Murdo Fraser MSP represents Mid-Scotland & Fife in the Scottish Parliament. He is Scottish Conservative Spokesman on Finance.
In comments which would be considered extraordinary were they to be made today by someone sitting on the Conservative benches of the House of Commons, the Scottish Unionist MP (and celebrated author), John Buchan, declared in 1932: “Every Scotsman should be a Scottish Nationalist”.
Amongst Scottish Unionists of the time, Buchan was by no means alone in promoting Scottish identity, and championing the notion of a Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom.
Although that never became the official Party position, throughout much of the 20th Century there was not the stark dividing line between nationalism and unionism that we see today.Indeed, at the Paisley By-election of 1948, the Unionists agreed not to field an official candidate but instead to support the Independent Nationalist, John MacCormick, against Labour.
What the writer David Torrance describes as “nationalist unionism” was at the core of the Scottish Unionists’ broad appeal.
The Scottish Unionist Party was created in 1912, with a merger of the Scottish Conservative Party and the Liberal Unionists (those Liberals who had opposed Gladstone’s ambitions for Home Rule in Ireland). This union brought together what had been two competing political traditions in Scotland, those of Tory and Whig, dating back to the religious and political conflicts of the 17th Century.
The Tories were the supporters of the Stuart dynasty, of episcopalianism, defenders of privilege and the interest of the landed classes. Against them were ranged the Whigs, Scots Presbyterians, representing the mercantile class, reform, and championing the rights of Parliament against the Crown.
Throughout the 19th Century it was the Whig, Liberal, tradition which dominated in Scotland, particularly with the extension of the voting franchise giving to all adult males. During this period Conservativism north of the Border was largely a minority interest, despite the best efforts of Sir Walter Scott who through his writing rekindled interest in Scottish history and actively promoted Scottish traditions – a prime example being his energetic defence of the right of Scottish banks to issue their own notes.
The union of the Conservatives with the Liberal Unionists led to a fusion of these two quite different political traditions, giving the Scottish Unionists a much broader appeal than they ever had as simply Conservatives, although their MPs continued to sit on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons.
The 1912 merger was the catalyst for substantial growth in the Conservative vote, leading the Unionists to become the dominant political force in Scotland for much of the middle part of the 20th Century. Famously, in the 1955 General Election, the Unionists became the only party in modern Scottish political history to poll an overall majority of both seats and votes – something that even the SNP failed to match at their peak in 2015.
A policy of “nationalist unionism” was one crucial element in this Unionist success. The Scottish Unionist MPs in the House of Commons might sit with the English and Welsh Conservatives, but it was accepted that they preserved a distinct identity. The Scotsman in 1947 reported that these Unionist MPs were seen as “standing up for Scotland” and “busy in the assertion of Scottish rights and viewpoints”.
The second element in Unionist success was an avowedly centrist policy platform – explicitly advocating a “Middle Road between two extremes – the extremes of Laissez-faire and Socialism”, as the Party’s 1955 East of Scotland Yearbook put it. It was the Liberal Unionist tradition, rather than the Tory one, which influenced this moderate position.
Electoral setbacks and the influence of new UK Conservative leader Edward Heath led to the Scottish Unionists changing their name to “Scottish Conservative and Unionist” in 1965, thus losing the distinct identity which had been fundamental to the party’s success. In due course the Party would firm up on its opposition to devolution, putting itself on the wrong side of the constitutional argument from the Scottish majority, contributing to decades of electoral decline.
It is no coincidence that the areas of Scotland where the SNP started making electoral inroads in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the North-east and Perthshire, were historically strong Conservative/Unionist voting constituencies. Voters who had once been attracted by a ‘nationalist unionist’ stance were perhaps not surprisingly inclined to vote for a more transparently nationalist party once the Conservatives were no longer perceived to be representing their interests.
It is only in the last two years, with the benefit of an energetic pro-Union stance, that the Party’s long-term decline has been reversed.
Today, there is much in the Liberal Unionist tradition which influences Scottish Conservative thinking. Already the Party takes distinct policy positions from those of our colleagues down South; for example, on funding free personal care for the elderly, or on free prescriptions. On other issues, such as Europe, or on immigration, the Scottish Conservatives tend to adopt a more liberal tone than some of our English counterparts.
There are other areas where this Liberal Unionist tradition can be seen in policy positions. The championing of localism, pushing power out from the centre down to communities, families and individuals, is at the heart of what modern Scottish Conservatives stand for. Ruth Davidson’s recent speech on housing indicates a willingness to address societal problems with radical action in a manner which the Party has shied away from for too long.
“Standing up for Scotland”, that essentially Unionist slogan, is already the mantra of the team of 13 Conservative MPs elected to the House of Commons – the highest number in more than three decades. This is a group of talented men and women able to articulate the Scottish interest at the heart of Government in a manner that the SNP MPs shouting from the sidelines whom they replaced were never able to achieve.
For the first time in a generation, the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives are on an upward trajectory. We have gone from being the third party of Scottish politics, to be one challenging to be in government. There is much we can learn from the experience of our Liberal Unionist predecessors as we go on to greater success in the future.