Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Murdo Fraser Is Right — Scotland Needs A New Party

When there was an independent
Scottish Unionist Party
When I finally made the decision to take the plunge into student politics with the Scottish Conservatives back in 2008, it was with some trepidation.  They were supposed to believe in the things I (and a great many other Scots) believed in, it was true: individual liberty, personal responsibility, and the rest — but for at least as long as I have been alive the Conservative Party brand has lain over these fine values like a layer of slime.
Strange but true is the fact that, though scandal followed fiasco year in,  year out under the last government, membership of Scottish Labour remains almost entirely unremarkable.  Membership of the Scottish Conservatives, on the other hand, is for the ordinary person still something which others “find out”, much as they might "find out" someone is listed on the Sex Offender Register.  Perhaps it is not quite as bad as confessing sympathy for the political ideals of Nick Griffin, but it is still an occasion for raised eyebrows and much wry sucking of teeth when you “come out”.
It is high time the party accepted that the Conservative Party is, rightly or wrongly, an irretrievably tainted brand in Scotland.  Conservatives can complain that the air of disreputableness most Scots attach almost instinctively to them is irrational, unjustified, maybe even prejudiced  but that won't change the fact that it exists and isn’t going away.  
To elucidate; I remember a man in a nice, detached house in a well-to-do suburb of Stirling I canvassed the day before the last general election laughing in my face at the comic notion that he might consider voting Conservative, before passing on the simple message “Thatcher Milk Snatcher” from his sons.  They must have been no more than teenagers, yet here they were invoking grievances dating from almost two decades before I was even born.
When your image is this bad, no amount of explaining how Labour began the process of taking away free school milk in 1968 is going to shift you from your position at the top of the league table of the despised, because it isn't really about the milk anymore.  The real problem is that the Conservative Party in Scotland isn’t perceived as representing anything more than mean-spiritedness with an English public school accent.  That this might be wholly unfair doesn’t make it any less true, and that Scottish Conservatives persist in carrying on as if things were otherwise simply because they wish they were seems to me to be an inexplicable departure from the "pragmatism" Conservatives normally take pride in.
This is why I support Murdo Fraser’s proposal to create a new party for Scotland; one able to both champion Scotland’s interests within the Union and promote the (not unpopular) values of the Right without the millstone of the Conservative name about its neck.  I was amazed, frankly, to see former candidates critical of the idea complaining on Monday’s edition of Newsnight Scotland that the Scottish Conservative brand was one they had been defending for twelve and a half years”, and that members would not wear Murdo “throwing out its glowing embers”.  One would have thought repeated failure to make any progress under the Scottish Conservative banner might have served as an object lesson — as indeed might their need to speak of the party in terms of “glowing embers”.  As for Sir Jack Harvie, while one has to respect anyone who is willing to put their hand in their pocket for what they believe in, the question must be asked: what has all that money actually achieved?
It is tempting for Scottish Conservatives who, quite understandably, love the party to which they have given years of loyal service, to imagine that its name is not really an issue; that policy and strategy are what must be changed if they are to win electoral support, but actually this is putting the cart before the horse.  You have reached a strange pass when would sooner change what you stand for than what you call yourself;  the ultimate triumph of style over substance.
One of the more obvious arguments for a new party for Scotland is that, quite simply, we have nothing to lose — but this isn’t entirely true.  In a nation where Labour has covered itself in disgrace and the Liberal Democrats are in hock to the untouchable Conservatives, the only alternative is Scottish Nationalism, and the end of centuries of shared statehood, shared suffering, and shared success.  One way or another, Conservatives will soon have to adopt a new name and a new identity.  It will be willingly, as a party, or unwillingly — as a country.

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