Tory radicalism in Scotland: Murdo on the Highland Express

The race to become the next leader of the Scottish Conservative Party has bizarrely become exciting, with implications for the whole of the UK, writes our UK Political Editor Harry Cole

Murdo Fraser
Harry Cole
On 5 September 2011 08:19

When Boris Johnson won the seat of Henley in 2001, it represented a small glimmer of hope for the Tories against the backdrop of a second national decimation in less than five years.

In a style that would come to be known in party circles as “Vintage Boris”, he told the count:

"It has not been a brilliant night for us but there will be other brilliant nights. It's the darkest hour that comes before the dawn. The party will recover. It has great powers of rejuvenation and regeneration. It's like some gigantic... human liver, it will regenerate itself.

“Be thinking of that all you who voted against the Conservative Party. We will come back and we are capable of regenerating ourselves. Now let's go home and prepare breakfast."

Whoever is writing speeches for Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Tory leadership front-runner, should draw heavily from Johnson’s message that night.

This is the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s darkest hour.

The Unionist Party is the only party in Scotland to have ever got more than 50 percent of the vote. Though after merging with the Conservatives in 1965, and in doing so surrendering ultimate control of direction to London, it was down-hill all the way. The party was annihilated in 1997 losing every single Westminster seat.

The road to recovery is still barely in sight: they are the only major party in Scotland not to have had any control over the devolved executive. Cameron has still only managed to take one seat back in Scotland and they have just 18 Members of the Scottish Parliament, 13 of which come from the “top up list”, a proportional quirk of the Scottish electoral system.

 As The Scotsman put it over the weekend:

“...almost everything had been tried in an attempt to make the party more successful. A succession of policy reviews, media strategies and leaders had all failed to turn things around.

“Last year, a well-run Conservative campaign in target seats failed miserably and this year the Scottish elections delivered more bad news. Even with Annabel Goldie, a leader who was popular with the public, the party and its dwindling and ageing membership had yet another disastrous day at the polling stations.”

Something bold is long overdue and if Murdo Fraser wins, it just might. In a surprise move, he has announced he intends to detach the party from London control and return to the pre-1965 days as an independent party, against Scottish Independence. And he wants the eight thousand or so Scottish Tories to come with him.

It would have a new name, a new leader and would herald a “new dawn”. As one campaigner told the Herald: “We don’t need a new captain for the Titanic, what we need is a new ship.”

Two of the most prominent voices in the Conservative movement have already come out in favour of the idea despite the Telegraph calling it “suicide”. Firstly, Fraser Nelson (a native Scot and editor of the Spectator) has said: “Scottish Conservative has, alas, become an oxymoron”.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential ConservativeHome blog, looked to how it would work in practice: "The new party would be an ally of the wider Conservative Party in the same way the Bavarian CSU is an ally of the CDU in the rest of Germany. The new Scottish party would have many policies that would overlap with the rest of the Conservative Party but it would have more specifically Scottish policies, too."

It’s also important to note, that on Andrew Marr’s show on Sunday, Michael Gove, himself a Scot, talked in terms of a "revival, political and intellectually" of the centre-right in Scotland, not in terms of the “Conservative Party” as such. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude is also said to be keen on the idea, and Cameron has mooted the notion in the past but gone very quiet about it in recent years.

The whole thing’s a potentially embarrassing situation for the Prime Minister though the parlous state of affairs in Scotland can’t really get much worse and sources have suggested to The Commentator that it’s a problem he wouldn’t mind seeing the back of.

However not all of the Party is convinced, not least a large section of the metropolitan party hierarchy. Though most of the party membership can still remember the electorally successful Unionist days, the younger generation feel safe, if unsuccessful, under a bigger banner.

Leadership contender Ruth Davidson is an interesting character in this race and is set to get the backing of the party establishment who fear their jobs are on the line and their influence on the wane.

She’s an openly gay, former BBC journalist who contested the Glasgow North East by-election in 2009, retaining her deposit, which was all anyone could have asked of her.

The Prime Minister is said to have been “impressed” and she fits the Cameroon hand like a glove. To have the first openly-gay party leader would also be a huge step forward for the Conservative Party as a whole. There are rumours afoot of financial backing from London.

Davidson has only been an MSP for four months, and secured her seat in still murky circumstances. The #1 candidate on the Glasgow list was deselected/resigned just before the May elections. The official line was that there was not enough time to re-run the selection process so the slot fell to the #2 - our mysterious Ms. Davidson, already the “Stop Murdo” candidate.

Jackson Carlow is the other runner, though he has little chance in what is shaping up to be a two horse race. According to attendees, there were four journalists at his campaign launch last week. Reading the runes, it seems highly likely he will fall in line before too long with many of the other MSPs already throwing their weight behind Fraser.

 But Fraser has problems. Paradoxically, there is a strong argument that he is playing into the hands of the Scottish National Party by doing their dirty work for them. If the most overtly unionist party around the table decides that they don’t need control from London, then why should Scotland itself?

If he is to be successful, Fraser, needs to plant the idea into the voters’ minds that this will be a straight battle from now on between unionists and nationalists, leaving the once dominant Scottish Labour Party sniping from the side lines.

Though there is a right-wing section of the nationalist party, it is predominately made up of socialists of the particularly dour variety. In “government”, as they style it, the SNP have done little to tackle the hand-out culture and unsustainable and bloated public-sector north of the border.

The Independence argument is currently ham-strung by the fact that Scotland is so dependent on the state:

The Centre for Economics and Business Research say that:

“...Scotland lacks entrepreneurship, misspends money and suffers from too much government intervention. The country’s slow growth means that in less than 20 years it will have the same living standards as Korea, Poland and Turkey, which are rapidly catching up with Scotland.”

Who would pay the bills if they go it alone, cutting off the massive subsidies received from Westminster?

Independence is still viewed with suspicion deep down, which is why SNP First Minister Alex Salmond again and again delays his promised referendum.

Many vote SNP because of a lack of an alternative rather than an overwhelming desire to break up the UK. They’re people disillusioned with Labour and loathe to vote Conservative. Nobody really disagrees when Fraser says the Conservative brand in Scotland is toxic because the numbers who vote for the party so obviously prove his point.

With the devolved Scottish system built as it is – making coalitions all but inevitable-- there is room for a right-of-centre umbrella movement. As long as Labour remain unionist, the charge that a vote for the union is a vote for the Tories will not wash.

The battle lines have been drawn for a vicious debate amongst the Scottish Conservatives about their very future. And about time too. It’s time for a real punch up.

Whatever happens there is no doubt that Murdo Fraser, the Party’s long standing deputy leader, has unleashed a storm.

Political opponents both behind him and in front will sneer “a rose by any other name”. It remains to be seen in the coming month whether Fraser will have the leadership qualities, and policies to make this a deep shift.

If there was ever a time for the Scottish Conservatives to have a good old fashioned internal battle, this is it. But the end result must be more attractive than to the party’s dwindling membership, convincing the public at large that the Tories in Scotland are coming back in style.

Harry Cole is UK Politics Editor for The Commentator.  He is a writer and journalist and the news editor for the must-read Guido Fawkes blog. 

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