• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Will Conservatives ever be able to put Scotland first?

EVEN at the time it sounded like one of those folk groups I wouldn't pay to see.

You could almost picture the knitwear. Murdo Fraser and The Caledonians, coming soon to a cheese and wine ceilidh-type outreach evening near you...

Mercifully, it came to nothing. Scotland's Tories decided that they did not want their party broken up for parts and reassembled by Mr Fraser as a new centre-right indigenous combo. The wholly rational desire to avoid being known as the Caledonians must have run as deep as London's eagerness to win the leadership for Ruth Davidson.

To be fair, Mr Fraser had other, slightly less risible names available for the grand experiment should fortune have smiled. The Reform Party: that was one. Until Iain Duncan Smith arrived with his £53 all-you-can't-eat welfare buffet, reform was not actually a dirty word.

Scotland First: that was another. Some of us looked forward to hearing the election night report in which Scotland First had come fourth. Ms Davidson, who saw no need for a new-fangled party, for further devolution, or for a rebranding exercise liable to fool a few of the people some of the time, averted the alluring possibility.

Things have changed since November 2011, however. Now she has a whole new working group thinking the unthinkable and labouring to extend the devolution that needed no extending. Now she seems to think that Scotland First is a fine nom de guerre for the Scottish Conservatives. She uses it as though it just came to her. As we reported on Monday, pride and feathers have been ruffled.

So is Ms Davidson conceding that Mr Fraser was right all along? Is he waiting contentedly while the tide of history overmounts all lines in the sand and heads in his direction? Or is a certain degree of intellectual confusion still a shared trait between the two people who were each presented as the last best hope for the party?

Revealing her first thoughts on new powers for Holyrood, Ms Davidson was keen to say that the Prime Minister had given her his full support. David Cameron is due in Scotland shortly and will no doubt confirm this account while doing his usual bit for the Union. In reality, his response to the latest Scottish Tory masterplan could not have amounted to much more than "Whatever".

This is not to be unkind. It is simply a fact of life that Mr Cameron does not, cannot, base his re-election strategy on the activities of his Scottish party. It would be equivalent to saying, "Subtract the zero you first thought of". That party is a prisoner, on the other hand, to every announcement the Prime Ninister makes, to every hour of unremitting economic depression, and to every proof from the likes of Mr Duncan Smith that the Tories are detached from ordinary life and ordinary voters.

Ms Davidson wants the votes of Scots. Her purloined slogan says that she is putting them first. Meanwhile, IDS is telling them that £53 a week is more than enough to keep plebeian body and soul together. Even those who do not require social security can read a gas or an electricity bill and hear what falls from the minister's mouth. For Tory proponents of Scotland First this is, as they say, toxic.

Mr Fraser was right then, or partly right, even if – talking to the BBC in September 2011 – he did advance the self-defeating idea that the purpose of a "a new progressive centre-right with a Scottish identity" was to "get many more people elected from Scottish constituencies to support David Cameron and a future UK Conservative government". The instinct to put distance between yourself and the likes of IDS is always sound.

Let's say, then, that Ms Davidson has decided belatedly to follow that same instinct. She would first have to say – as Mr Fraser failed properly to say – what "a new progressive centre-right" could mean.

If it involved simply supporting the Coalition in all things beneath a flag of convenience, the supposedly autonomous party would be exposed instantly. If it meant something more, if it amounted to a genuinely independent entity, where would that leave Tory Unionists? "Semi-detached", at best; poised on the ancient slippery slope at, by their lights, worst.

The problem isn't going to go away. Patently, there is a conservative vote (lower-case c) in Scotland. One part of it still votes Tory, but it is a part so insubstantial it barely allowed Ms Davidson's election – by default, but that's another story – to Holyrood. She can talk until she is deep blue in the face about Scotland First, but as long as she remains yoked to Mr Cameron's Coalition amid a brutish attack on Scottish society it will do her no good. Why should it?

Mr Fraser's scheme did not solve the problem. Nor did it explain how the party, new or old, would stand after the independence referendum. Even if Scotland votes No – especially if Scotland votes No – all the half-promises of exciting times and new powers will be called in. Some people, naive people, will vote against independence expecting an improved offer.

That can be managed: a desperate party can manage most things. But manifesto gimmicks do not help anyone to understand the sort of party the Tories might become in the process. We will get a better idea on the day Ms Davidson and those around manage to make a real distinction between themselves and the Coalition.

A Yes vote in the independence referendum would meanwhile amount to an existential crisis for those same Tories. One problem, the problem of how to cope with devolution under the shadow of the Coalition, would be solved, but a bigger problem would be created. What kind of Scotland do those small-c voters really want. Are committed Scottish Tories able, never mind willing, to meet the demand?

Mr Fraser and his imagined folk troupe could furnish us with a song in that event. There are lots of terrible songs that are supposed to express how deeply Scottish the singer is. "Flower of North Britain" isn't one of them.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

149857