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Blair Murray: The "Bavarian option" can address the Scottish Tories' malaise

Blair Murray Blair Murray is a teacher and Conservative party activist based in London, although he hails from Scotland, where he has campaigned in many an election. 

Lord Sanderson’s review into the revival of the Scottish Conservatives made for uncomfortable reading. It identified some of the key challenges facing the Scottish Conservatives, including faulty internal structures, confused policy development, falling membership and a lack of links to Scotland’s business community. It was established in response to the party’s woeful performance in this year’s general election, in which only one Scottish Conservative MP, yet again, was elected.

As a Scot currently living in London, the continued lack of success of the Scottish Conservatives is deeply troubling. What we must first accept is that whatever has been tried over the last decade, it has not worked. The figures are stark. The Conservatives in Scotland won a smaller proportion of the vote in 2010 than in the electoral annihilation of 1997. Opinion polls suggest we are unlikely to make much progress at next year's Scottish Parliamentary elections. Our performance compares especially poorly when compared to the Welsh Tories, who won 27.1% of the Welsh vote this year, up from 19.6% in 1997.

There have been some successes. John Lamont bucked the trend in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election by winning the Roxburgh and Berwickshire seat with a 9% swing from the Lib Dems. The Conservatives have staged something of a recovery in rural south Scotland, particularly in Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. Winning four constituencies in 2007 was some comfort, although the party nevertheless lost support overall in that election.

To blame the current travails on the Scottish leadership is to miss the point. Lord Sanderson was correct in that respect. The history of the Conservative Party in Scotland is one of long and slow decline: the easy explanation is to assume that Scots are intrinsically Left-wing supporters of unreformed welfarism, therefore creating hostile territory for any Right-leaning political movement. However, even if that were the case - and the evidence on that is far from conclusive - other European countries which could be classed as predominantly 'social democratic' nevertheless have vibrant conservative parties. In Sweden the Moderates lead a government of the centre-Right. Despite Sweden traditionally being manna from Polly Toynbee's heaven, the centre-Right has always polled better than the Scottish Conservatives' recent performance. All Western European democracies, regardless of where their political centre-ground is held to be, have parties of the Right far more successful than the Scottish Conservatives.

The fact is that there are many centre-Right voters in Scotland who do not vote Tory. In rural areas, particularly in the Highlands, they vote Lib Dem. In the North-East and in urban areas many vote SNP. Indeed, canvassing in previous elections it became clear to me that many SNP supporters would prefer lower taxes, incentives for business and less government regulation. Some of these voters were even ambivalent towards the SNP's central goal of independence. It is these voters, to the right of Scottish Labour on economic arguments, that we must win in the future.

How is one to account for the painful decline since 1955? The Scottish Unionist Party, as it was known until the merger of 1965, was undoubtedly highly successful. It was so successful partly because it had a keen understanding of the communitarian nature of Scottish civil society. As illustrated in Dr. David Seawright's seminal investigation into the problems of the Scottish Party, The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party: ‘the lesser spotted Tory’?, the party in the 1950s was distinctly 'one nation':

“Rather [the Scottish Unionist Party] is on the Middle Road, between two extremes – the extremes of laissez-faire and Socialism. The Unionist Party realises the need for a synthesis of these two fundamental ideas of human individuality and of service to others and to the community”.

The link with the Kirk and the strength of Presbyterian cultural values during this golden era was undoubtedly helpful, although a key aspect of the party's success was that it enjoyed a Scottish identity, as opposed to 'London-led' Labour. This sense of separateness, nonetheless combined with the firm commitment to Unionism, allowed the party to appeal across the social classes, building up a formidable working class vote.

To many, the Unionist MPs were indistinguishable from their English counterparts. They took the Tory whip and played significant roles in Conservative governments, from Andrew Bonar Law to Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Yet the separate identity was electorally potent in Scotland. The loss of this Scottish identity was catastrophic for the party. It allowed the parties of the centre-Left to portray themselves as distinctively Scottish, while the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, the title since the Douglas-Home reform of 1965, was pilloried by the media and opponents as being anti-Scotland. While the 'grouse-moor' image was bad enough in terms of winning floating voters, it was under Mrs. Thatcher's leadership that these problems intensified. The free-market radicalism was contrary to the more conservative instincts of Scots, while the English nationalism of that era meant that many natural supporters of a 'Conservative' party looked elsewhere.

This being said, many pre-merger 'Conservative' candidates stood under the banner of 'Liberal Unionist' or 'National Liberal'. The Scottish Unionists did not stand in local elections, instead working with the Liberals and independents under the 'Progressive' banner in an anti-Labour tactical alliance. What all of these have in common is the deliberate avoidance of the term 'Conservative', which had always been associated with the English party. The effect of the 1965 merger should be clear for all to see.

