Thursday, July 08, 2010

What's Left Worth Conserving?

No apologies for the light blogging - it's summertime, after all, and I'm on my first proper break from work in about 3 years. Now that the election is well and truly over, job hunting is once again at the forefront of my mind right now, as unemployment beckons at the end of August.

In the meantime, here's my latest column for the Scots Independent, written last week, which picks over the Westminster electoral carcass of the Scots Tories. It's a subject which has attracted the wailing and gnashing of teeth in recent days of journalistic personages no less prominent than Iain Martin and Alan Cochrane, although neither managed to be as thoughtful as Harry Reid in his piece for the Herald yesterday.

Scotland needs centre right representation, but does it need the Conservatives? And for so long as the party has supporters like 'ShetlandTory' (see comments in Iain Martin's piece) babbling from the hospital bed that "the electorate of the nation that produced Adam Smith wants it to be the North Korea of the North Sea", you have to wonder whether there really is anything there worth saving.

My good public reputation was tarnished irreparably a couple of weeks ago by a newspaper, which made an unwarranted and vile slander against me. Frankly, I don't know if I'll ever be able to hold my head up in polite company again. If I had any money at all I'd see them in court.

What was this vile calumny perpetrated against me? I'm outraged to say that in a recent report on a talk I'd given to a community group in Oldmeldrum, the Press and Journal described me not as a former SNP candidate, but as a former Conservative candidate. Since then, my world has collapsed.

I now get stared at in shops. Neighbours cross the street to avoid me, and already the hate mail has started to arrive, some of it recognisably from my own family. Even my cat has taken to shunning me, except, of course, when there's the prospect of food on offer.

Joking aside, there's no doubt that even if the label 'Conservative' is no longer as politically toxic as it was in the 1980's and 90's, the party is still going nowhere in Scotland. Even when on course to win South of the Border at the recent General Election and with the resulting positive media coverage, Cameron's Caledonian brethren struggled to make it above 17% in the polls, and were lucky to hang on to their single Scottish seat.

There's no doubt that a relentlessly negative campaign by the Labour Party entrenched Scottish voters into a 'Stop the Tories' mindset, despite the fact that not even a clean sweep in Scotland for Labour would have kept Cameron from Downing St, given Labour's refusal to work with any other parties in Government. As such, we have a Tory Prime Minister elected on the back of English votes, and with it, some uncomfortable questions for the Scottish Tories from their southern colleagues about their effectiveness.

Already, the recriminations have started. An independent commission has been set up to examine the party in Scotland. At least one key staff member has been shown the door. There are whispers of a purge of the candidate list; that Annabel Goldie's days are numbered as leader; that the party may be given new autonomy from London, and that it might even change its name in a bid to find new appeal amongst Scottish voters.

All well and good. But who, might we ask, is the individual being tasked with dragging the Scottish Tories kicking and screaming into the 21st century? Why, none other than septuagenarian peer Lord Russell Sanderson - a Scottish Office Minister at the height of Margaret Thatcher's unpopularity. There's nothing like having the right man in place for a job like this, and let's face it, he's nothing like the right man for a job like this.

From an outsider's perspective, a cleansing of the MSP stables and a change of leader might be no bad thing, provided, of course, that what they plan to replace them with represents an improvement. Similarly, a name change might help dull antagonistic associations with the party, although you also have to be changing something more fundamental than the name if it's to be credible. Without a change of substance, renaming the 'Scottish Conservatives' as 'Scottish Reform' or whatever seems little better than rebranding Windscale as Sellafield.

While the bit about greater party autonomy has got people interested, no-one seems to have harked back to a report which was compiled by Lord Strathclyde for the party back in 1997, following the Tory wipeout earlier that year. As a consequence of that report, the Scottish Tories became the most internally devolved of all the unionist parties in Scotland. Since then, the party has, constitutionally at least, enjoyed almost complete policy freedom. The point is that it has failed to use it.

Why? Simply, the problem, ironically for a party which used to hector others about the need to stand on their own two feet, is that it suffers from a complete intellectual and financial dependence on its London HQ. Lord Strathclyde threw open the door to the cage over a decade ago. Since then, the Scottish Party has cowered away at the back, lacking the confidence to embark on a route which might not come pre-approved from London.

Ultimately, the problem isn't structures, or finances, or what the Tories call themselves. Their problem is institutional, being too dull to say anything of interest to eachother, let alone the wider public. Financially and organisationally wedded to London, the idea that a Scotland could exist which paid its own way and set its own priorities, represents a conceptual leap well beyond all but perhaps a couple of their current MSP group.

I have a friend who is fond of pointing out that the opposite of love, in his view, is not hate but indifference. I think that captures a large part of the Tories' problem - it's not that people particularly dislike them any more, its just that they are largely irrelevant, and in consequence, people are now indifferent. They have little of interest to say, and don't look or sound like they represent modern Scotland.

Maybe an organisational revamp, a clearout of high heidyins too long in situ and a requirement to live within its means based on Scottish donations might provide the bracing does of reality needed to bring the Tories back to life. Losing the kneejerk unionism by fully embracing fiscal autonomy and an Independence referendum, even if not independence itself, would also show a confidence in Scotland which might just encourage Scots to show some confidence once again in the Tories. It would certainly throw down the gauntlet to a Labour Party which in Scotland, is even less able to stand on its own two feet than the Tories in their current state.

Make yourselves relevant and stop giving people reasons not to vote for you is a decent rule of thumb for any party. It's something Scotland's Tories would be well advised to remember, regardless as to what this commission may or more likely, may not come up with. Frankly, right now, it would no more occur to most Scots to vote Tory than it would for them to start walking around on their hands in public with a sparkler placed unconventionally.