Friday, 13 May 2011
Party tales - 2 The Scottish Tories
The announcement of the retiral of Annabel Goldie from the leadership of the Scottish Tories may signal the return of the ‘nasty party’ image that she (and her predecessor David McLetchie) had spent so much time trying to repair. Indeed the manner of her going is almost like the days of Thatcher and the ‘men in suits’. It may also signal the retreat of the Tory party back over the border, but this remains to be seen.
Everyone’s favourite auntie - everyone outside the Scottish Tories that is - she finally succumbed when the results showed that what many thought was impossible had happened. Although obscured by the virtually complete melt-down of the LibDem votes, there was a further drop of between 2 and 5% in what was considered the hard core of the Tory vote in Scotland. This may not be even close to the beating meted out to their coalition partners, but people voting for the Tories knew what they are getting and support their economics, unlike those who felt betrayed by the LibDems.
This level of drop may be explicable, given an unpopular Tory government in Westminster, but the Tory party is not given to tolerance of failure. It is ironic, too, as Annabel had probably more than anyone else, begun to rekindle sympathy for the Tories in Scotland.
The future direction of the party now hangs in the balance. Do they continue down the ‘One Nation’ route, which runs the risk of alienating them (in practice, if not in image) from their Westminster colleagues, or do they line up much more ideologically behind their economic liberalism and rekindled Thatcherism?
Of course, given the views of voters here, will any lurch to the right, consolidate them or further damage their electoral prospects in Scotland? How much was the Westminster leadership involved in the ousting of the Scottish leader? It strikes me that there are two possible scenarios.
One, the party continues in the positive engagement mode at Holyrood, that Annabel had championed. That would at least buy them some time and, who knows, if they made some intercessions on Scotland’s behalf, might even continue the respect-building. Two, the party lurches to the right, readopts a Thatcherite liberal, free market policy line, advocating Westminster ConDem policies in Scotland in the teeth of the bulk of public opinion.
Scenario one, I suggest, is unlikely. Given the size of Alec’s victory, who is there for the Tories to engage with? He doesn’t need them now, and if he wants to pick a fight with Westminster in advance of an Independence referendum, concessions to the Tories in Scotland are unlikely. In any case, if this was to be the course, why drop the pilot?
And in any case, does David Cameron want to ameliorate his government’s policies for Scotland? Might he not see the sloughing off of a public service-valuing, troublesome, socialist-inclined drag on his reforms as something he quietly welcomes? Certainly there is a clear shift in Scottish business towards the SNP and independence. The Tory-backing Sun advocated a vote for the SNP in the Holyrood elections, and some Tory commentators have openly advocated winding up the Scottish Tories and creating a separate Scottish free-market, right-wing party.
One way of doing this might be to replace Annabel, with a more toe-the-economic line leader, (say Jackson Carlaw or Murdo Fraser) who would more strongly advocate Westminster policies for Scotland. Any resulting unpopularity might make the case for Scottish independence more palatable to Tory backers, and similarly provide the impetus for a ‘new’ right-wing Scottish party.
This is not to say that Cameron will advocate independence. Indeed, he will be as strongly pro-union in any independence referendum as he was pro FPTP in the AV one. But he is likely to be pragmatic. If there are diminishing returns in a business, it might be better to hive it off. Let’s face it, how many more Westminster seats can the Tories lose?