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Phil Neal looks at Murdo Fraser's attempt to scrap the Scottish Tories to set up a new centre-right party. He argues that this reflects the increasingly devolved nature of Scottish politics, and if successful the maneuver could pose problems for the SNP.

Described by a Times commentator as “a hand grenade into the middle of an otherwise ritual contest”, Murdo Fraser’s declaration of his intention to split the Scottish Tories from Westminster should he win the leadership contest has unfortunately focused more attention than normal upon a party long-considered a toxic brand north of the border.

The 1997 wipe-out is a humiliation from which the party has never recovered.  This was demonstrated in the 2011 Scottish Elections despite a concerted effort by both the Westminster party and its Scottish branch.  However, the recent SNP landslide was not the disaster for the Conservatives that was predicted; instead Labour took the brunt of the damage having failed to provide a positive message.  The Tories only lost five seats and their limited support held firm.

The leadership contest that was subsequently sparked must be understood in such a context of both terminal decline and now stagnation. The Conservatives have reached rock bottom and can now only lose their remaining lot to the SNP who have since angled their centre-left rhetoric to include a pro-business slant.  Michael Gove’s assertion that the party must become a force north of the border to counter the SNP’s “separatist socialist argument” belies the true crisis of the Tories in Scotland - there is a centre right ideology emerging and they are nowhere to be found as part of the debate.

Fraser’s declaration is part of a wider recalibration of the relationship between Scottish parties and their Westminster counterparts in order to face the upcoming independence referendum in 2013.

There are clear advantages for the centre-right if they were to set up a new party in Scotland.  The Tories are perennially regarded as anti-Scottish and historical fact supports this belief – Thatcher’s decimation of Scottish industry and introduction of poll tax are still raw in Scottish consciousness.  With Labour also in tatters the race is on between these two parties to get their houses in order to control a ‘No’ Referendum Campaign that, if run effectively, could reap benefits for the successful party.

The decline of the Westminster parties to the benefit of the SNP is seen to be a result of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory candidates failing to present themselves as credible representatives on Scottish issues.  This is supported by evidence from the Scottish Election Study, which shows that voters in Scotland primarily think of their homeland first in elections.  The fact that the Tories have the lowest rating of all parties in the study, with 0.75 out of 4, speaks volumes for the degree to which the Scottish Tories have lost the trust of the Scottish electorate.

Whilst the new party envisioned by Fraser would still retain links with Westminster Tories, a distinctive Scottish centre-right party is an astutely bold move by the deputy leader, and marks a final implosion for the party in Scotland, with some saying this should have happened in 1997.

Whether Scottish Conservatism wakes up to this reality is a different matter.  Despite her inexperience, Fraser’s closest contender, Ruth Davidson, provides a less ambitious solution for those not ready to jump ship just yet.  She recognises the need for change within the party and is favoured by Cameron, but perhaps does not realise that merely being a lesbian kick-boxer (her attempt at a ‘normal’ image) does not automatically shed the toxicity of the Tory brand and mean she will connect with voters.  People will not forget the lingering homophobia that pervades the rest of her party.  Little alternative is provided in the form of Jackson Carlaw, who represents the hard right of Scottish Conservatism and is so pro-unionist that he doesn’t even support extended fiscal powers for Holyrood.

It is clear that the twilight years of Scottish Conservatism have arrived.  What remains to be seen is whether it reinvents itself as a credible alternative to those who vote SNP to protect Scottish interests but aren’t convinced by the dissolution of the Union, most important of these constituents being big business and Scottish capital.

As austerity hits Scotland hard, support for independence seems to be rising but the SNP is not the answer.  This pro-business party successfully snatched the social democratic mantle from Labour at the last election and won over a section of the working class previously alien to it.  Populist Salmond knows that whilst he now has a mandate for referendum, part of his victory was due to an internal crisis of the other three parties failing to respond to Scottish issues.

The tension now comes as Westminster puts the squeeze on the Barnett formula, limiting the Scottish budget and whilst the population might be moving towards independence, the SNP’s popularity won’t necessarily hold up as it takes the axe to Scotland.

While the notion of independence is currently popular, the business support the SNP has garnered could begin to fade if it cannot demonstrate itself as capable of providing a market-friendly independent Scotland.  The solution to this is a stronger ‘Yes’ campaign which says no to austerity and stands shoulder to shoulder with the European working class fighting against cuts.

Fraser’s new model has the potential to gain the support of Scottish capital if the referendum fails and the SNP cannot control the economy for market interests.

The counter to this is not Scottish Labour either. It does not present a viable representation for Scottish interests.  Having been left with a motley crew of MSPs mainly made up of parliamentary assistants, they look unlikely to reclaim their lost working class loyalty in the near future. As the economy worsens and a double dip recession looks likely, Scottish capital is hesitant to stray away from similar policies to those of the Tories in England.  Cuts are likely to get deeper in the absence of a united fight back composed of unions, communities and the unemployed.

The danger here is that Fraser provides an opportunity for a recalibration of Scottish capital that politically strays away from the issues of independence and having to provide decent public services and jobs. The solution is to build a new Left that takes on the arguments for an independent Scotland free of big business influence and cuts.  While Scottish Conservitism looks to be nearing the end, the ideology of centre-right neo-liberalism is still dangerously active.

This article was originally published on International Socialist Group Scotland.

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