May 17, 2008
For those who haven’t been keeping up with Caledonian affairs, Scottish independence has been brought onto the agenda by the victory of the anti-unionist, pro-independence Scottish National Party in the general election for the Scottish Parliament last year. The SNP victory comes after about half a century of solid domination of Scottish politics by the Labour party (now in regional opposition in Edinburgh, but still in power at the British parliament in Westminster). Yet an important portion of the electorate, while willing to vote the SNP into power “ or at least to vote Scottish Labour out of power “ have proved more reticent when it comes to the actual matter of ending the 300-year union between England and Scotland. While the SNP is riding high in Holyrood (the seat of the Scottish Parliament), support for Scottish independence is at its lowest since the discovery of North Sea oil.
This may seem like something of a contradiction, but Scottish voters are just trying to make the best of a tricky situation. Labour have proved unpopular both for national reasons (the war in Iraq particularly and Tony Blair in general) and for local reasons (Scottish Labour’s mismanagement during ten years in power at Holyrood and the presumption the Labour clique have that they are Scotland’s natural rulers and how dare anyone think otherwise). Of the five parties in the Scottish Parliament, the Nationalists are the only purely Scottish party “ with Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens all having either superior (or in the Greens’ case, co-equal) bodies in London. The best way of kicking out Labour was to vote SNP, and enough Scots thought it was worthwhile this time around.
The fact that the Nationalists are a broad-based party has proved a great advantage. Beyond the central issue of their proposal to make Scotland independent, the SNP’s policies are, roughly-speaking, pro-business center-left. At the same time, their student federation is officially socialist, and they receive a fair amount of conservative support because conservatives tend to of a somewhat nationalist strain “ and because the Scottish Conservatives give the appearance that they are more than comfortable to simply sit in Holyrood, collect their parliamentary salaries, and twiddle their thumbs. The Conservatives have always been a London-centric party anyhow, and under David Cameron it has become even more clear that it is a rural conservative party which exists in the hope of placing respectable metropolitan liberals in power. Faced with the choice of three liberal parties “ the SNP, the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives “ and pseudo-socialist Labour, Scots have made a sensible decision by choosing the liberal party which cares most for Scotland: the Nationalists.
But what, again, of this divergence: a party in government for which independence is its foremost purpose and a people who still seem content on (in some shape or form) maintaining the Union? Some in the opposition parties have seen an opportunity in this contradiction and have called for a referendum on independence to be held now; independence would almost (but only almost) certainly be defeated. Wendy Alexander, the Scottish Labour leader, surprisingly lent her support this idea before being forced by her superiors in London to issue a “clarification” opposing the idea. Those who support the continued union between Scotland and England, Wales & Northern Ireland would be wise to push for a referendum at the nearest moment and pull the rug from beneath the independence lobby.
But is the Union worth preserving? Ought conservative Scots to support the continuation of the Union or a move to independence? A unionist conservative might claim that by our very nature as conservatives we ought to support the status-quo and be wary of such far-reaching radical ideas such as ending three centuries of union. To which, of course, the nationalist conservative replies by asking why Scotland should be ruled by a London-based government intent on social and cultural revolution and the overthrow of all tradition. To which the unionist conservative replies that an independent Scottish government is just as likely to be the enemy of all that is good and holy as the London government. And so on and so forth.
What is simply true is that those right-thinking Scots who condescend to involve themselves in politics are currently divided between two political parties “ the Scottish Nationalists and the Scottish Conservatives “ and that this hampers the cause of tradition, order, and liberty in Scotland.
What, then, should be done? The Scottish Conservative party is an inherently flawed vehicle for the advancement of conservatism in Scotland. The party itself only dates to 1965; before then there was a loose association of unionist elected officials who ran under various banners “ Liberal Unionist, Scottish Unionist, Progressive, Independent, National Liberal, etc. It was only in that year that the Scottish Unionist Association decided to become the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, the official Scottish branch of the (traditionally English) Conservative & Unionist party. The fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives have gone downhill ever since, and there is a very strong cultural bias (sometimes even hatred) of “the Tories” in general that hurts the Scottish party.
There are two main options at hand. The first is that the Scottish Conservatives completely divorce themselves from the English & Welsh party, undergo a complete “re-branding” and transformation. The Conservative name will have to be dumped and there must be a clear indication that the party’s officials are willing to put Scotland’s interest first and foremost both at Westminster and in Holyrood. The disadvantage is that any new identity will still be tarred with the Tory brush and be denigrated as English lackeys.
The second option is for the party simply to be dissolved and for unionist conservatives to join their nationalist conservative confrÃ¨res in the Scottish Nationalist Party to form a united bloc of sensible people in the party. The disadvantage of this option is that the center-left leadership of the SNP will have an obvious advantage in being able to shut out any former Tories from party positions. The anti-Tory cultural bias is so strong that expulsion may even be considered.
Still, if the SNP wants to be both the party of the Scottish people and the party of Scottish government it would be wise to fulfill two tasks: wooing Scottish Conservatives and reacting to the electorate’s reticence towards full independence. Despite the SNP having 47 seats in Holyrood to the Conservatives’ 17, the Scottish Conservatives are believed to have a larger membership than the Nationalists. Feet on the ground are one of the more important factors in winning elections, and the end of the Scottish Conservative Party could shift a great number of party activists into the SNP camp. On the second point, polls show the Scots voting down independence but being nonetheless dissatisfied with the state of the Union. Rather than the current process of revisiting which powers are “reserved” (kept in London) and which are “devolved” (decided at Holyrood) every few years, it might be better to seek a new concept of union altogether, with the preponderance of governmental power shifted from Whitehall to Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and English MPs voting on English affairs at Westminster (though some have suggested creating a new English parliament).
The danger here is that any significant reappraisal of the constitutional framework of the Union at this moment might result in any or all of the following: 1) even more power for the government; 2) a step towards the total dissolution of the Union; 3) republican moves towards the abolition of the monarchy. Unionist conservatives ought to oppose all three and nationalist conservatives should at least join in opposing further centralization and the abolition of the Crown, both of which would result in removing any checks on the power of Britain’s political class.
Indeed, perhaps that is the cause around which conservatives of all stripes should unite: opposition to the political class which has seized control of almost all the major institutions of public life in Great Britain and which guards its power jealously. The current political class, which replaced a more multifaceted Establishment (consisting of the commercial class, aristocrats, bishops, do-gooding campaigners, skillful parliamentarians, trade unionists, and the British officer corps) consists almost wholly of boring people who are carbon copies of one another. The fact that no political party currently opposes this political class and its consensus is likely the reason why Britons are so apathetic and unlikely to vote in elections. Peter Hitchens has suggested the first thing that must happen for this situation to change is for the Conservative Party to self-destruct and cease to exist. There are still in Britain today many deeply-conservative people who nonetheless vote Labour (or Lib Dem or SNP) because they feel culturally obliged to, or because they have inherited the bias against the Conservatives. Hitchens posits that the existence of the Conservative Party and the cultural hatred of it are the only factors which keep Labour going as a single party. If the Conservatives collapse, then Labour is soon to follow it (in this hypothesis) and once these two deep-seated “brands” are destroyed, there is finally the possibility of a truly conservative political force emerging; union-wide, not just in Scotland.