That this should be the case is depressing. There has always been a conservative grain in Scottish political culture, a civic and public spirited conservatism, observable as far back as the Scottish Enlightenment: Magnus Magnusson's wonderful essay on that movement notes that “all were politically conservative but intellectually radical (Unionists and progressives to a man), courteous, friendly and accessible”. This conservatism has been of the Burkean variety: pragmatic, cautious and motivated by duty to others and to society at large. It is this that may explain the lack of a Cameron bounce north of the border. Part of the Scottish strategy, it seems, has been to hope for a more popular UK leader whose shine might rub off in Scotland. Unfortunately Cameron's conservatism, which marries social liberalism with more free-market economics (with the exception of the NHS), does not play too well with the Scottish electorate. Another German analogy may be appropriate: if Cameron is FDP, Scotland’s conservatism is more CDU.

It is against this background that Lord Sanderson published his report, Building for Scotland. It is a courageous document. Its authors are to be commended on attempting to tackle the long decay. They analyse perceptively the primary problems. Candidate selection procedures need to be overhauled. There should be one elected Scottish leader, accountable solely to the membership of the Scottish party. The recommendation that senior Conservative Westminster and Holyrood parliamentarians should have regular meetings seems reasonable.

However, despite these positive recommendations, the Commission shied away from proposals that would have helped the Scottish Conservatives enormously. The party desperately needs to develop a distinctly Scottish identity. Proposals to that end have, sadly, been dismissed. It seems rather ludicrous to support having a more independent Scottish leader who will nevertheless only be allowed to appoint a Scottish chairman after “consultation with the UK leader”. Allowing non-MSPs to become this Scottish leader suggests a lack of awareness that it is in Edinburgh that Scottish politics is now centred. To have a Westminster MP as the leader of the specifically Scottish party would seem slightly strange.

The biggest issue with the Commission's recommendation is the rejection of proper autonomy for the Scottish Conservatives. The "Bavarian solution", replicating the Christian Social Union's independence from the Christian Democrats (while taking the same whip in the Bundestag), is criticised due to the different circumstances. The CSU, according to Lord Sanderson, can afford to be legally separate as the party is dominant in Bavarian politics. Yet it is only this solution which would allow the Scottish party to carve a distinctive message. As difficult as I find it to agree with Brian Monteith, a former MSP notably disloyal to former leader David McLetchie, he was correct to recognise that the Bavarian solution would allow the party to “rediscover and prove its Scottish credentials, without which no policies, no matter how attractive, will take root”.

Monteith went on to argue that this could lead to a new name and a new logo. This may help: the 'Scottish Progressives' or 'Scottish Moderates' may have more success. Nevertheless, this would be expensive and it is the operational freedom for the Scottish party which is the main point. The capacity to formulate policies different from the national party, indeed perhaps even opposite to the national party, while still asserting that this does not undermine the concept of the Union itself, is what is fundamentally important.

This should be coupled with support for greater fiscal power for the Scottish Parliament. There is a persuasive and perfectly conservative argument to be made for greater accountability in Holyrood. The Scottish government has huge spending power. It is not, however, held accountable by the electorate for this spending as it does not have to raise any revenue itself. The Scotland Bill helps address this obvious problem. The Scottish Parliament should absolutely be given more tax powers. This makes sense in democratic terms, but it would also allow the Scottish Conservatives to fashion a more clearly defined pro-enterprise set of arguments. Left-leaning parties, if they wish to go on spending, would have then consider which taxes to raise, or create.

Scottish Conservatives should grasp the opportunity here. The response of Margaret Mitchell MSP is therefore disappointing. She said:

“Having looked at the Scotland Bill, I can only see it playing into the hands of the separatists. To me it can only help the move to independence. To me, it couldn't possibly strengthen the Union. It could only weaken the Union. I fail to see how new tax raising powers can possibly strengthen the Union and I am very encouraged that Sanderson says there must be a full debate on it”.

Giving Holyrood greater power will not lead directly to greater support for independence. Voters are capable of disassociating the strengthening of a devolved institution from a minority pursuit of the SNP.

All the evidence shows that Scots feel more Scottish than British. Incidentally, the evidence also shows that the English feel increasingly English rather than British. This does not for a moment mean that those who feel more Scottish or more English want the UK to split. Most of us are comfortable with overlapping identities. I, like most Conservatives, am a passionate supporter of the Union. And many of those voters in Scotland who feel more Scottish than British would vote for a party of the centre-Right. They would vote for a party supportive of enterprise and social stability, emphasising tradition and responsibilities as well as rights. At the moment they don't. Only by becoming like those voters – proudly Scottish but supportive of the UK – will the Scottish Conservatives become a success.


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