It is apparently a rule of British constitutional debate that no bad idea stays down forever. So it was perhaps inevitable that “allies of Ruth Davidson” are apparently touting the idea of splitting the Scottish Conservatives off from the Tories in response to Boris Johnson’s ascension to Number Ten.
There are good reasons to be sceptical about this. Davidson won the leadership in 2011 on the back of an explicit rejection of this very proposal, when it has previously been raised post-2016 she has denounced it in no uncertain terms. It would be a repudiation of all her work and a catastrophically bad idea for the Union.
The basis for the proposal is apparently the idea of reviving the old Unionist Party, which was the main centre-right brand in Scotland from just before the First World War until the mid-Sixties. During this time it enjoyed quite remarkable electoral success (it remains the only party to have won more than 50 per cent of the Scottish vote), and its merger with the Conservatives roughly coincided with – and in the reasoning of the would-be splitters, caused – the start of a steady decline.
Such reasoning exhibits the dangers of drawing lessons from too narrow a history. Not only is it far from proven that the merger caused the right’s decline in Scotland (it has been argued it was instead a response to it), but the circumstances in which the old Scottish Unionists operated make them an entirely inapt comparison to today’s party. The more appropriate historical case study is the Ulster Unionists, and as I will show, it is not a happy one.
What makes post-war Scotland so distant? Two factors: the much looser approach to party labels that set that era apart from today; and the absence of devolution.
Politics in that time was in some ways much more fragmented, even at the apparent height of the Conservative-Labour duopoly. On the Tory side especially there was a profusion of labels, with candidates variously elected as Conservatives, Unionists, and even National Liberals, not just in Scotland but all over the United Kingdom. (Even the colours weren’t entirely fixed: Ted Heath was apparently once spotted heading out to campaign in a red rosette, as that was the Tory colour in the seat he was visiting!).
In Scotland, the lack of devolution also made such a relationship easy to manage. It meant there were minimal areas of separate Scottish policy; no Edinburgh-based leadership outside the Commons; and no MSPs with a political agenda which would put stress on the bond.
These circumstances bear so little relation to those of modern times that talk of “reviving the Scottish Unionists” is meaningless. But history does offer us an example of what happens when you try to combine this approach with devolution: the Ulster Unionists.
Like their Scottish counterparts, the ‘Official Unionists’ were originally established as the local franchise of the broader Tory family. Winston Churchill featured on their posters, and they were known colloquially as the “Ulster Tories” until at least the 1970s. But their party was concentrated first and foremost on the then-Parliament of Northern Ireland, not Westminster, and its leadership sat outside the Commons.
Just as it has in Scotland and Wales, devolution introduced new tensions and over time placed the alliance between the UUP and their mainland counterparts under strain. Marginalised on many issues due the breadth of Stormont’s powers, Northern Ireland began to feel like a place apart. The UUP, in turn, became gradually less willing to defend the decisions of Tory governments if they were unpopular at home.
This isn’t the place to recount the full history of this process, and there was fault on both sides, but the end result was the dead-end unionism of the DUP: tribally committed to the symbols of the Union, not to mention the money, but (with a recent exception for Brexit) largely uninterested in normal participation in national politics and unwilling to advocate for the British Government to its voters. I have met few people who think that the UUP/DUP approach to unionism has done the cause much good in Northern Ireland.
But being able to win over pro-UK voters without needing to make the compromises genuine unionist politics requires has undoubtedly been an electoral boon to whichever the dominant unionist party of the day happens to be. The DUP have simultaneously achieved a remarkable degree of short-term electoral success whilst failing almost completely to broaden the Union’s appeal to Catholic voters or Northern Ireland’s appeal to the mainland.
This is a crucial point: under devolution, the success of a British-flavoured party does not necessarily equate to good news for the Union. Recent experience shows us why, no matter the initial intentions of its advocates, splitting off the Scottish Conservatives puts the party on the road to, in constitutional terms, a DUP-like future.
Take the MPs. When Scotland returned 13 MPs at the 2017 election, there was much excited talk from democratic commentators of their functioning as a ‘bloc’, wheeling and turning as one in response to orders from Davidson. Yet this hasn’t happened, for the simple reason that a) these MPs are elected on a reserved manifesto to implement UK party policy and b) it is the Prime Minister, and the whips, who control the patronage which will define their careers.
