The birth of the non-political party
The plan to disband the Conservative Party in Scotland is only the latest sign of the disintegration of UK politics.
It seems the UK Conservative party is enduring rather more than a wee bit of trouble north of the border.
Not that this is anything new, given that the Scottish Conservative Party is about as popular as head lice. Remember that in 1997 it did not win a single seat at the General Election, a wipeout only slightly rectified at the 2010 General Election, when it retained one single MP.
Yet over the weekend, a new problem emerged. The favourite to become the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Murdo Fraser MSP, has had a bonny idea for restoring the party’s fortunes: disband it. Then, rename it, make it ‘operationally independent’, and formalise its relationship with the UK Conservative Party as a ‘partnership’, which means it would be an independent party but one inclined to support the Tories in Westminster. Writing in the Scotsman over the weekend, Fraser outlined his vision: ‘A new party, distinctly Scottish, standing up for Scottish interests. This is, in effect, going back to the situation that existed prior to 1965, when a distinct Scottish party sent many MPs to Westminster who took the Conservative whip.’
The invocation of 1965 should give an indication of quite how significant this move is. That was the year that the Unionist party, a historically successful grouping that drew significant support from Protestant working-class communities, merged with the Tories to form, in effect, the modern UK Conservative Party. That this party’s fortunes dwindled in Scotland through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s cannot be ignored. But it is also worth pointing out that the party persisted, too. That is, it survived the increasing militancy of the left and the unions during the 1970s, it survived the Miners’ Strike in 1984/85, and it survived the Tory nadir that was John Major’s disastrous premiership in the mid-1990s.
This just makes it all the more striking that only now, in 2011, is the Scottish wing of the Conservative Party thinking about returning to some pre-1965 arrangement. More striking still is the fact that such a break-up is actually being countenanced by senior Tories ‘down south’, too. For instance, former Conservative Scottish secretary Malcolm Rifkind reckoned that Fraser was ‘offering a very refreshing new start’, while current UK education secretary Michael Gove certainly seemed less than antagonistic to Fraser’s proposal: ‘It is a decision for the Scottish Conservative Party what its future should be.’
That the Conservative Party on either side of the border is considering what amounts to its own break-up is highly significant, not least because it raises the question, why now? For many the answer is simple: the rise of the Scottish National Party over the past decade, moving from the wings to become the lead player in Scottish politics, has utterly displaced the UK parties, in particular the Conservatives. The only way in which the Scottish Conservative Party can survive, given ‘the toxicity of its brand’, in this low-level nationalist climate is to cease to be the Conservative Party. Then, just perhaps, non-Labour voters who really don’t like the Tories may at long last be drawn back into the fold.
The problem with understanding the travails of the Scottish Tories in terms of the party-political situation in Scotland is that it ignores the extent to which their travails are actually those of British political parties more generally. What we’re seeing north of Hadrian’s Wall is not some uniquely Scottish problem. Rather, what we’re seeing is the situation of British political parties in general, but in an intensified form. The estrangement of Scottish people from Westminster politics, partially institutionalised in the national parliament at Holyrood, has merely given the decay of the mainstream UK political parties a starker expression. The corrosion of the Conservative Party’s support, its dislocation from those it attempts to represent, experienced in soft-focus in England, stands exposed in the harsh light of day in Scotland.
It has been pointed out countless times, but it is always worth restating: both the Labour and Conservative parties are far from the electoral behemoths they were after the Second World War. Back in the 1950s, both could claim membership figures of between two and three million each. Now they hover below the 200,000 mark. ‘All the party machines are moribund, near-bankrupt, unrepresentative and ill-equipped to enthuse the electorate.’ These were not the words of some sniping parliamentary sketch writer; they are John Major’s from 2003.
Fraser clearly feels that something must be done to resuscitate the Tory corpse north of the border. And what better way to do so than claim that the dislike directed at his party is a case of mistaken identity, that the new Scottish Tories aren’t really Conservative at all. In this regard, Fraser’s vision of Tory-ness with the Conservative politics taken out is not too dissimilar to that of Christopher Shale, chairman of the Tories’ West Oxfordshire branch (David Cameron’s constituency) up until his death at the Glastonbury music festival this year. Like Fraser, Shale, in the leaked memo ‘Operation Vanguard: A Strategy to Transform Membership’, felt that the Conservative Party was hopelessly unattractive to normal people. ‘No reason to join. Lots of reasons not to’, he wrote.
People in West Oxfordshire, he continued, did not consider the Tory party to consist of people ‘like them’. What terrified people about becoming members of the Conservative Party was that it might mean they would be forced to be Tories themselves, support the party’s policies, canvass support at elections, and so on. And the last thing people wanted was to be identified as a member of the Tory party. So, to make it more appealing, Shale wanted to hollow out membership of anything that whiffed of commitment: ‘When we ask them to join we’ll promise that membership isn’t a slippery slope to political activism – and we’ll make sure it isn’t.’ The surprising thing about ‘Operation Vanguard’ was that both Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne agreed with it.
Just as Shale wanted to make membership of the Conservative Party attractive by emptying it out of political commitment, so Fraser wants to win Scottish voters over to his revamped organisation by emptying it out of Conservative politics altogether. Fraser’s response is not simply a response to the Tories’ failings in Scotland. It is also a response to what Shale likewise identified as the sheer unattractiveness of Conservative Party politics. And just like Shale, Fraser’s solution is to hide the politics from public view.
In the case of the Scottish Conservative party, this has profound ramifications. In doing away with its explicit historical connection with the UK Conservatives, Fraser’s new-fangled party, complete with a ‘Scottish identity’, is an attempt to hide what has historically always been a key plinth of the Conservative Party: its commitment to the idea of the union. As Margaret Thatcher proudly asserted in 1979 in opposition to devolutionists: ‘The United Kingdom as a whole is, and always will be, greater than the sum of its parts. Divided we are diminished, both individually and collectively.’ Yet it is this political idea, a crucial organising touchstone for the modern Conservative Party, which Fraser feels positively uncomfortable with. He wants to keep it sequestered away somewhere for the eyes of politically committed only, an idea, a political principle to be kept under wraps lest it offend potential voters. This is a political party scared of its own political shadow.
And yet, the profundity of what is happening to the Tories is not being grasped. Instead, commentators and politicians are content to debate whether such a rebranding might make an electoral difference. Perhaps, they wonder, a new centre-right Scottish party will pick off the anti-Labour vote that has been going the way of the SNP. Or perhaps not. Either way, this discussion avoids the deep political crisis affecting Britain’s political parties and reduces the question to one of public relations.
A slow-shifting political quake is happening: a party’s foundation, a political tradition, is being slowly taken apart and put in cold storage. What we are witnessing in Scotland is something that we are experiencing here, too: the birth of the non-political party.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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