Sunday National, 16th January 2022.
When Murdo Fraser launched his bid to lead the Scottish Tories in 2011, he led with an unexpected argument. He wanted to lead the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party into oblivion. In Darth Murdo’s vision, a new, right-wing Scottish party would emerge from the ashes of his old party, detoxified, distinctively Scottish, independent of Westminster, and capable of winning in Holyrood. He lost that leadership race, but in the years since, Murdo Fraser’s argument has never quite gone away.
The failure of Ruth Davison is one reason why. Davidson managed to defeat Fraser with two beguiling promises to the Tory membership. The first was that she wouldn’t cancel their party. The second was that she was drawing a “line in the sand” on devolution, and didn’t want Holyrood to have any more powers. Two strange passions, but enough for her to beat the front-runner – and to launch her political experiment.
If the Scottish Tories couldn’t win ideologically, could personality politics convince the electorate to forgo their traditional suspicions towards her party, and give Ruth a chance? The answer – ultimately – was no. Despite a sympathetic write-up from the media, Davidson failed. To borrow her slogan from the 2016 Holyrood election, she could outpace the ailing Labour Party in the role of a stronger Holyrood opposition, but couldn’t make the Tories into serious contenders to take over the government of the country. The failure of Project Ruth seemed to confirm once and for all that it was the movement – not personalities, comrade – which was holding the party back.
The case for Scottish Tory independence has found new advocates this week, as the Scottish party squirmed under the unforgiving scrutiny their London leadership has received. You can understand the modern Murdos’ desire to be tried separately from the Number 10 taproom, but does the argument for Scottish Tory separation really stack up?
The case for a split is fairly straightforward. The argument goes something like this. Across the democratic world, parties of the right and centre-right thrive politically. Everywhere, these parties are serious contenders for national and regional government, able to secure significant popular support and electoral coalitions to propel them into power. In some countries – like England – the right can dominate government for decades.
In Scotland, by contrast, this logic does not seem to hold. In most electoral systems, the leader of the largest opposition party in parliament has a reasonable expectation they may have the chance to form an alternative government. Not here. Neither Ruth Davidson nor Douglas Ross ever had serious aspirations to take over Bute House. With the Green Party taking up ministerial seats after the last Holyrood election, the Tories are now the only major party in Holyrood who have yet to take any share of governmental responsibility. No change to this situation is in sight, and their links to the current dispensation in Westminster tastes like electoral poison.
There is also a second strand to the argument, based on ideology. Considering public attitudes, there is no good reason why a significant number of Scots couldn’t be won over to ideas of fiscal conservatism supported by traditional right-wing arguments on things like immigration and crime. Scotland is a wealthy country with a significant middle class. Acquisitive tendencies and individualism form a considerable party of the country’s consumerist culture.
On social issues like crime, for example, Tory demands for “tougher” this and “zero tolerance” that are arguably closer to public attitudes than the approach dominating the other Holyrood parties. So why does the party struggle to poll more than a quarter of ballots? Given the opportunity to vote with their pocketbooks, why can’t more Scots be persuaded to do?
The answer Murdo Fraser reached was the toxicity of the UK party, and the perception that it is inimical to Scottish interests, entrenched during the decades of Thatcherism and underscored by the party’s Westminster wipeout in 1997. Sanitise right wing politics of its connections with UK Toryism, release Scottish Tories from responsibility for defending every decision emanating from Whitehall, and Scots might give the new right a fair hearing. That’s the idea anyway.
It isn’t widely remembered that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party – as the name might imply – was born of a party merger in 1965, after Harold Wilson won his first narrow majority for Labour, defeating Alex Douglas-Hume – who was then the Unionist MP for Kinross and Western Perthshire as well as Prime Ministerial and leader of the conservatives in the House of Commons. Some argue it is no coincidence that the collapse of Scottish Unionism into English Conservatism coincided with the rise of the SNP in the late 1960s and early 1970s – as the new candidates shrugged off their distinctly Scottish identity and ran against Labour under the banner of pan-UK conservatism. Darth Murdo’s plan was to essentially restore this position.
But what the re-emergence of Plan Murdo this week ignores is how far the Scottish Conservatives have evolved in the last eight years. Political parties shape – and are shaped by – their principal opponents. Even as late as 2011, Labour dominated Scottish Tory thinking. Their primary antagonists have now changed. It was the referendum of 2014 and SNP dominance since which radicalised them into their present form. In response to that threat – the Scottish Tories have increasingly embraced the one-nation Britishness which has taken hold across the UK party. Take the assessment of Johnson’s louche lifestyle out of it, and you find them increasingly demanding more uniformity, more concentration of power at Westminster, more loyalty to the centre rather than less.
This approach is entirely consistent with what we’ve seen from the Conservatives since Brexit. The UK’s departure from the EU has been understood as a counter-revolution against some of the main constitutional changes in the UK since the 1970s. EU regulations would be scrapped, judicial review would be trimmed back, and so too would be “Labour’s Human Rights Act.”
And why not devolution too? The emergence of the idea of a “UK single market” – enshrined in the power-grabbing Internal Market Act in 2020 – showed us the idea of the UK as a unitary state is still alive and well in the governing imaginations of many – maybe even most – British Tories, impatient with any centre of power checking their prerogatives, including the hostile regimes in Edinburgh and Cardiff. With Mark Drakeford at the helm in Wales, and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, the palpable hostility to devolution from elements of the party have been palpable, from the Prime Minister downward.
Douglas Ross was slated this week as a career critic of Boris Johnson this week. The reality is much more interesting. Ross’s leadership pitch was based on the idea he’d draw a line under Scottish Tory criticism of the Westminster leadership – on Brexit policy, but also on criticism of Johnson personally. He would be – he told us – a “Boris-backing, Brexit-positive, anti-nat” leader, in contrast with his two predecessors who vacillated loyally between public support for and public criticism of the London leadership and its policies.
After the fractious debates about if and how Brexit could be achieved, Ross was promising an end to the damaging noises-off and – if anything – a closer ideological alignment between the Scottish and UK parties. The fact he aspired to lead the Scottish Tories while serving as a member of the House of Commons under the party whip only underscored the point. Ross may not have fully honoured his loyalty pledge – but it is significant that this was his pitch to the party membership, whatever Rees-Mogg may now choose to recall.
Take defending the indefensible out of it. Remove Downing Street parties from the equation. Focus on what the Scottish Tories really care about. This is a party which has nothing to say about the political ideas the champions of Plan Murdo claim to care about.
This version of the Scottish Tories has worked itself into a fever pitch about the constitution. Their every impulse is to march in lock step with their counterparts in Westminster and Whitehall, showing every sign of being only too happy to do its bit in the re-centralisation of the United Kingdom, rationalising and excusing any damage to devolution which is done along the way.