JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 11.11.11
THE CONSERVATIVE and Unionist Party: oh yes, I remember them well, the Scottish Tories of old. They were tweedy types, no question: when I first came to political consciousness, some time around the 1959 general election, our local MP was one John Scott Maclay, later Viscount Muirshiel, the son of a wealthy west of Scotland shipowning family who went to Winchester and Cambridge, married into the aristocracy, and became Secretary of State for Scotland in Harold McMillan’s cabinet.
With hindsight, though, those old Tories seem like a fairly harmless breed, compared with their modern heirs and successors. They had their social prejudices, no doubt. But they were also the generation who had lived through the Depression of the 1930’s and the Second World War, and had learned the lessons of those traumatic events. They supported the welfare state and the NHS, built council houses at high speed, and did little to disturb Britain’s hard-won postwar settlement; and there were times, in the 1950’s, when they commanded more than 50% of Scottish votes.
All of which is a slice of history worth remembering, as we survey the task facing the new Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who took up her post this week following a noisy but superficial leadership election, much enlivened by her rival Murdo Fraser’s proposal that the Scottish Tory Party should disband completely, and relaunch itself under a new name.
For the truth – not yet acknowledged, by any leadership candidate – is that the age of neoliberalism, which began with Margaret Thatcher’s election as Tory leader back in 1975, has been a comprehensive diasaster for the Conservative Party in Scotland. The idea that society barely exists simply has no traction in a country of this size; and the idea that the state is the enemy of the people seems like nonsense, in a nation of broadly Nordic temper, where every family contains its share of public employees. Dislike of Thatcherism, and its apparent belief that mass unemployment is a price worth paying for economic efficiency, powered the home rule movement of the 1980’s and 90’s; and today, with another right-wing government at Westminster, it is bolstering a surge in support for the Scottish National Party, even from people who have serious doubts about that ultimate goal of independence.
The Scottish Tories therefore face an exceptionally tough task on at least three fronts, in seeking to rebuild their Scottish base. In economic terms, they urgently need to distance themselves from the neoliberal excesses of both Tory and New Labour governments in London. They need to pledge themselves to socially responsible, well-regulated forms of capitalism that place no premium on the kinds of shocking pack-behaviour still sweeping the global markets; they need to support small businesses against the leviathans of commerce, show concern for the viability of local communities, and perhaps get behind the SNP’s proposed Tesco Tax, as a way of signalling a clear ideological shift.
Then secondly, they need to work out where they stand on social issues; for if there is one clear gap on the right of Scottish politics, it involves the religious right, who, despite their small numbers, represent a noisy, well-organised minority in search of a Christian-Democrat-style party prepared to support their views on everything from abortion to gay marriage. It’s easy to imagine how Ruth Davidson, as a gay woman herself, could use her unique position to play up the line that gay people should now just get on with their lives, and stop campaigning in ways that get on the nerves of those who dislike them; and although it would be a disreputable move, given the extent to which Ruth Davidson’s generation owe their own freedoms to those in the gay community who would not take “no” for an answer, in the short term it could give the Scottish Tories the kind of instant poll boost they seek.
Even if Ruth Davidson stays true to the modernising Cameron image on social issues, though, and begins to put some clear mauve water between herself and the London Tories on the future of capitalism, she will still need to tackle the most difficult question of all; the question of just how Unionist Scotland’s Conservatives should now be, and how much political capital they should expend in defending the Union from an increasingly confident SNP attack. On the face of it, the Conservatives have everything to gain from becoming the first party to mount a really articulate 21st century defence of the Union; most Scottish voters, after all, remain unconvinced of the case for independence.
At a deeper level, though, it is difficult to see exactly what positive arguments for the Union Ruth Davidson can deploy, from the centre-right, without courting further unpopularity. The model of capitalism now rampant in the city of London is unacceptable to a majority of Scots, including many of a broadly Conservative persuasion. And the international image and clout of the UK has suffered severe damage in recent years, following our controversial interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; Britain no longer feels like a nation firmly on the right side of history, as it did at the time of the Second World War.
All of which strongly suggests that if the Scottish Tories want to carve a successful new place for themselves, they will in fact need to become less Unionist, rather than more so; they will need to focus on developing a viable vision of a centre-right, business-friendly Scotland, rather than on defending the increasingly unimpressive structures of the Union. Yet as they try to complete that tough transition – under Ms Davidson’s leadership, or after yet another fierce power-struggle – they can at least console themselves with the thought that tough though their task is, it pales by comparison with that now facing the Labour Party; which must somehow strive to reinvent social democracy in an age when the nation-states that nurtured it are in meltdown, and to defend a politics of solidarity at a time when all the forces in play are explosively centrifugal, placing a premium on the assertion of difference, and on the drawing of new borders both on the map, and in the mind.