Jamie Blackett a Conservative Party member and Leader of the Alliance for Unity.
The SNP is imploding nicely as the Salmond Inquiry, more properly the Sturgeon Inquiry, continues to shock high-minded separatists like Jim Sillars into speaking out against the rampant corruption in their party.
Although the polls still show an SNP majority with the Holyrood election in May only weeks away, and even our state broadcaster appears to be backing Sturgeon’s party, I really think we can win this. I just wish the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party thought the same.
I should qualify the ‘we’ here: I am now a heretical Tory. I would go to the stake for my Tory principles, but I have long since abandoned the idea that the best way to defend them in post-devolution Scotland is necessarily to vote Conservative in Holyrood elections.
Tactical voting has to be the way ahead. In a binary Scotland, where around 50 per cent of the population now supports independence, the ‘we’ is very definitely the pro-UK side of the argument, even if it contains people who are at the other end of the spectrum from me politically in many other respects. Like my friend and All for Unity running mate George Galloway, who has announced that he will be voting Tory to defeat the SNP (much to the chagrin of socialists everywhere, deliciously) and thereby giving the tactical voting argument a massive boost.
It is a confusing time to be a conservative in Scotland. The Scottish Tories have struggled since devolution to cope with the accusation that they are a ‘branch office’ of the national party. The taint is reinforced by the unfortunate habit of the more capable Scottish Tories – Michael Gove, Alister Jack, Ben Wallace – heading off to Westminster. One of them should really be leading the Scottish Tories into the lists in May and not Douglas Ross, who has many qualities but is doing the job about fifteen years ahead of his time – and had, in any case, decamped to Westminster himself, from whence he struggles manfully to lead the party by remote control.
I supported Murdo Fraser’s bid for the leadership in 2011 precisely because he proposed to reverse Edward Heath’s misguided reforms and re-establish the Scottish party as a completely separate entity, though calling it the Scottish Unionist Party would have been a mistake for sectarian reasons. It would really be much better if the parties in Scottish domestic politics were separate from the ones contesting national elections, something that happens in some federal countries.
The confusion is compounded by the Scottish Tories’ perhaps understandable desire to distance themselves from the national party by moving ever leftwards. It is often heard said that there is no centre ground in Scottish politics but Douglas Ross has gone to great lengths to find it. He and his party were ‘remoaners’ long after it was fashionable (and I write that as a former Remain voter myself). He has also backed the SNP’s very un-Tory policy of free university education for all, ironically a policy that has actually been shown to militate against poorer students and reduce social mobility. More recently he has voted against the government on internal market legislation.
So we are faced with a situation where pro-UK Scottish voters have a choice between voting for a party led by a privately-educated millionaire businessman who faced down his party to send his own children to private school… and a party led by Douglas Ross. The overwhelming impression is that they are two social democrats dancing on a pinhead, obsessed, in Galloway’s memorable phrase. The ‘narcissism of small differences.’
The other problem the Scottish Tories face is tactical voting. They are pushing out election literature that says the only way to defeat the SNP is to give both votes to the Tories, something that flies in the face of the logic of the Scottish electoral system, which deliberately favours smaller parties.
I understand the difficulty in saying anything else. I grew up in a Tory household. My father was chairman of the local association and my first experience of salesmanship was selling raffle tickets at a fundraiser to support Ian Laing’s campaign. I have myself turned out as volunteer at elections. I can see how demoralising it would be to the party faithful if the party acknowledged that the only way to dislodge the nationalists is to game the Holyrood electoral system by giving your second vote to All for Unity. I can also see how difficult it would be to stand down those no-hoper candidates running in what should be safe Labour seats in order to allow Labour candidates to oust the separatists.
But these are things that will have to be done if we are ever to break out of the hamster wheel of SNP rule by uniting the chronically split unionist vote against the nationalists.
So what should the Scottish Tories do? I think they should be clear what their objectives are. At the moment it appears as though all they want out of May’s elections is to have their share of the vote held up and to come an honourable second. Ross said as much in his first announcement on becoming leader when he said that he wanted to be the ‘best leader of the opposition’ – a gaffe that was then hurriedly corrected.
I think they need to listen to their members like me who want them to put ‘country before party’ and work explicitly towards evicting the SNP, removing the existential threat to the United Kingdom and ending the debilitating ‘neverendum’. An implied task that falls out of that is to acknowledge that an outright Conservative victory is not on the menu and start working towards an anti-nationalist coalition and talking openly about their hopes for a cross-party government of national unity in Holyrood.
Secondly they need to lead from the front. It is painfully obvious that they have prepared for defeat with a damage limitation strategy. Ross and other leading politicians have implicitly yielded to the SNP by not standing in constituency seats themselves and focusing on the lists. Political cowardice is rarely rewarded. If the Tories don’t believe in themselves why should anyone else?
We can win this. But Scottish Tories need to be clear about what electoral success would look like and redefine ‘we’. The alternatives don’t bear thinking about.