“Private” Murdo Fraser, who is hoping to lead the Conservatives in Scotland, is jumping the gun in predicting the Scottish Tories are doomed, writes Kevin Meagher.
Far be it from me to invade on private grief, but the suggestion by Murdo Fraser, the Tory MSP hoping to assume his party’s leadership north of the border, to actually disband the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and replace it with a brand new centre-right grouping, is certainly eye-catching.
There surely cannot have been many leadership contests when a candidate sets out to scrap the very body they are hoping to lead.
In Mr Fraser’s view, however, the Scottish Tories – reduced to 12 per cent in some polls – are simply “not fit for purpose” any more. So is he being über-pragmatic in his “adapt or die” message, or is he “naive and simplistic in the extreme,” as former Tory Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth argues?
It would seem that if Scottish Tories cannot make any headway after 13 years of opposition against Labour nationally and Labour, the Lib Dems and now the SNP locally, then there is little hope of improving their position now, defending the unpopular cuts of their Westminster brethren over the coming months and years.
In that respect, Fraser’s analysis is that of a hard-nosed realist.
However, whether or not any new centre-right grouping is better able to advocate conservative and unionist ideas, the organisational rupture will serve to destroy the English party’s unionist narrative. In an instant it would lay bare the fear that the Tory oak tree can no longer grow in Scottish soil.
There will be no space to dress up this move as something akin to the relationship between the Bavarian Christian Social Union to the bigger Christian Democratic Union in Germany. It will be seen as a straightforward defeat for Toryism – and arch-unionist David Cameron. As they currently advertise for a new head of brand communications in London, it is a safe bet Conservative HQ does not quite share Fraser’s analysis.
But as more diffuse national identities come to the fore, traditional monochrome unionism seems fusty and insular and its proponents woefully outdated. In that respect, the Scottish Tories suffer the same problem afflicting the Ulster Unionists.
Both parties have only begrudgingly accepted the devolution settlements they now work within. Having initially campaigned against a Scottish Parliament, it is little wonder the electorate has never rewarded the late-to-the-party Tories. Similarly, the Ulster Unionists have been outwitted by their bitter rivals the Democratic Unionists – once Ian Paisley’s shock troops – who now work with the grain of the Post-Good Friday Agreement political realities while the UUP snipes from the sidelines.
But a bigger issue lurks behind this concern about political branding. Our parties now operate in a culture of instant results where unsuccessful leaders are not given second chances. From his own perspective Mr Fraser knows that turning around Scottish Tory fortunes is a pretty thankless task while the party sits in government nationally.
He surely calculates he will get one chance and one chance only to make headway. Better, therefore, to put as much distance between himself and Westminster as possible. With a bear market in the stock of political leaders, could Murdo Fraser simply be getting his retaliation in first?
This theory is backed up by the evidence of what has happened over recent months, where we have seen an unprecedented churn in our political leaders. Annabel Goldie, the outgoing leader of the Scottish Conservatives (who is providing Fraser his chance to stand) follows hot on the heels of Labour leader Iain Gray and Scottish Lib Dem chief Tavish Scott who both resigned following poor election results last May.
Similarly, Tom Elliott has replaced Sir Reg Empey as leader of the Ulster Unionists following their dismal showing in last year’s general election, while on the other side of Northern Ireland’s political aisle, the Social Democratic Labour Party’s (SDLP) Margaret Ritchie faces a challenge to her leadership this November following a disappointing performance in May’s Northern Ireland assembly elections.
Perhaps the best riposte to this tendency to replace leaders every five minutes is to look at the man most to blame for this latest bout of Tory soul-searching – the SNP’s political juggernaut Alex Salmond. He first assumed the SNP leadership back in 1990, serving ten years before making way for John Swinney in 2000.
Salmond was back in 2004 to rescue his party from Swinney’s lacklustre leadership. He then became first minister in 2007 (a mere 17 years after starting out as leader and nine years after the creation of the Scottish Parliament). The lesson is that parties should put forward their best leaders and give them time to lead and grow into the job.
Salmond is now the Alpha Dog of Scottish politics. In this respect, the Tories and Labour have the same problem: they are both led by politicians who simply aren’t in his class. Caledonian political woes are not primarily about branding, but about leadership; with both Labour and the Tories fielding B-sides in Scotland for too long.
Like his namesake in Dad’s Army, Murdo “Private” Fraser’s “we’re all doomed” message to Scottish Tories might just be jumping the gun a bit. Scottish political parties should have a bit more confidence in their brands and patience in their leaders before they consider hari-kari.
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