Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Scottish Conservative breakaway

I've just read the article on the Telegraph about the possibility of the Scottish Conservatives disbanding and re-forming in a new separate right-of-centre party if Murdo Fraser wins the leadership election. It would predominantly be a rebranding exercise, but the impact of this on the UK's political field could be massive.

Firstly, we must be sceptical of the extent to which a rebranding of the party can be effective. The Conservatives have changed their brand a great deal recently in an attempt to pick up votes from the centre and disaffected Labour supporters. However, in the process, they've managed to lose the support of traditional Tories and proper small c conservatives. Despite rebranding, they've failed to improve their standing in Scotland, which has firmly gone in a diverging direction in terms of wanting more public spending, welfare, etc. Any party which seeks to reverse the trend of government spending and taxation is not well-received by the majority of Scots. Considering the Scottish Conservatives already have a great deal of independence to set policy for their Scottish Parliament elections, forming it into a new party may have only limited impact on the policies the party pursues.. The Scottish people aren't stupid; it will be quite clear to them that the party is not much different apart from now being fully independent. If their policies are not attractive to them in their current form, I find it unlikely that there will suddenly be turnaround in the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives.

However, something important to point out at this point is that if the Scottish Conservatives do disband and form a new party, it would not only contest in Scottish council and Parliament elections, but also in the national Westminster Parliament and EU Parliament elections. That would leave the national Tory party in a perplexing position; either allow the newly-formed party to be the only powerful right-of-centre party in Scotland, or to shun the breakaway and continue to contest elections in Scotland with Conservatives and predominantly paper candidates. The latter is unlikely, as there would be little point given that the Tories already have very little success in Scotland, and this would be further reduced by the split in the right-wing vote caused by the new party. Presuming that the new party wins seats in Westminster whilst a Conservative government is in office, there's then the confusing issue of whether they're considered to be allies of the government, or remain in opposition. The two parties would need to work out whether they enter into formal or informal agreements, or whether they simply remain completely separate. I suspect that the leadership of a the Scottish party would be unlikely to enter into agreements with the Conservatives in Parliament as their aim is to become more independent and remove the stigma attacked to Tories in Scotland.

The reaction of the upper echelons of the national UK-wide party have yet to be fully seen, though David Cameron is currently keeping quiet. Given what I've outlined above in terms of the total loss of influence of Conservatives in Scotland, it seems unlikely that Conservatives in the national party are going to be pleased about the possibility. It's possible that the national party could prevent the break-away from happening by making it clear that a new party would receive no support of any kind from the Tories, either in terms of funds or political support.

The possibility also raised the issue of Scottish independence, with some commentators suggesting that the continuing move towards a more independent Scotland will be furthered if the breakaway goes ahead. I am sceptical of this, because the majority of those in the Scottish party support unionism and do not wish to see a breakaway. Scotland is clearly edging ever-closer to going it alone, and with its political parties becoming more independent, it could help to further the cause and bring about independence faster. Whilst most Tories are quite firmly against breaking up the union, it would very much be in the party's best political interests to allow Scotland to go independent. In the 2010 general election, the party won a grand total of 1 Scottish constituency, out of a possible 59. Scotland is a Labour stronghold, and it will continue to be with the unpopularity of the coalition government and the collapse in the Lib Dem vote. A Parliament without members from Scotland would give the Conservatives a much greater chance of winning more seats and getting the coveted overall majority which they need to be able form a government without the influence of the dopey Lib Dims. If the Conservatives are serious about being in power again, it's time to give up on Scotland and do some good old-fashioned party before country by supporting the Scottish independence movement; when even your own party north of the border doesn't want to be associated with you, it's time to give in. The Conservative line on this would be best served focusing upon expense, citing such examples as Scotland receiving more government money than other regions, the inequality in Scottish students getting free university tuition whilst it is unaffordable in England, etc. Perhaps even the promise of modest tax cuts if Scotland is cut loose. Tory MPs will perhaps have to be willing to put aside their views on Scottish independence if they want a chance of forming a Conservative majority government in the near future.

However, I pride myself on formulating electoral strategies, even if they're not built upon evidence of things that will work. But surely anything would be worth a go if it can help prevent the break-up of the Conservative party. Even if you despise the party, you must at least respect the history of this long-standing party and be aware that strong parties which hold each other to account are - despite their silly bickering and political games - good for democracy. My strategy for attempting to strengthen the Tories north of the border would be primarily to beat the left at their own game in terms of morality and social issues. I always highlight that the view of the world that the left pursues moral, caring policies and the right is uncaring and immoral is simplistic and in most cases wrong. There are strong cases to be put forward that proper conservative policies would create the most wealth, success, and happiness. I intend to go into this topic in more depth in a future article in a typically polemic discussion of how the right is the moral force in politics and the left is evil. (I've scrawled notes for this article in the back of George W. Bush's autobiography.) In summary though, the Tories shouldn't be ashamed of what the majority of their MPs believe. They can't get away from the nasty party image because people know what their past policies were and see aspects of them being implemented today.

I hasten also to add that I and others may be over-stating the misfortune of the Tories in the land of kilts and haggis. Before the Labour landslide in 1997, the party fared reasonably in Scotland. In 1992, when the Conservatives snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with John Major at the helm, 26% of the Scottish vote was for the Conservatives and 40% for Labour. In 2010, the Tories had fallen to 17% and Labour remained around 40%, but the SNP snaffled a sizeable 20%. It isn't clear yet whether the decline in the Conservatives' fortunes in Scotland is permanent. If the referendum on independence take places and fails - as it is likely to do - it seems probable that the SNP's vote will drop dramatically, removing them as the second-most powerful force in Scottish politics. The Telegraph puts forward the view that a respectable chunk of the SNP's vote is Tories who are attempting to keep Labour out of government by holding their nose and voting SNP. Perhaps after the referendum fails they will return to their political home and assist in reversing the decline of the party. What happens remains to be seen.

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