for centre-right success.
At the Scottish Conservative Conference in June, Chairman Grant Shapps promised that more money and campaign managers would be targeted at Scottish seats for 2015. This is to be welcomed, yet one thing is clear: Scottish Conservatives cannot rely on the national party alone to help revive their fortunes.
So, what is to be done? Should the Scottish Unionist brand be brought back in an attempt to recreate the glory of 1955? This is not the solution for two reasons. Firstly, a simple change of name is unlikely to make any real difference here. Presumably, as was the case in 1955, a Scottish Unionist Party would automatically fall into national coalition with the Conservatives. One can already hear Alex Salmond muttering something about a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. Secondly, such a move would put Scotland on the brink of sectarian-dominated politics and lead to a tiresome discourse of nationalism v unionism with very little in between. To some extent, Scottish politics is already tarnished by this dichotomy due to the SNP’s insistence of boiling every issue down to the question of independence. If Scottish politics ends up looking like that of Northern Ireland, then it will do the country no good at all.
Scottish Conservatives don’t need a change of name; they need a change of direction. They must push for the UK to adopt a federal system of governance and give Scotland full tax and spending powers. They must be the party of fiscal autonomy, direct democracy and localism. They must be willing to disagree with Conservatives south of the border, and focus solely on the people of Scotland. From this position, they will be able to advocate more patriotic policies and, consequently, will be seen as a true Scottish party rather than an awkward band of rag-tags from ‘down south’.
The revival of the Scottish Conservatives is not just in the interest of the party itself. It is vital for the Scottish people to have real choice at elections, and to hear a narrative that is different from the plodding social democratic conventions of the other main parties.
The Conservatives must gamble big in Scotland. After all, they have very little to lose. With a dose of radical thinking and determination, the party can win in Scotland again.