In what will be seen as one of the boldest moves of his leadership David Cameron is preparing to give complete independence to the Scottish Conservative Party. His plans, revealed by Fraser Nelson in this week's Spectator (published tomorrow), would mean that the Scottish party would be renamed and be given freedom to develop an identity and agenda that could be distinct from that chosen by David Cameron for England and Wales.
This is what Fraser Nelson writes:
"[David Cameron's] officials have been secretly drawing up the outline of a velvet divorce with the Scottish Conservatives, which would give the Scots a new name and make the Conservatives into a party exclusively devoted to England & Wales. It would, in effect, mean retreat from Scotland."
ConservativeHome knows this story to be true (from two sources) although it is not clear how formalised the plans are. We nonetheless offer the move our complete support and hope that the party leadership will deliver the change. It brings two main benefits:
- It gives the Scottish party - with a new name and a truly Scottish leadership team - the opportunity to break free from the long-held belief that it is a fully-owned subsidiary of the London party. With its own distinct identity the Scottish Unionist Party (the name of the party until 1965 and a possible name for the 'new party') could be a leading advocate of The Union and would be more likely to be seen to be motivated by an unambiguous commitment to Scotland's interests rather than those of England. The election of its leader - which should follow independence - would give the party the serious debate it desperately needs about its long-term identity. Should it be defined by its Unionism, for example, or by a commitment to provide an alternative to the high tax, anti-business parties that dominate the Scottish landscape.
- The move will also be helpful for Project Cameron. The impact David Cameron has had on Conservative fortunes in England could count for more. If the Scottish party continues to struggle he will no longer be tarnished by that underperformance. If, however, there is a revival of the 'Scottish Unionists' he can claim credit for taking the bold decision to return the party to a degree of independence that it enjoyed until that 1960s name change.
The restructuring was not due to be progressed until after May's elections. Whether or not it now goes ahead will partly depend upon the reaction of grassroots Tories. They will naturally be asking very practical questions: 'Will we still be able to attend Tory conferences?' 'Will we still have a vote in the Conservative Party leadership contest?' The answer to the first question will probably be 'yes' and the answer to the second question will almost certainly be 'no'.
The Spectator story won't do the Scottish party any harm in next month's elections if the news reinforces the idea that the Edinburgh party will soon be in charge of its own destiny and will be singlemindedly dedicated to Scotland's interests. There will be a negative impact on the party's performance if some leading Scottish Tories disown the plans and the party looks divided.
In a July 2006 ConservativeHome survey of UK-wide Tory members we found that 39% supported the idea that the Scottish party should enjoy "complete freedom for Scottish Conservatives to form their own manifesto at the next General Election." 39% opposed the move. The party leadership calculates that indifferent results in the Holyrood elections will probably increase support for the radical change now being planned.
5th April update: Spectator article now online