Scottish Conservatives: a dearth of energy imagination and courage?

Scottish Conservatives: a dearth of energy imagination and courage?

by Linda Holt
article from Thursday 9, January, 2020

NO MATTER how they spin it, the general election result for Scottish Conservatives was grim. The party lost more than half the Scottish MPs it won less than two years previously. The failure was all the more egregious when set against the rest of the UK. In England and Wales Conservatives expanded en masse into previously safe Labour seats to deliver their biggest majority since 1987.

Normally one would expect a party that did so badly to embark on a period of reflection about their direction and leadership. This seems all the more pressing given that the Scottish Conservatives fought this election on the single issue of stopping a second independence referendum, a stance which appeared to deliver runaway success under Ruth Davidson in the 2017 Westminster and 2016 Holyrood elections. 

As interim leader after Davidson’s resignation, Jackson Carlaw was responsible for the Conservative election strategy, and he propagated the message with gusto, ramping it up to no independence referendum ever. Somewhat oddly, for all his energy and personality, Carlaw did not feature in campaign literature, which instead was covered in photos of Nicola Sturgeon. This of course tried to play on the threat she posed to the union, even though the actual number of Scottish Conservative MPs returned is irrelevant in resisting a second independence referendum. Scottish unionists have the many new Conservative MPs in England and Wales to thank for that.

Carlaw didn’t feature because he wasn’t Ruth Davidson. Doubtless there was a sense that he was relatively unknown outside political circles. Perhaps there was also an inkling of how much he lacked Davidson’s appeal. The former car salesman represents the old Tory persona – pale, male and stale. Genial he may be, and adept at raucous if risqué after-dinner turns, but he lacks Boris Johnson’s maverick charisma and tactical nous. While increasing numbers of voters were prepared to give Ruth Davidson the benefit of the doubt, this is plainly not the case with Carlaw.

Of course Carlaw was only interim leader, so there was little time, and perhaps less justification, to big-up his image in the last election, but it remains hard to see how his persona can break through and hook new voters as Davidson’s did. 

So it is all the more surprising that the Scottish Conservative leadership election, which was delayed until after the general election, is not being used as an opportunity for wider reflection. Instead it’s a rush job, with Carlaw looking set to be anointed as permanent leader. The only other probable contender, Michelle Ballantine, who wants to stand to “prevent a coronation” is reported to have no backing among MPs and MSPs. She and others have come under pressure not to oppose Carlaw so that there is a fast, smooth election, allowing the party to focus on the Holyrood election in 16 months’ time.

Once again, the Scottish Conservative Party has bottled it. 

After Ruth Davidson’s resignation, there were rumblings from Murdo Fraser and Adam Tomkins about seizing the opportunity for a much-needed wider discussion on the future of the Scottish party, but it was shut down as untimely in the face of a no-deal Brexit and a general election. Now there’s no time because the party has to prepare for the 2021 Holyrood election (although this begs a huge question: what has the Party been doing if not preparing for this since 2017?) 

The plain truth is that the Scottish Conservative Party lacks the energy, imagination and courage to venture beyond its well-worn rut. MPs and MSPs doubtless fear for their seats if they try anything or anyone new. But the problem runs much deeper than the current crop of MPs and MSPs. 

In a piece launching his candidature for leader in the Sunday Times, Jackson Carlaw wrote:

“And to succeed, Scottish Conservatives at Holyrood need to look more like the Scotland we seek to represent, and to embrace procedures that deliver this. In short, we need to ensure that while we have many more new MSPs joining our team in 2021, all are typical of the new generation of Conservatives representing their communities at all levels: diverse in every sense, talented, experienced, of all ages and backgrounds.”

This may be true of Conservative Party selection in the rest of the UK, but it isn’t in Scotland. Carlaw seems to be ignorant of the fact that all sitting MSPs and most target seats have already selected their candidates for 2021. These are the names that will most likely appear in the top regional list slots, which is how the vast majority of the next crop of Conservative MSPs can expect to be elected. Candidates for the as yet unselected seats stand next to no hope of getting in. 

Candidate selection for December’s general election was carried out by party officials in Northumberland Street on the grounds that the election was sudden and there was no time for normal selection procedures involving associations and members. This is nonsense. Everyone could see an election was imminent as soon as Theresa May resigned. Other parties (with the possible exception of Labour) managed to select candidates well in advance and follow proper democratic procedures, so giving them a head start in getting themselves known in their constituencies. 

