Scottish Conservatives 2009

Here is a piece that I wrote on the fortunes of the Scottish Conservative Party for Holyrood Magazine in February 2009

The Scottish Conservatives

One of the great ironies in the history of Scottish Politics is that the Conservative Party has a great deal to gain from the devolution that it worked so hard to oppose. Indeed, this payoff was almost immediate following the introduction of a mixed member proportional system to elect MSPs. While it failed to command a single Scottish seat during Labour’s landslide Westminster general election victory in 1997, a reduced share of the vote (from 17.5% to 15.6% of the constituency vote) gave it 18 (14%) of 129 Scottish Parliament seats – all from the regional list (it now has 17 seats, including 4 from the constituency vote). This level of representation was not enough to give it any real power in the first eight years of devolution because Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed a majority coalition that rarely needed to negotiate with the opposition parties. However, it did offer a way out of its embarrassing lack of representation and provided a spell of rehabilitation in which the party could seek to set new priorities and adapt its approach to the Scottish arena.

This has started to pay off following the formation of a minority SNP Government in 2007 producing a sense that every vote counts. In particular, it has emerged as the party most likely to secure policy concessions in return for support of the SNP’s annual budget. In the first year it secured a greater commitment to funding new police officers and revisit drugs policy, while in the second it secured a reduction in business rates and a commitment to dedicate funding to town regeneration. Although these are modest gains they are also significant. While the concessions are consistent with the SNP manifesto, they mark a moderate shift in SNP priorities. While the cost of the concessions represents less than 1% of the overall budget, there is only a 1% or so level of ‘slack’ in the budget anyway – because the funding increase is modest this year and governments feel the most pressure to maintain existing commitments. The concessions also compare favourably with those of the other parties and may represent as much as a party with 17 seats (minus the vote that Alex Fergusson effectively gave up when becoming Presiding Officer) could expect. Perhaps more importantly the Conservative party could be the only party that emerges with any sense of credit from the budget crisis. The budget process exposed both the SNP’s reliance on other parties and the role of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in seeking to oppose the budget only if it still proved successful. All three parties were undermined by the Green decision to oppose, prompting frenetic activity in Parliament to secure a face-saving deal allowing the main parties to sign up to a budget that looked suspiciously like the old one. In contrast, the Conservative position was consistent, allowing for the slightly uncomfortable sight of Annabel Goldie telling-off Iain Gray for playing party politics with the big issues (describing Labour’s strategy as a ‘bloodless debating chamber coup to ensconce him as First Minister’).

The Conservative strategy in Scotland has obvious links to its overall approach to the prospect of a UK general election win in 2010. It is no secret that a Conservative win would suit the SNP independence referendum strategy. This would be the first Conservative government operating in Scotland since the 1979-97 period in which Thatcherism proved so out of touch with Scottish public opinion (particularly when introducing the poll tax) and the Major government contributed to its own demise by refusing to support any significant form of constitutional change. Provided that the Conservatives fail to elect many MPs in Scotland (they will almost certainly fail to return the 11 MPs of 1992), the picture will be one of a return to the democratic deficit when Scotland votes for one government but receives another. However, three main things have changed in the meantime to challenge the sense in which the Conservatives are as out of touch with public opinion in Scotland as they were in the 1980s and 1990s. First, the party has shown, particularly since 2007, that it can engage effectively on the big Scottish Parliament debates and take a central role, when negotiating with the SNP or when contributing to unified opposition. Second, its pursuit of the status quo (i.e. devolution, not independence) now represents a new position on constitutional change – and one which is shared by most parties and the public in Scotland. Third, David Cameron has expressed a much greater willingness to ‘govern Scots with respect’, allow the Scottish party to go its own way, accept recommendations from the Calman Commission to enhance Scottish Parliament policy responsibilities and work closely with the Scottish Government. This even extended to headline-seeking offers to engage in meetings between SNP ministers and UK Conservative shadow ministers – for example, on the funding of the Forth road bridge at a time when the UK Labour Government seemed determined to embarrass John Swinney and show him who was in control. Thus, David Cameron has demonstrated the ability to appear both committed to the Union but also relaxed about the prospects for change, in marked contrast to the image of Gordon Brown as a source of interference and central control. This will not be enough to ensure a significant Scottish Conservative presence in Westminster. However, it may be enough to prevent independence as an unintended consequence of its electoral success overall.

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