Tories struggle to maintain a political ecosphere beyond England…

The latest developments don’t mean the end of Conservatism in Scotland. But it is indicative of 1) the kind of fuzzy thinking that at times pervades some very well intentioned innovations within the Cameron kitchen cabinet; and 2) the dearth of committed Scots within the modern Conservative party.

And it comes within a year of the failure of the UCU-NF project.

I’m told over and over that David Cameron is committed to the Union, and to outreach to the outer nations of the UK. I’ve no doubt that some people within the Conservative party certainly are. Or that the PM thinks it is important. But most of those true believers are English, or Scots have lived in England for so long they now come across as being culturally embedded in the Westminster/English milieu.

Now their feel for the Scottish popular pulse is negligible. And it has allowed their own party base often to project all manner of inferior qualities upon the Scots almost as a nation already external to the Union (which it is not quite yet). Even the polemic of the subvention was a hand too readily overplayed when a Scot was British PM (the last one ever, perhaps?) because the Conservatives had already begun playing the hand that was more obviously politically crucial to them: the exclusively English one.

Iain Martin may be right when he tweets that quitting the field, or rather being seen to quit the political field in Scotland is Christmas come early for the SNP:

Tory plan to shut Scottish Conservative + Unionist party = Christmas for the SNP. Salmond’s people will love it, killing themselves laughing

There is no easy way back for the Conservatives outside England. As noted here before, the idea of a broken Kingdom arises from English resentment at the Scots and it is often powerfully articulated by Conservatives both in politics and in the press.

Yet, by contrast in Wales there is a Tory revival, of sorts. That may be because England is not so remote from at least half the country, where transport links eastwards often exert a more powerful influence upon local communities than the road to Cardiff. Accordingly, the cultural and political tensions with the ‘mother country’ have never been as powerful as that which obtains with the Scots, despite the equally divisive industrial politics of the 1980s.

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  • Ní Dhuibhir

    It would take a lot of work on the part of the Conservative Party to make them electable in Scotland, because the things that have made them (semi) electable in England just don’t apply there. Most importantly, they’re not one of two almost-equally-reviled parties there, and an untested, incoherent alternative is not the only other option. The SNP isn’t as unreservedly beloved as its election results might suggest, but people have seen it get stuff done.

    It’s interesting that the big events recently in England – the ones that even people who don’t read newspapers have a view on – don’t translate easily into the Scottish political landscape. They didn’t have any riots, so the justification for recent Tory tub-thumping doesn’t exist. God knows they’ve got problems of their own, but we’re unlikely to hear David Cameron offering a convincing solution to Old Firm violence, Glaswegian life expectancy or the four-year degree fees conundrum any time soon.

    Ultimately the problem is the recurrent one for England, of whether its place in the union is as its centre, or as one of several constituent parts. This goes beyond the constitutional issue of devolution for England etc – culturally, it’s about the Conservative Party realising that north of the border, they are the ones who talk funny.

  • I think there’s no doubt there’s ideological room for a modern, independence-agnostic (perhaps friendly, at some point?), economically-dry centre-right party in Scottish life. The great skill of Salmond – which may one day fail him – is his ability to invoke Andrew Carnegie and Jimmy Reid, bucaneering capitalist and radical socialist, in the same window of speechifying. He’s very natural at transcending and including the ideological polarities of Scottish life – lots of stuff here to be learned from the neurosciences (George Lakoff, etc) about how successful politicians “naturalise” their vision through behaviour, language, appearance. Unfortunately, the right rebranding exercise is being fronted by the wrong person – Murdo Fraser has the charisma of a censorious local bank manager, while Ruth Davidson (young, bright, and lesbian) would modernise a “Scottish Progress” party on a dime…if, er, she wasn’t such a Cameron loyalist. But as someone who was convinced the Scottish Greens would get 8-10 seats at the last Holyrood election, and hold the balance of power in an ‘independence majority’, you shouldn’t listen to me…

  • Blaidd

    “Yet, by contrast in Wales there is a Tory revival, of sorts. That may be because England is not so remote from at least half the country, where transport links eastwards often exert a more powerful influence upon local communities than the road to Cardiff.”

    Wales has a large English minority, accounting for around 25% of our population. The Tory vote is safest in the borders, Pembrokeshire and the retirement settlements dotted along the coast. These areas voted Labour under Tony Blair but have now swung back to the Conservatives. They still can’t break out of these highly Anglicised areas though, and the only way they could gain power is via a coalition with Plaid Cymru which would alienate their ‘ethnic English’ grassroots.

    There is a small ‘cultural nationalist’ element of the Tory party in Wales, represented by a few Welsh-speaking businessmen and farmers who feel disenchanted by Plaid’s leftism. The party seemed to embrace this for a while under Nick Bourne

  • Fair Deal

    Not so much his kitchen cabinet but Cameron. He is a skater. He never applies himself to an issue for a sufficient length of time to get to the substantive.

  • Old Mortality

    I fear that Murdo Fraser cannot see the wood for the trees. The reason why Conservatives have suffered decreasing popularity in Scotland is precisely because it is a right-of-centre party.
    Since the 1960s an increasingly large part of the Scottish electorate has become dependent on the state for a living and it is not going to vote for a party that aims for a smaller state.
    Having said that, (I hope) there is a more significant constituency in Scotland for right-of-centre policies than the current standing of the Conservative party might indicate. If not, then God help Scotland.

  • Dewi

    “Accordingly, the cultural and political tensions with the ‘mother country’…”
    The “mother country” – what a strange imperialistic expression – not read that phrase for decades to be honest.