Nothing illustrated this more clearly than the most recent leadership contest, when Davidson backed Sajid Javid and not a single Scottish MP followed her lead. Like it or not, they are not ‘her MPs’.
A separate Scottish party could not achieve any great distance from the Conservatives if its MPs continued to caucus with them in this way. Whilst this might suggest a Canadian-style arrangement with a separate party for devolved politics and the UK Conservatives handling Westminster, that would involve an ongoing formal link between whatever the Scottish Tories became and Boris Johnson’s party.
The logical alternative, therefore, is that the Scots do what the Northern Irish did and pull their MPs out of the Tory caucus, there to languish with the rest of the ‘Others’ and await those moments when a hung parliament will allow them to extract concessions.
Don’t just take my word for this – listen to one of the scheme’s most committed advocates. Back in 2011, when Murdo Fraser was assuring members that his new party would take the Tory whip and allow a Scottish MP to serve as Prime Minister, he hired Andy Maciver to run his campaign. Writing in the Scotsman after Fraser’s defeat, Maciver set out a very different conception of the grand plan:
“We advocated a new, liberal, centre-right, Scottish party. Not a new version of the Conservatives; not a replacement for the Conservatives; not a club for former Conservative members, but a new party, with new people, advocating new policies. It would be a Scottish party taking the London whip at its own discretion; not a London party cracking the whip in Scotland without knowledge or consideration.”
The best version of this is that at least one of the most senior members of Fraser’s team had no intention of honouring his commitments that his new outfit would remain a sister party to the Conservatives – and whilst I disagree with his goals, Maciver’s reading of the situation is much more plausible than his old boss’s.
A split was by design meant to attract people – like Maciver – with no loyalty to the Conservatives, and indeed little apparent loyalty to Britain (“cracking the whip in Scotland”, indeed). Such recruits would obviously be unwilling to allow British entanglements to impede their efforts to ‘win’ Scottish politics, which is to say to extract maximum rents from the devolved system in the form of power, pay, and prestige. Splitting the party does not obviously serve the Union, but it could very obviously boost the immediate, personal political fortunes of those involved.
As Jackson Carlaw, another 2011 leadership contender, pointed out at the time, any separate party which continued to function as the ‘Scottish Tories’ would continue to be called that, whatever its official name. Fraser’s halfway house was a self-defeating proposition, and his chief of staff knew it.
These are all, on one level, practical concerns, but they have severe ideological ramifications. Breaking up the UK-wide Conservative and Unionist Party would be a wholesale practical, intellectual, and spiritual capitulation to the principles of Scottish nationalism. No party founded on a repudiation of unionism’s most important idea – that we are better off when we pool not only resources but wisdom and risk by acting as the British – could ever make a positive case for it.
It would take time, as it did in Northern Ireland, but the path would be clear: towards a ‘unionism’ centred on fiscal transfers, which engender only a mercenary loyalty, and tribal symbolism, which appeals only to the converted.
As in Northern Ireland, the gradual result of this would be a mutual ‘othering’ of Scotland and the rest of Britain. In Ulster’s case, it took a matter of decades for the Province to go from being a place the cause of which animated the entire nation to a place so far apart that as staunch a unionist as Margaret Thatcher was prepared to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the teeth of Ulster Unionist opposition. Today, for too many on the mainland ‘Ulster’ is more an issue than a place. Its party and constitutional system contrive – as indeed Lloyd George originally intended – to make the Northern Irish strangers to the mainland, and vice versa.
If they followed this Ulster experience – and there is every reason to fear they would – the revived ‘Unionists’ would help at once to estrange Britain in Scotland and Scotland in Britain. They would become a monument to the true spirit of devolution: a Scottish tomb for Scottish talent, and a nail in the Union’s coffin.
Perhaps it is true that relations between Davidson and Johnson are ‘transactional’. But that is no justification for splitting the party. Not just because the Scottish Conservatives are, as she would doubtless agree, bigger than Davidson – and the Conservatives far bigger than Johnson. But because that transactional relationship is a thing to be fought, not embraced. A purely transactional union, like a purely transactional family, has already failed.
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