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Why the Scottish Conservatives need to pick a fight with the national Party

Jamie Gardiner is a former Barrister who now works for Accenture advising businesses on their strategy. He is based in Edinburgh, and is fourth on the Scottish Conservative List for next year’s European Election.

Screen shot 2013-06-29 at 11.53.04The unofficial mascot of the Scottish Conservative conference was a man in a rat costume outside the entrance. “Go home English Tories”, he bellowed to general bemusement. If the revolution comes, I predict that it will not be led by men in rat costumes.

But what is shocking is that, in more temperate language and minus the costume, many Scots would sympathize with the rat. I still remember talking to a friend’s family a few years ago. Everything about them suggested that they would lean Conservative. They ran a small business, had a rural background and opposed separation. But they voted Nationalist, and the explanation over a pint was interesting (and I paraphrase): “We don’t agree with them on a lot of things, but when they go to Europe or Westminster at least we know they’ll push for the best deal for Scotland.”

They aren’t alone. In 2011, almost all Scots believed that the SNP put Scottish issues first. But an extraordinary 50 per cent believed that the Scottish Conservatives put English issues first. That perception is an absolute barrier to our electoral success. It would be like Senate candidate in New York standing on a pledge to fix schools in California. And that is how it plays out. Only 11 per cent of the growing number who consider themselves more Scottish than British voted Conservative in 2010.

The centre-right is more under-represented in Scotland than in any other European state. And it is no coincidence that ours is the only European state where the centre-right has no association with national (Scottish) patriotism.

It is sometimes said that a way to fix this is for the Scottish Conservatives to present a more Scottish face. To embrace Scotland’s cultural identity as Welsh Conservatives have theirs. But this doesn’t cut it. The problem isn’t one of presentation. Conservative MSPs have Scottish roots and Scottish accents. The Scottish conference had the new logo as a backdrop, modelled on the saltire. The conference slogan was “Scotland First”. And Ruth Davidson – surely the party’s greatest asset – is clearly earnest when she says that she feels more Scottish than British.

If the problem isn’t one of cosmetics, it isn’t one of legal structures either. The argument about whether the Scottish Conservatives should divorce the UK party is an earnest debate loaded with symbolism. But it remains, in essence, a debate over a technicality when the problem runs deeper. If people perceive the Scottish Conservatives as subservient towards the UK party, then revising the constitution will not change that. What is often forgotten about so-called ‘Clause IV’ moments is that they have to come at the head of substantive reform from which they draw their power. Otherwise you are left with as ignored an exercise as if 1970s East Germany had pointed to constitutional sovereignty to persuade the world that it was not a satellite of the USSR.  

What, then, needs to happen? It’s perfectly simple. The Scottish Conservatives need to demonstrate that when Scotland’s interests pull one way and orders from the UK party pull another, they choose the former. Even where it leaves them in a tough spot.

There are plenty of areas where the Scottish party has a different perspective. For example, Fuel Duty and Air Passenger Duty both have a disproportionate impact on Scotland. The party could announce reducing the first and scrapping the second as prerequisites for supporting any Budget in the next Parliament – even the budget of a Conservative Chancellor.

No complicated constitutional change would be required for this. Just a microphone. And Ruth Davidson has the charisma and showmanship to pull it off.

Sure, it would be risky. We have to assume that the UK party would take umbrage. It could remove funding for its Scottish cousins. It could even withdraw the whip from any future Scottish Conservative MPs who set conditions for supporting Conservative budgets. These MPs would have to choose between their Scottish leader and the Prime Minister. But these risks are precisely the point. It would be a real test. And a real test is the only way to prove that “Scotland First” is more than a slogan.

Nor is the objection is that it would be foolish to stoke tensions in the run-up to the independence referendum persuasive. This objection supposes that the Scottish Conservatives negotiating hard with the UK party represents some kind of failure for unionism. Yet State parties in the US or Canada or Australia would not recognize it as failure. It isn’t helpful to unionism when the SNP are the only party that drives a hard bargain in Westminster.

And remember what it would be for. Sure, it would give candidates good, popular policies for the doorstep. But more importantly it would prove that we can be trusted to stand up for our electors. This is what in business would be called the ‘license-to-operate’. For the Scottish Conservatives to do well in an election, people like my friend’s family have to be able to say: “whatever else you think about the Scottish Conservatives, they will fight for Scotland”.

Otherwise the centre-left hegemony in Scotland will continue. Rates and regulation will continue to strangle new businesses and keep people poor. Dinosaurs in Holyrood will continue to stop innovation from reaching our schools. Bureaucrats will continue to subsidise their pet energy schemes while the rest of us pay for them through our electricity bills. And the future will belong to men in rat costumes.  


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