  • I see Fraser has hit more bumps in the road (or as we London-based types call them “school-kids”). From today’s Scotsman:

    His plans have already provoked criticism from Sir Jack Harvie, the transport tycoon, philanthropist and member of Conservative business group Focus On Scotland, who has been the party’s biggest single backer in Scotland over successive financial quarters.

    Speaking earlier today, Mr Harvie said: “Those Scottish Conservatives not wishing to follow Mr Fraser into his separatist political group can expect Focus on Scotland to continue funding the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party.”

    So it looks as if the whole thing isn’t SCUPpered yet. Anyway, I hear the smart money should be on Ruth Davidson, the Glasgow region MSP, if only because she has the tacit backing of Dave, and the active support of the old guard and heavy hitters, notably Annabel Goldie and John Lamont. If Fraser takes it, that moves SCUP firmly to the Right.

    New readers might usefully catch up with Background: Politics that had their roots in Kirk and empire, also in The Scotsman today. This is, wisely, anonymous, ascribed to “Staff Reporters”. Get the tone from this:

    Protestantism also played an important part in the party’s working-class appeal.

    Although not explicitly articulated by the party, this appeal was projected through the endorsement and promotion of well-known Church of Scotland members or prominent Orangemen in areas of west and central Scotland where the Orange Lodge had strong support.

    Oddly, the piece doesn’t note the self-destruction of the Poll Tax trialling.

    [Hey! The preview has disappeared!]

  • wee buns

    I’d like to nominate Ní Dhuibhir for astute-phrase-of-the-day:

    ”This goes beyond the constitutional issue of devolution for England etc – culturally, it’s about the Conservative Party realising that north of the border, they are the ones who talk funny.”

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    If the Tories have any brains at all, they’ll support Murdo Fraser on this. When they made the decision to let Cameron and his crowd run the party, they gave up any chance of winning in Scotland there and then. Not deliberately I’m sure – but that in itself shows how ignorant many of them are about politics outside the English shires and how little they care, as long as they get elected there.

    Job number one of any Conservative wanting to take a Labour, SNP or Lib Dem seat in Scotland, I would have thought, is to have Scottish credibility. Having the Scottish wing as a separate party has to be a logical step. The comparison with the CDU / CSU relationship over Bavaria seems a good one, though the Scottish Tories could do with a Franz-Josef Strauss really.

  • IJP

    You can be “committed to the Union” but still wrong-headed in your approach to maintaining it.

    For too many “Unionist Tories” – and I have first-hand experience of this – commitment to maintaining the Union actually means commitment to maintaining some kind of “Greater England”. That does not reflect the reality of the modern UK (or indeed modern European trends).

    Murdo Fraser has approached this nonsensically – where does he go if he is defeated by a candidate who disagrees with him and wishes to maintain the brand he has described as toxic?

    Mainland Ulsterman

    No, the comparison to CDU/CSU is a very bad one. That whole relationship is predicated upon there being a meaningful threat, should the CSU drift too far out of line, of the CDU intervening electorally. Yet Murdo Fraser’s whole case is that the “CDU” brand (as it were) is “toxic”, clear evidence that there is no meaningful threat of electoral intervention.

    What is required is to stop navel gazing, stop talking about technicalities, and to develop a compelling narrative of a prosperous Scotland within a federal UK.

  • Dewi

    “What is required is to stop navel gazing, stop talking about technicalities, and to develop a compelling narrative of a prosperous Scotland within a federal UK”#

    Why not develop a compelling narrative of a prosperous independent Scotland? There might be a little more political room for that – Unionism in Scotland is a touch crowded.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I’m no expert on the old bayerische Politik but I don’t think your distinction checks out. You say there is no credible threat of Tory intervention and contrast this with the CDU’s ability to step into the CSU’s shoes in Bavaria. But the Tories are there already in Scotland, they have already intervened, so to speak – and failed for generations. The move would be about rolling that back. I don’t see the problem with the Scottish Tories having that kind of CDU-CSU relationship with the English Tories.

    It’s basically presentational but a smart move to win over right of centre Scots who object to having to vote for a party that appears, in national terms, to put the English first (as exemplified by the Poll Tax disaster).

    He’s burned some bridges by saying the brand’s toxic in Scotland, but he’s also right to say it’s toxic – so those bridges are best left burnt. Good on him for speaking his mind and having a plan beyond just trundling along the bottom of the polls.

    The Tories in England only started to grasp the toxicity of their brand among target voters there – a smaller hill to climb than in Scotland – some ten years after losing power. In my view they have not gone far enough to detoxify and their underwhelming result in 2010 against a tired government in disarray was in large part due to that.

  • Martin Keegan

    @Mainland Ulsterman says the Scottish Tories need a Franz-Josef Strauss … well, they’re in danger of getting a Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

  • Paul of Glasgow

    The Tories may tap into the old orange vote in turning to a Scottish Unionist party and having greater links with their Ulster cousins. But of course the problem for the Tories is that they do not get why Scotland don’t like them. They talk of generational bias but that is simply not true when Glasgow a supossedly radical left wing city was governed by the Tories in the thirties. The problem itself is not with Scotland this is a similar problem in areas in the north of Enlgand mainly becuase the Tories have a London-centric view.
    The plausible reason for not making the Scottish conservatives seperate for the Uk conservatives is because by seperating them a man of independence thinking could simply state that if the Tories are better run as an independent why not the country itself.
    The rich of Scotland are traditionally Tory and the views of Tories are certainly not the problem as if you truly look at the SNP it is clear to see that this party is more the Scottish Tories it talks of attacking the Tories but enacts the same type of economic policy, lacking proper respect for local governemnt and indeed the lowering of corporation tax being the answer to all the problems of Scotland