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Unionist secession? Scottish Tories looking for a role

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In a recent speech launching his bid to lead the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Murdo Fraser purposefully drew on the party's history to justify his radical proposals to disband the party and start again with a new name. 'For those people who think this is a leap in the dark,' he said, 'let us remember that our most successful electoral period as a party came before 1965.' He continued:

We were not the Conservative Party then. We were a party which had a distinct Scottish identity. And in 1955, we gained the only absolute majority of votes in Scotland in the period of modern democracy. So this new party will take us back to our roots.

Between 1912 and 1965 the Conservatives in Scotland were known as the 'Scottish Unionist Party'. Indeed, when the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists merged at the end of 1912 they opted for the 'Unionist' title in part because the 'Conservative' (or 'Tory') label was considered a handicap in Scotland.

So the party has essentially come full circle. In 1912 the Conservatives had a handful of MPs in Scotland, were poorly organised and considered unelectable. The UK organisation - superior in almost every respect - looked north askance. Yet within a few years of the merger and name change the Unionists had been transformed from a pre-war rump into the ascendant Scottish party of the inter-war period.

This wasn't just down to vastly improved organisation, but also renewed prowess when it came to policy and political messaging. The Scottish Unionist Party of the 1920s and '30s was bursting with progressive ideas and able exponents, most notably Walter Elliot (Scottish Secretary from 1936-38) and the under-appreciated Tory intellectual Noel Skelton (who died prematurely in 1935). On housing, for example, the Unionists were deliberately non-partisan, supporting both the Wheatley Act of 1924 and Harold Macmillan's ambitious house-building programme in the early 1950s.

It was the 1950s that found the Unionists at their peak, winning 44.8% of the vote and 31 seats at the 1950 general election, 50.1% and 36 seats in 1955, and 47.2% and 31 seats in 1959 (importantly, this included half a dozen MPs who still considered themselves 'Liberal Unionists'). As James Mitchell concluded in his groundbreaking 1990 study, Conservatives and the Union, 'Unionists had succeeded in playing the Scottish card effectively while the Labour Party appeared as an unimaginative and centralist alternative'.

For although the Unionists opposed Scottish Home Rule (as it was known before 'devolution') they were adept at using the language of nationalism, most notably when John Buchan (a Unionist MP for the Combined Scottish Universities) declared that 'every Scotsman should be a Scottish Nationalist'. A 1949 policy document was even called 'Scottish Control of Scottish Affairs', although the emphasis was on administrative rather than legislative 'control'.

The 1955 Conservative Campaign Guide approvingly quoted Macmillan on the Union, which he said must be that of 'the wedding ring - not of the handcuff'. 'Under the centralising pressure of Socialism in practice, the control of Scottish Affairs slipped steadily and mercilessly southwards,' continued Macmillan. 'All this injured the material interests of Scotland; offended her nationhood and touched her pride.'

Ironically, the Scottish Unionist Party was the SNP of its day: formidably organised, deploying a clear political message, enjoying prominent business support and, of course, electorally successful. Even in May 2011 the SNP couldn't quite pull off what the Unionists did in 1955, a majority of seats and of the popular vote. All the Unionists lacked was a 1950s version of Alex Salmond, a populist and high-profile leader who personified the party.

It would be simplistic, however, to trace the party's recent woes to the Ted Heath-inspired rebranding of 1965. Although the new 'Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party' continued its slide in the polls, there was a brief revival between 1979-83 when, even with Mrs Thatcher leading the party, it managed 30% of the vote and more than 20 MPs north of the border. Although many older activists believed the name-change had been disastrous, this was difficult to quantify.

So Murdo Fraser's analysis is historically sound, but, if successful, would his prescription return a new Scottish Conservative party (under whatever name) to its inter-war electoral success? This seems unlikely. The Scotland of 2011 is not that of 1955. There are more parties, fewer engaged voters and the old certainties of Empire, the Kirk and Union are long gone. But Fraser's argument essentially boils down to this: all else has failed, so why not give it a go?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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