Although the Scottish Conservatives crowed about standing the highest proportion of female candidates, only one was in a target seat – the rest of the target seats went to the usual (male) suspects. Worse, willing and loyal candidates with excellent records as hard-working local councillors in areas with working class electorates where the Party had gained a foothold in the last election, and should be building on their support, were passed over without so much as a by your leave. Two in my acquaintance are young, working-class family men. Their blue-collar Conservative dreams were sidelined in favour of party insiders. The rumour is that they were “the wrong sort”.

Selection is of course the result of a party machinery and a party culture, and neither seems to have woken up to the realities of 21st Century politics. Despite decades in the wilderness, despite Ruth Davidson – or perhaps because of her success – the party still behaves with a sense of complacent superiority as if it is the natural party of government. All it has to do is wait, and sooner or later the public will come to its senses and restore it to its rightful place (Labour’s demise and Boris Johnson’s success in England also feed this illusion). 

Party membership structures are antiquated. Local associations are dying on their feet. Many of their stalwarts, too old and infirm to do leafleting and canvassing anymore, jealously guard their associations as exclusive social clubs. Party members, when they are noticed, are treated as cash cows, the recipients of endless begging letters and raffle tickets. There may be exceptions - I hope there are - but the fact remains that the party HQ in Northumberland Street has done nothing to revive popular membership or make sure associations are vibrant, genuinely welcoming places for everyone with a conservative political leaning.

It is staggering that Scottish Conservatives have learnt zilch from the SNP’s success in courting members. The LibDems - while they confine their activities to a few areas in Scotland – also know how to take care of their members and activists. As a result, both the SNP and LibDems have gangs of activists, and at least as essential, an extensive knowledge of local voters which enables them to target their campaigning. The ground operations of both SNP and LibDem in North East Fife in the general election were massive and based on local contacts and knowledge, professionally acquired and catalogued over years, of which Conservatives can only dream. This produced a record turnout in December, which saw the Conservative candidate lose almost half the vote he had achieved only two years earlier.  

The tier of party activity between Holyrood and local associations, MSPs and members, fares little better. Northumberland Street has little interest in Conservative council groups, councillors receive no training, they are not even  timeously informed about candidate selections, let alone consulted, there is next to no policy support and when relationships break down, to the point that councillors resign (as has happened in Fife), nothing is done beyond trying to hush everything up. 

No organisation which has a culture in which individuals are treated with so little respect or care - be they supporters, members or elected representatives – will thrive in the 21st Century. 

Tribal, negative campaigning seems to be de rigeur these days. The SNP have come a tremendously long way by demonising Westminster and the Tories. Similarly, Conservatives in Scotland owe almost all their recent electoral successes to opposing independence and demonising the nationalists. Cleaving to this strategy leads to more and more extreme positions, and an ever more polarised, hate-fuelled politics. This is antithetical to a healthy, inclusive politics. It will not engage new voters, and will repel others, particularly those in the wavering middle which both sides claim to be vying for.

But for Scottish Conservatives an anti-nationalist stance is demonstrably not enough. 2019 wasn’t 2017. Jackson Carlaw’s key message in the general election was “the Union is on the ballot”, but this halved the number of seats Conservatives won and played into the SNP’s current claim that 80 per cent of the seats constitutes a mandate for #Indyref2. Scottish Conservatives will be doomed if they play the 2021 campaign as a rerun of 2016.

What do the Scottish Conservatives stand for – apart from the Union and being followers of the UK Conservative Party? The Scottish branch has failed to develop a distinctive positive programme for Scotland. Their performance at Holyrood is largely reactive. An endless stream of press releases based on FOI requests on health, educational and justice issues may highlight the SNP’s poor record but they have all the effect of gnat bites. They have failed to gel into substantive alternative policy offerings capable of capturing the public imagination.

We’re back to the failure of energy, imagination and courage in the Scottish party. Better not to put your head above the parapet and risk having your ideas shot down by the SNP – or worse still, confront the knotty problems when they conflict with UK Conservative positions, let alone the lurking existential dilemma that an independent Scottish Unionist/Conservative party could stand up more effectively for Scotland’s interests. 

Of course, Ruth Davidson was supposed to have broken the old Scottish Tory mould. While she was still at the helm, it was possible to imagine that the party was no longer a posh boys’ club which existed to shore up the privilege of the already privileged. Although it was more by dint of personality than policy, it was possible to see Davidson as ushering in a new blue-collar Conservatism of the kind which swept through the English Midlands and North in the general election. In the end, though, she bottled it too.

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward


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