Tartan Tories

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James Maxwell asks Murdo Fraser MSP, Deputy Leader of the Scottish Tories, about his party’s awkward relationship with Scotland

As the Labour government continues to crumble and decay, David Cameron’s Conservatives look set to sweep into office this summer.

For more than two years now, they have registered a healthy 8 — 12% poll lead over their incumbent rivals and nothing — bar, perhaps, another slump into recession — seems likely to changing that.

But when the wave of blue surges across the country on election day, it will come to a crashing halt as it hits the Scottish border. With just a single MP, the Conservatives sit fourth — behind Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats — in Scotland’s electoral rankings, and there is no indication that they are heading for a tartan revival any time soon.

In fact, their popularity seems to have decreased as a correlative effect of the growth of Scottish nationalism. Since devolution they have been shunted out to the margins of Scottish politics; a peripheral force at best, a skulking irrelevance at worst.

So what explains Scotland’s anti-Tory antipathy? Why do Scots remain immune to the so-called ‘Cameron effect’? Crucially, how will Cameron’s administration rule an already hostile constituency with no popular mandate?

In the sleek metallic and polished glass surroundings of his office in the Holyrood Parliament building, I question Murdo Fraser MSP, the Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, about his party’s awkward relationship with Scotland.

Fraser possesses the solemn air and unflinching conviction of a career politician. He speaks firmly and lucidly, like a teacher straining to explain the intricacies of a complex argument to a struggling pupil. Sitting in a neatly trimmed blue suit, on a thick foam padded chair, he dismisses my suggestion that with only four or five Scottish seats, a Conservative administration will have no moral legitimacy to govern Scotland.

“I don’t accept that because that is a nationalist argument,” he says emphatically. “You could only argue that the Conservative Party would have no mandate in Scotland if you are a nationalist and believe that Scotland should become independent because the United Kingdom is a single political entity and we elect people to the House of Commons.

“We don’t say because the majority of people in Surrey have never voted Labour that Gordon Brown as Prime Minister has no mandate to govern Surrey … We accept that we are part of the United Kingdom and therefore bound by the result.”

Well, first of all, as I understand it, there is no Surrey separatist movement in control of the Council trying to wrench the county out from under the yoke of Westminster. And secondly, surely it is a democratic, rather than a nationalist, argument? How can Cameron justify imposing a policy — the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system, for instance — on a public who have unequivocally rejected it?

With equal emphasis Fraser repeats his previous response: “Defence is a reserved matter. Therefore, unless you are nationalist who believes that Scotland should become independent, you have to support the current arrangement whereby defence is reserved to Westminster and it’s the Westminster government that decides on defence matters. Whether that’s the location of bases, whether that’s having Trident based in the Clyde … these are matters for a UK government, and people engage in the general election for a UK parliament to take these decisions.”

Sensing an impasse, I move on. Would it be fair to say that if the Tories fail to win more than four or five seats in May they are effectively a busted flush in Scottish politics?
“Well, I don’t accept the premise of your question. We’ve got eleven target seats in Scotland and we’re fighting them all very hard.”

It is extremely unlikely that the Tories will take anywhere near eleven seats, I counter, and even if they did, they would still only be the third party in Scotland — perhaps even the fourth, depending on the SNP’s showing.

“If we went up from one seat — which is where we are — even to five or six seats, that would be a dramatic recovery of our position and would demonstrate that the Conservatives in Scotland are very much back in the mainstream.”

Back in the mainstream? Scotland has fifty-nine Westminster parliamentarians. I would have thought that to be swimming in the mainstream of Scottish politics — to even be paddling in it — a party might need at least eight or nine or ten of those.

But Fraser looks resolute; convinced that a grand Scotland-Conservative reconciliation is in the offing. I can only conclude that either he possesses a massive reserve of natural optimism, or he is just being a good professional; hyping his party’s prospects as the election edges ever closer. Again, I elect to move on.

What does Fraser consider to be the origins of the Scottish electorate’s uncomfortable tribal stand-off with the Tories?

Conventional wisdom has it that Scots divorced themselves politically from the Conservatives during the long stretch of Tory rule in the 1980s and 90s, because they felt that Thatcher had ruthlessly trampled on their aspirations for devolved government. Does he agree that Thatcher is to blame for the collapse of Conservative support in the North?
“There is no doubt that the Conservative governments of those periods were unpopular in Scotland and we are still living with that legacy. But the only way that is going to be resolved, from our point of view, is if we have a Conservative government elected which actually demonstrates to Scotland that it is taking Scotland’s concerns seriously.”

Then, somewhat cryptically, he adds,“I think there’s a lot of misinformation that goes around about what the Conservatives did in government for Scotland, but it has now become part of the folk memory and you’re always fighting an uphill battle trying to win people over when they fundamentally believe something which may or may not be true.”

This strikes me as a strange thing to say. It sounds like Fraser is indirectly admitting that senior Tories — even senior Scottish Tories — haven’t yet grasped how deeply loathed, from Edinburgh to Orkney, the Iron Lady herself remains; that they still haven’t realised just how deep the animosity runs. If this is the case, then I suspect the Tories are never going to fully heal the wounds of Thatcherism in Scotland.

But, resolute as ever, Fraser insists that nothing more than administrative competence is needed to charm Scots back into the Tory fold. “I think the best way we are going to win people over to conservatism is if we can demonstrate in government that we are much more attuned to Scottish concerns and interests than they would expect us to be.”

If the Tories intend to demonstrate that they are genuinely “attuned to Scottish concerns and interests”, perhaps they should start by dropping their opposition to Alex Salmond’s referendum proposals, I suggest, given that polls consistently show up to two thirds of Scots favour of a vote on their constitutional future?

“Our view is this … at a time when the real pressures facing the country [are] how we deal with Labour’s recession and how we get the country back to work, it would be a huge distraction to have all the energies of Scottish politicians taken up with fighting a referendum on independence when there is very, very little prospect of that being successful.”
What about a post-recession referendum, then? Surely once the economy has recovered and stabilised there will be no legitimate reason to deny Scottish voters a chance to express themselves, democratically, at the ballot box?

No dice; Fraser appears unmoved by my proposition: “We don’t see an argument for an independence referendum,” he says resolutely. And I’m left convinced that, faced with a Tory electoral tidal wave, Scotland’s floodgates will hold.