• Madeleine Murphy

A New Scottish Centre Right Party Would Not Protect the Union

Following the seemingly endless string of hustings and media appearances throughout the Tory leadership contest, we are now all too familiar with our new Prime Minister’s main priorities. He strives to defeat Corbyn, unite the Conservative party, and importantly, unite the country and protect the union. (1) However, the rise of Boris Johnson to Number 10 has resulted in conversations nodding to a potential fall of the current unified Conservative party, owing to a surge in interest of a considered buried argument: the split of the Scottish Conservatives from the Tory party.

The idea of the Scottish Conservatives breaking away is in no way excitingly new or fresh, and was previously given its time at the forefront of Scottish conservative politics during the Scottish Tory leadership race in 2011. As a novel idea at the time, Murdo Fraser MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife tried to hammer this idea home and sell it to the voters. He argued that under David Cameron, the Scottish Conservatives would have no traction and suffer a stalled growth in popularity. He conveyed that splitting would be a fresh start with a clean slate, allowing for a fresh political mandate, and importantly, would be attractive to voters who had become disenfranchised with the party under leadership of Cameron. At the time, this was controversial. Perhaps not necessarily as much with the voters as one would anticipate, -considering Fraser placed second in the election after Davidson - but more so with senior Conservatives. Cameron himself kept his opinions tightly to his chest, however there were numerous notable senior Scottish Conservatives who aired their disgust at the proposals, including the likes of Liam Fox and Lord Forsyth. (2) It is therefore not surprising that this radical idea was swiftly buried under the carpet, conceivably owing much to the success of Ruth Davidson as the new leader. However, Fraser has rehashed his own idea for reforming Scottish Conservative politics, writing recently in a piece for The Scotsman. He drew attention to the system present in Quebec, whereby the Conservative Party of Canada do not contest in elections. He would add: “The lesson of politics in Quebec is that when the forces of federalism come together they can see off the threat of separation. If it worked there, it could work here.”(3)

So, having been unsuccessfully floated as an idea before, why the renewed interest now? Undeniably the pivotal matter which has provoked this sudden flow of attention follows the entry of Johnson and his team into Downing Street. What exists now, that was unarguably not at the top of his predecessor’s agenda, is this new emphasis on a possible no deal Brexit. This new, fresh line-up has gone into power and already taken large steps to ensure preparation for this outcome. So much so, that to the observer it would appear that more preparation has so far gone into this cause, rather than pursuing a different deal or various concessions on the previously existing deal. This is a notable concern for Scot Tories, of whom voted largely to remain- and importantly is a source of tension with leader, Ruth Davidson. Davidson’s position on Brexit has been unchanged, from taking on pro-Brexit debaters in 2016, to now: she is fiercely anti-no deal. However, this becomes somewhat problematic. A refusal to accept no deal, as Davidson proclaimed was her stance before our new PM’s first visit to Scotland, (4) may eventually create a divide between Whitehall and Holyrood. It is fair to have our own opinions, but with the issue of such a broken and divided party on their hands, the leaders of Conservative parties throughout the country should aim to minimise tension and instead promote communication and an open space for discussion. Complete dismissal, as shown by Davidson, is not necessarily the correct answer which will lead to positive progression in negotiation. However, as addressed, Davidson is not alone with her views. It is commonplace for Scottish Conservatives to take this more liberal and pro-EU position regarding Brexit negotiations. Thus, a Prime Minister actively preparing to take the country towards no deal has by no means sat well- resulting in the resurrection of the argument of a possible break away party.

Regardless of how leadership down south has impacted upon the views of Scottish Conservatives- it is important to note that Davidson has already made clear that she is opposed to turning her back on the national party, and rightfully so. Media and conservative commentators who have helped to spin the revival of this argument are missing the important fact: splitting from the Conservative party will not protect or strengthen the union. It will do much the opposite. It is important to note that while the case for unionism is prevalent in Scotland: who is making the case for unionism for the English? We can see that the case for the union is not as strong as we would like, especially touching on comments such as some down south would rather Brexit came first, then the union should come second. Breaking off from the national party would only create further division, rather than strengthening the case for the union. It would take away cooperation, and likewise would take away that common identity of being a ‘tory’. Further, this alone would also certainly fuel Scottish nationalist arguments. The image of the Scottish Conservatives branching off would convey that the Scot Conservatives could not be capable of, and had essentially given up on working with the Conservative party on a national scale. This would show not only that the Conservative party can no longer serve Scotland, fuelling even more nationalist arguments, but also that there was never loyalty to the national party from Scottish conservatives themselves, and therefore no loyalty to the party that has served the union for hundreds of years. Breaking off would do no good apart from giving the image of almost a preparation of sorts for Scotland to become a separate, and independent country, when the main focus should be on bringing the party together, helping to get Brexit through parliament, and defeating the Scottish nationalists.

Splitting from the national party would essentially be a nail in the coffin for the Union. Potentially losing support from the English, fuelling Scottish nationalist arguments and splitting the Scottish unionist vote across almost five different parties is not the answer to petty tensions created by the possibility of a no deal Brexit. Romanticising and dreaming of a new Scottish centre-right party is not the right course that senior Scottish Conservatives should push for, and it is not the answer to helping unite a deeply divided Conservative party. The only way that can be done is by getting behind Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and fully supporting the next course of action for the country.

(1) https://news.sky.com/video/boris-johnson-speech-deliver-unite-defeat-energise-dude-11768880

(2) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/sep/04/scottish-Conservatives-new-party-fraser

(3) https://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/columnists/what-scottish-unionists-can-learn-from-decline-of-quebec-s-separatists-murdo-fraser-1-4973603

(4) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/28/support-no-deal-brexit-scottish-ruth-davidson-boris-johnson

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At the time of writing, Madeleine is a second year student at the University of Strathclyde. She is studying Politics with International Relations. Areas that interest her the most are UK politics and foreign policy.