The centenary of any organisation ought to be a time for celebration, an opportunity to look back with satisfaction on 100 years of achievement and, if nothing else, sheer longevity. Marking its half-century in 1962 that might have been true for what was then still known as the “Scottish Unionist Party”; but another 50 years later, what is now known – in full – as the “Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party”, has little worth celebrating.
Although the party has had its share of triumphs, not least the unique achievement in Scottish politics of securing both a majority of the popular vote and of MPs at the 1955 general election, its recent history has been a tale of managed decline. Sadly, few of those gathering in Troon this weekend will even be aware there is an anniversary at all, yet 100 years ago this year, the modern Scottish Tory Party came into existence.
There is, fittingly, a neat circularity in the condition of Scottish Conservatism from 1912 to 2012. History might not repeat itself, as Mark Twain is supposed to have observed, but it does rhyme. The Scottish Unionist Party was forged amid renewed attempts to deliver “Home Rule” for Ireland; today many of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s problems are arguably derived from its attitude to devolution for Scotland.
The parallels don’t end there. In 1912 Conservative representation in Scotland was relatively weak (only nine Conservative and Liberal Unionist MPs were returned at the election of December 1910), while in 2012 the party has just one MP and 15 MSPs, the product of around 15 per cent of the popular vote. A hundred years ago, as today, the Liberals and Tories formed an alliance (for good or ill).
On his recent visit to Edinburgh, the Prime Minister of that contemporary coalition, David Cameron, had little choice but to acknowledge his party’s weakness north of the border. “I know that the Conservative Party is not currently – how can I put this – Scotland’s most influential political movement,” he admitted. “I am often reminded that I have been more successful in helping to get pandas into [Edinburgh] zoo than Conservative MPs elected in Scotland.” This is Ruth Davidson’s first conference as the Scottish Tory Party’s new leader, and while she might not be aware of this historical baggage, it is nevertheless instructive. For she faces many of the same problems faced by unionist leaders such as the Canadian-Scot Andrew Bonar Law a century ago: defending the Union and rebuilding support for a beleaguered party. It is, in short, an unenviable task.
On the former, Davidson has started well.
An appearance on Nicky Campbell’s The Big Questions debate programme a few weeks ago indicated that hers is an articulate and coherent unionist voice: reasonable, free of histrionics and, crucially, largely positive. Drawing on her own background – most notably her links with the Territorial Army – Davidson was able to tell a unionist story that might just resonate as the debate unfolds.
This weekend’s conference will also see Davidson front a new campaign group – “Conservative Friends of the Union” (CFU) – to fight for the Union. A “Rally for the Union” will feature Lord Trimble (Northern Ireland), Cheryl Gillan (Wales), Baroness Warsi (UK), Davidson (Scotland) and Lord Strathclyde (House of Lords). There are obvious problems with this: a trio of peers will easily be dismissed by Nationalists opposed to the Upper House, but it’s a start, and at least acknowledges the Province and Principality as parts of the UK, unlike the Anglo-centric SNP.
It will also be the first group of its kind, the Liberal Democrats and Labour having paid lip service to the Union at their respective Scottish conferences without establishing campaigning backup. That, of course, will follow, with Labour no doubt asserting a dominant role. The plan remains to operate three individual party campaigns underneath a cross-party umbrella group. The latter appears to be less well developed than the former.
Davidson has a tougher task when it comes to rejuvenating the party she now leads. It still isn’t clear what the strategy in this respect actually is. To be fair, Davidson has been energetic – as during her leadership campaign – in engaging with as much of the party, in as many parts of Scotland, as possible, but that can only work if there’s something more than pressing the flesh underpinning the whole exercise.
The pitch that the party under her guidance will work harder than ever before wasn’t good enough during last year’s leadership election, nor is it convincing several months into Davidson’s tenure. That, in various guises, has been Scottish Tory strategy since 1997, and it hasn’t exactly paid dividends. Coupled with this is continuing triangulation, otherwise known as throwing in the towel when it comes to certain controversial policy positions.
Scottish Tories such as Murdo Fraser (who’s been rather low key since his defeat by Davidson) and Jackson Carlaw (who’s proving an articulate deputy) had arguably made a good fist of deconstructing the SNP Government’s proposals for minimum alcohol pricing, flagging up the practical effects on otherwise responsible drinkers and, more to the point, the political aspect: an extension of the nanny state, which Conservatives are supposed to oppose.
There was, of course, a snag. The UK Tory leader suddenly became rather keen on minimum pricing in England, creating a difficult, if rather routine policy divergence post- 1999 (did the English Tories feel compelled to follow the Scottish Tories’ lead in supporting free personal care?). Thus Davidson was presumably politely requested to execute a U-turn, proclaiming herself content with a couple of modest SNP legislative concessions.
Brian Monteith, once an interesting Tory MSP, used a recent newspaper column to tear up his non-existent Conservative membership card.
Davidson’s decision “to back the misguided and paternalist policy of minimum pricing of alcohol would have been the last of many straws for me,” he wrote. “That is it. The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has disappointed me once too often and now it is neither Scottish, Conservative, nor even Unionist.” Monteith didn’t quite explain the charge that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party was no longer “Unionist”, but he probably had in mind its rather muddled referendum strategy.
Davidson made it clear during her leadership campaign that the Scotland Bill (currently in Committee Stage in the House of Lords) amounted to a constitutional “line in the sand”.
Lines in sand can, of course, be washed away by incoming tides.
The Prime Minister’s recent Edinburgh speech, promising more powers for Holyrood should Scots do their patriotic duty and vote no in the autumn of 2014, amounted to an incoming tide. David Mundell, the party’s only Scottish MP and a solid presence at the Scotland Office, has since tried to square the circle by arguing that Davidson’s stance applied only until the referendum and was therefore consistent with the new line emanating from Downing Street.
Maybe so, but it left Lord Forsyth, the last Conservative Scottish Secretary and very probably the man who secured grassroots support for Davidson, most likely feeling used and angry. As one of the Upper House’s main scrutineers of the Scotland Bill, he campaigned for Davidson on the basis that it was, as she said, a line in the sand, and was less than happy to discover that was no longer the case. His response to Cameron’s speech was, therefore, predictably damning.
Part of the problem is that the UK Government lacks an holistic constitutional strategy, preferring to tackle political problems in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and, increasingly, England, on a classically British ad hoc basis. This might have worked well in the past, but is now subject to the law of diminishing returns. Bright Tory critics like Tim Montgomerie have urged Cameron to kill several birds with one stone by embracing federalism, but such (Liberal) schemes will doubtlessly fall on deaf ears.
The view in Downing Street is, as ever, one of polite bafflement. Scotland to them is simply another world, and one that planning no longer embraces. A recent presentation covering target seats for the next election was conspicuously England-centric, while some in London HQ fear even Mundell won’t be spared from boundary changes. “Ruth Davidson has made a good start,” a Downing Street insider told the ConservativeHome website, “but to rely on the Scottish Conservatives contributing anything substantial to the Westminster party after the next election would be a triumph of hope over experience.” Does history offer any glimmers of hope? From its low base of eleven MPs in 1912 (two were added to the 1910 tally courtesy of by-elections), within six years the fledgling Scottish Unionist Party went from a pre-First World War rump despaired of by London to the pre-eminent Scottish political party of the 20th century. With the Irish Question settled in 1922, the Unionists forged an identity that was both decentralist and Conservative, Nationalist (with a small ‘n’) and Unionist. It was a strategic masterstroke, but most likely an historical example that won’t repeat itself.