Judging from the discussions at a round table on the Scottish Conservatives held recently at the University of Strathclyde there seems to be widespread agreement that, after a difficult few years following the advent of the Scottish Parliament, the Tories are getting their act together. The event that featured contributions from Jackson Carlaw MSP; Andrew Fulton, Chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party; David Torrance, author of We In Scotland – Thatcherism In A Cold Climate; and the academic, Professor James Mitchell. The audience, brought together under the auspices of the UK Political Studies Association’s Conservatives and Conservatism specialist group also made it a lively affair.
There were all sorts of opinions expressed in a wide-ranging discussion, which means that absolutely none of the following should be seen as the product of some kind of consensus. That said, most observers seem to think Annabel Goldie is providing good-humoured, sensible leadership and has brought a degree of stability to a party that, a few years ago anyway, was seen, rightly or wrongly, as a bit of a rabble. She is relatively well-thought-of by the general public and events like the debates over the Scottish Government’s Budget suggest that there are a number of strong performers among the party’s MSPs.
The overall aim, though, has to be for the Scottish Conservatives to be respected as well as liked and to be seen to do well not simply because the party has exceeded low expectations. This applies not only to voters, but to the UK leadership, which according to some reports, still fails to take the party north of the border sufficiently seriously.
Changing all that will also mean the Scottish Conservative Party being seen as an outfit with policies and ideas of its own, rather than one that reacts to the proposals of its more powerful opponents, even if those proposals do sometimes actually borrow from, or at least coincide with, policies which the Tories themselves have suggested or support.
This kind of agenda-setting, however, is never going to be easy since, in the short term at least, there is little prospect of the party moving into government in Scotland. The chances of it ever governing alone are remote. But right now it is difficult even to see which among the other parties would agree to form a coalition with the Conservative Party when most of them remain determined, whenever possible, to reactivate the impression – still resonant among voters of a certain age – that the Tories are somehow ‘anti-Scottish.’
Beyond Holyrood, the party, like others, is apparently finding it tough to increase its membership – something that it clearly believes is going to be crucial to building up the sort of presence required to tempt voters who might not otherwise think plumping for the Conservatives was worthwhile. That said, the party professes itself pleased with both the quantity and quality of candidates coming forward to stand at all levels. Moreover, it is determined to improve its ability to target particular seats, believing that it may still be possible to make individual gains even when the party in Scotland as a whole only registers between 20 and 25 per cent in opinion polls.
The party also believes that it got a good result from the recent review of Scottish Parliamentary constituency boundaries. This – at least on an optimistic projection – could result in an additional ten or eleven seats, especially if the rapidly growing anti-Labour tactical vote goes (as apparently there are signs it might be going) ‘straight across’ to the Tories. Hopes are particularly high that support might grow among younger voters for whom Labour, after all, is the establishment. There is reportedly growing interest in the party among university students.
Whether, though, the Scottish Conservatives are going to be able to convert this into more than, say, three seats, at Westminster is more doubtful. Nor is it clear that they are any closer to finding a language that the less-educated and less well-off can relate to – a problem that even makes some nostalgic for the likes of Teddy Taylor, former MP for Glasgow Cathcart (and later Southend East) who, for all his flaws, was arguably able to connect with Scottish voters who were far from typical Tories. Someone even wondered if what was needed was some kind of Scottish Norman Tebbit! Whatever, the party clearly has to extend its appeal to capture at least some working class voters if it is to stand much chance of making a significant electoral recovery.
The crunch of course is going to come if and when a Conservative government is elected in London. Few believed that the UK leadership, and in particular David Cameron, would be as insensitive to Scotland’s needs and aspirations as their predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s. Certainly, few believe that he will be aiming to pick a fight with the SNP government in Edinburgh.
However, with most people predicting the need for big reductions in public spending there will still be plenty of potential for arguments – and plenty of opportunity for the party’s opponents to return to the old story of ‘Tory cuts.’ Whether, in the face of this, Scots would respond to the idea that the economy and the welfare state were badly in need of some ‘tough love’ from a Cameron government is a moot point.
Nor is there any guarantee that Mr Cameron would be able to silence a number of English Conservative MPs – and their supporters outside Parliament and in the media – who believe that their party must not only insist on ‘English votes for English laws’ but even consider abandoning its historic commitment to the Union. Containing these feelings will certainly require the party, north and south of the border, to come up with a more coherent and convincing response to the Calman Commission’s Final Report (tabled in June 2009) than, in the opinion of many observers, it has produced so far. Perhaps the party needs to acknowledge the need for a more flexible, less black and white, either-or, understanding of what unionism means today.
Perhaps most surprisingly, however, there is a minority – a very small one, it should be stressed – of Scottish Tories prepared to reconsider the party’s opposition (recently reiterated) on a referendum on independence. For one thing, a referendum would, they believe, demonstrate that the majority of their compatriots reject outright independence. For another it would be a ‘Clause IV moment’ that might finally put paid to the idea – one that badly damaged the Tories in the run-up to devolution and arguably still dogs them today – that Scottish Conservatives don’t ultimately have faith in their country’s ability to run its own affairs. It is clear to most observers that nowadays they do. The argument in the months and years to come is about exactly how it should be done.