Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist
activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also
editor of the non-party website Open
Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
I read the news that Grant Shapps intends to include Scottish seats on the party’s list of forty targets with no little sense of relief. It’s a welcome sign that the party is taking Scotland seriously. I had shared the FT’s ‘previous expectations’ that we would likely target almost exclusively English seats, spiced up perhaps with a smattering of Welsh ones.
I worried about this not just because being written out of Scottish politics makes it harder for us to win general elections, but because it is bad for the Union. If ever we did find an England-only route to secure political power, the UK would probably be placed under heavier strain than Alex Salmond could ever hope to exert, as the temptation to avoid the compromises necessary to win over Scottish voters would be immense – after all, we wouldn’t ‘need’ them.
Happily, we have not strayed down that course, at least not for 2015. But it is worth remembering that, had sections of the Scottish party had their way, we’d not be standing in Scotland at all. Our north flank would be the responsibility of Murdo Fraser’s newly minted party.
In light of Ruth Davidson's recent about-turn on devolution (which I intend to write about in a future column), a Fraserite guerrilla has emerged from the undergrowth to restate the case that the Scottish Conservatives should separate. So I want to take this opportunity to look again the idea, explain why I ended up coming down against it at the time, and why I feel the above-linked article vindicates my position.
The first thing to note is that Fraser’s notion of a completely separate Scottish party contesting elections at all levels, and the status quo of a totally unitary national party, are not the only options. The Conservative Party of Canada operates an interesting alternative.
Each province has its own provincial ‘Tory’ party, but supports CPC candidates for federal elections. The provincial parties are distinct corporate entities with complete independence over the full array of devolved policy, but nevertheless mesh well with the national party. I think it’s a shame that option wasn’t examined more closely.
Fraser’s proposals, whilst displacing the national party from contesting Westminster elections, seemed on the surface to offer a similar close mesh. It was to explicitly be a sister party of the national Conservatives. The party’s MPs would take the Conservative whip and formulate common policy on reserved areas of government. An MP from this party would be able to be elected leader of the Conservative parliamentary caucus and thus become Prime Minister.
So what was the problem? Well, in my role at Open Unionism I’ve become familiar with the broad history of the Ulster Unionist Party, particularly during my research into our own party’s attempts to break into Northern Ireland that started back in the Nineties. I thought that the UUP stood as a warning of how an independent-but-allied provincial party could go wrong.
The UUP – or ‘Official Unionists’ – started out as the Ulster wing of the Conservative and Unionist Party. Indeed, Winston Churchill appeared on their election posters during the 1951 elections. They took our whip at Westminster, just as Fraser’s would have. Then they left. Their MPs renounced the whip over Sunningdale in 1974, and the Ulster Unionist Council withdrew from the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations in 1985, over the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
This isn’t particularly surprising. As a distinct party with a highly localised base, when the time came to choose between a unified national position and the demands of local politics they chose the latter. With their withdrawal, mainland politics departed the province and the UK citizens there have pretty much had to choose who to send to the far end of the Opposition benches reserved for the ‘Others’ ever since.
The Tories then had to try to break back into the province, which we only came close to doing once, in North Down at the 1992 general election. Our party machinery and voter base had been carried off by our former allies.
Try as I might, I simply couldn’t see how such an eventuality might be properly guarded against for a Scottish Party. Fraser certainly emphasised loyalty to the national Conservative family on the campaign trail – to do else would have been suicide – but it was clear even then that there were those amongst his supporters who didn’t share it. What if the new party did not meet with success? Calls for further separation would surely follow.
Simply put, it struck me that if links to the Conservatives were the problem, a closely-allied sister party wasn’t really much of a solution. Since devolution can never, ever contemplate going backwards (nobody likes being called a ‘dinosaur’) the prospect of reuniting the party would be very slim and some new, more fundamental divorce would follow.
Which, to be fair, is apparently exactly what Fraser’s strategy and communications manager thought the plan to be:
“We advocated a new, liberal, centre-right, Scottish party. Not a new version of the Conservatives; not a replacement for the Conservatives; not a club for former Conservative members, but a new party, with new people, advocating new policies. It would be a Scottish party taking the London whip at its own discretion; not a London party cracking the whip in Scotland without knowledge or consideration.”
What Andy Maciver is describing was my doomsday scenario for where separating the parties could lead: with the Tories ceding ground to a new party totally unrelated to it. That is an outcome that has strayed some distance over the line from “an innovative solution to Tory woes in Scotland” to “abandoning Scotland”.
Two things about this article particularly struck me. The first was that there was no British dimension to Maciver’s thinking at all – his entire frame of reference is Scotland, and he employs nationalist rhetoric to make his case. He might as well be describing the creation of a new centre-right party in an independent Scotland, or a best a softly pro-union version of the SNP.
He is very explicit that this is of no benefit to the Conservative Party at all. This is us giving up on a whole home nation and charitably stepping aside to let this new and totally unrelated party establish itself. It is not pretending to be a solution to our party’s problems, which is what we need and what our Scottish members rightly want.
Second, and perhaps more worryingly, is the fact that this does not chime at all with what Fraser was saying during the race. In fact, during the last Scottish leadership election, I actually emailed him some questions from my blog, which he was kind enough to answer. It is all very explicit: the party is our sister party; it takes our whip; common policy on reserved matters; and so on. I never saw anything like Maciver’s proposal get an airing during the election.
Yet Maciver was a senior member of Fraser’s campaign team, and according to him the above quotation is what they were campaigning for, which means that either he is misremembering events or Fraser was deliberately misleading Scottish Conservative members about his intentions.
Our aim must be to revive our party as a truly national political force. There is nothing wrong with innovative proposals toward that end. But we should not be fooled into euthanizing ourselves for the benefit of people who just want us out of the way. Better one MP than none.