openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Scottish Tories’ only hope of election success is to form a whole new party

There is a way forward for the Scottish Conservatives. But it’s not Boris Johnson’s resignation

Andy Maciver
18 January 2022, 11.31am
Douglas Ross’s Scottish Tories will wait to see who takes over from Johnson and cross their fingers
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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy Live News

Being a lightweight is sometimes no bad thing. As someone still recovering from a festive infusion of cheese, cured ham, bread and red wine, I envy lightweights.

In politics, however, there is no insult more heinous. When Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons and the ultimate Tory establishment figure, used it last week to describe Douglas Ross, the leader of Scotland’s Tories, he knew what he was doing, and knew of the consequences.

To many readers, the eruption of a family feud between the Scottish Tories and their London counterparts, following Ross’s call for Boris Johnson to resign after he admitted to attending a Downing Street drinks party in May 2020, may be novel. It isn’t. It would be better described as an intense heating up of a cold war that has been present, at some level, throughout the entirety of devolution. (But let us be in no doubt about the intensity of the heat – one Conservative MSP said to me about Rees-Mogg: “He’s a complete prick. The sort that makes it embarrassing to say you’re a Tory.”)

To set the scene, we need to understand the Tories’ electoral position in Scotland. Until the 2014 independence referendum, the party had never been able to gather more than 18 seats out of the available 129 in the Scottish parliament. Rightly or wrongly, the perceived toxicity of previous Conservative Westminster administrations had rendered the Scottish party unable to turn centre-Right sentiment (which is little different in Scotland than in England) into centre-Right votes.

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This left Scotland unique in Europe, as the only country with no political, electoral or mathematical possibility of seeing a centre-Right government in power. Under a proportional representation system, parties need partners to rule, and when the Tories look around the Holyrood Chamber, they see only enemies.

Fortunes changed after 2014. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories suppressed ‘the C word’ and played the role of the ultra-Unionist defenders of the UK. This has worked well for them – usurping Labour on the issue of the Union, they have returned 31 MSPs at both Holyrood elections since, as well as making a significant recovery at Westminster, through single-issue campaigns opposing a second independence referendum.

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This left the party far from government, but also far from the minority status they had endured in the years preceding.

However, as we saw last week, the fire that burns in the foundations always makes its way through the floorboards. There are many, many Jacob Rees-Moggs in the Conservative Party. The party is, at its core and in its DNA, opposed to decentralisation, whether that takes the form of devolution in the country or in its own party. It is a party that believes in centralism. A party that believes that the whole UK should be led from London.

In that sense, Rees-Mogg doesn’t think Ross is a lightweight; he thinks the leader of the Scottish Tories, whomever that may be, is a lightweight.

Nonetheless, many Scottish establishment figures, including former leaders, look beyond a Boris Johnson leadership to a figure such as chancellor Rishi Sunak, who they deem more palatable to a Scottish audience. But there are none so blind as those who will not see.

And this cohort – those who think all will be resolved by a new leader at Westminster – are constantly reducing in size, while those in favour of launching a new separate party are expanding in number. This has been happening, gradually, for around 15 years.

I first started mooting the concept of a separate Scottish centre-Right party in 2006, after I had spent time in Ottawa working on former prime minister Stephen Harper’s first successful election campaign.

The lack of a viable Tory government at Holyrood accentuates the perception of Scotland being ‘put-upon’ by Westminster Tories

In Canada, federal parties stand at federal elections; at provincial elections in the devolved assemblies, bespoke province-only parties stand, win and form governments (the New Democratic Party, Canada’s fourth party, is the exception to this rule, with unified federal and provincial parties).

It was clear to me, then, that the Scottish Tory party was never going to be in a position to win an election, but at the time there were, by my recollection, fewer than five people who agreed.

By 2010, however, the concept of a separate party was the centrepiece of the leadership campaign of Murdo Fraser. Despite an intense campaign against him by the party hierarchy, Fraser persuaded more than four-in-ten members to vote for him at a 2011 leadership election, including leading figures Malcolm Rifkind, David McLetchie, Alex Fergusson and Alister Jack.

One of the successful arguments that contributed to Fraser’s defeat was that a split in the Tory party would be a metaphor for a split in the country. That, of course, belies the Canadian experience, but even without that evidence the argument has now disintegrated.

It is now perfectly clear to anyone who is prepared to look, that the only metaphor with resonance is the unequal relationship between the two parts of the Conservative Party being a metaphor for the unequal relationship between the two largest countries in the UK. The lack of a viable Tory government at Holyrood merely accentuates the perception of Scotland being ‘put-upon’ by a Tory government at Westminster.

All of this means that it is hardly a surprise that the events of last week have reinvigorated calls for a separate party, both from old hands and new converts. My gut instinct tells me that the party’s DNA will take over and there will be no change; it tells me that MSPs will wait to see who takes over from Johnson and cross their fingers.

If they do so, they not only consign themselves to perpetual defeat in their efforts to form a government in Scotland, but they also risk sacrificing the Union at the altar of party unity.

There is a way forward for the centre-Right in Scotland, and there is a way forward for the UK. But neither takes the form they do today.

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