With an independence space dominated by the Centre-Left politics of the SNP, is there a space at the table for a Centre-Right political party?
Two major monopolies in political discourse exist in Scotland today. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has dominated the pro-independence narrative for the past twenty years, making the cause distinctively centre-left in character. The second discourse is that of conservatism. The Conservative and Unionist Party remains the only party of the Right to achieve electoral success in Scotland and has set the parameters of conservative identity as they see fit, pertinently to oppose Scottish independence. However, independence is not an inherently left-wing issue, and the Conservative Party is not the sole arbiter of conservative political philosophy. Therefore, this points to what seems like a glaringly obvious political opportunity that is scarcely even considered: the formation of a pro-independence, ‘small c’ conservative party. But, where do you start?
Examining the fundamentals of conservative philosophy, one key concept arises which is the connection one has to the home and more generally to the land, community, and the shared history where one’s home is made. The late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton termed this idea as ‘oikophilia’ which has been used to argue for decentralised, local government. The rationale for this is that people’s affiliation to their locality makes them better placed making decisions that affect them, because they are more invested due to this connection. In Scotland, there is no greater manifestation of this than the ongoing devolution and independence movements. If anything, independence represents a repudiation of a centralised government in a land outside of Scotland, and there is nothing more conservative than bringing governance closer to the hands of the individual.
Furthermore, local communities give rise to local culture, tradition, and customs. A basic principle of conservative philosophy is a return to traditional values and protecting them. Throughout Scottish history, Scottish culture has at best been undermined and at worst assaulted by the British state in favour of a homogenous British culture. Suppression of the Gaelic language and clan identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are to name two examples. If Scottish culture is something to be valued as a priority, then it seems difficult, to me, for a Scottish conservative to reconcile this by supporting institutions that have actively limited its importance instead of those that champion it.
Now, these are just a few examples of where conservative philosophy can fit neatly into the discussions already taking place in the pro-Independence space. However, a more pressing question to ask is whether the Tory party will ever be an effective vehicle for these ideas or any conservative idea to be implemented. Despite turning pro-unionist support into marginal electoral success in recent years, the Tory party has had a torrid time for the previous thirty. They have never achieved power in the Scottish parliament and for most UK elections regularly returned seat numbers in single figures – in 1997 they returned none. In 2007, former Tory party member and electoral candidate, Michael Fry, famously left the party and joined the independence movement on the basis that the Scottish Tories parroted the London party line and were bereft of any innovation of their own, whilst shutting down new ideas. What has changed? The fact remains that the Tory party is a poisoned brand in Scotland and the Scottish Conservatives are rightly hammered at election time because of it. Being beholden to the UK Conservative Party has meant that the Scottish Conservatives will continue to answer for unpopular policy and scandal coming from London, something even Douglas Ross attributes to his party’s pallid performance at local elections this year.
In summary, were I a voter of conservative ideological persuasion, I would be forced to ask several questions. First, is there a functioning, effective party that expresses my views? Second, is support of independence truly incompatible with those views? And thirdly, if independence is a reality, do I want the new political landscape to be dominated by parties with an established legacy without my voice being heard? From these questions, conservatives can seriously re-examine their convictions in line with new realities. From there forms the ideological basis for a new party in Scotland, with a fresh identity and ideas. Otherwise, they are missing out on what is potentially the next great political transformation in British history without a seat at the table.