How the mighty are fallen

by Tom Harris

Annabel Goldie is a nice woman. She is intelligent, likeable and formidable in almost perfect proportion. And it is a cruel irony that only in a pre-devolution era could Annabel ever have been considered as a serious candidate for the post of Scotland’s first minister.

In the week when she delivers her swan song as Scottish Tory leader to her party conference, she will have cause to reflect on the past and future of the party she has led since 2005. And to consider whether or not it actually has a future.

And as my own party continues to come to terms with our defeat in our heartlands and whether or not we have a future, we might feel a twinge of sympathy with Annabel.

A feeling common to us both is frustration. There are capable, principled people in both our parties who continue to be denied ministerial office. In our case we hold out hope that the drought might end in four years’ time. For the Tories things are even worse; barring some unprecedented political earthquake or extinction-level event such as a collision with a stray asteroid, they are doomed to be neither the largest party in Holyrood nor the preferred coalition partner of any other party – even the Scottish Lib Dems wouldn’t be seen talking to them publicly. Things in the playground are rough indeed when even the weird kid who eats stuff for money won’t play with you.

The frustration of opposition is part and parcel of democratic politics, but we’re the Scottish Labour Party, for crying out loud. Scotland is where we weighed votes, went the old (and wrong) received wisdom. Annabel’s frustration has the same root: hers is the only party ever to win an actual majority of the popular vote in Scotland (50.1 per cent in 1955, for the anoraks among you). And now?

It’s nearly 20 years since the Tories last won seats in double figures quantity, and even then, only just double figures. And in the subsequent four UK general elections, they have fluctuated wildly between one and zero seats. The only reason they have any kind of presence at all in Scotland is an electoral system (which they opposed) for a devolved parliament (which they also opposed).

Even more frustrating for Annabel must be the realisation that her voters didn’t die or emigrate. Neither were they converted, in the strictest sense. They’re still Tories. It’s just that they… well, they just don’t vote Tory any more. What would be the point? Why vote for a party that stands no chance of either forming a government or, more importantly, of beating the vile socialists?

No, more sensible, surely, to support the one party that stands for whatever you want it to stand for. Of course, the SNP’s support for independence might have been a bit of a barrier to those former adherents of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, but Salmond’s commitment to giving Scots a say in a referendum successfully detoxified his party for many of those of a unionist bent.

And it’s at this point I find I have no comfort to offer Annabel or to her successor, whoever that may be. It’s difficult to see how a Tory resurgence might happen.

Murdo Fraser’s radical (and probably doomed) plan to use a successful leadership bid in order to abolish the party illustrates just how serious the Scottish Tory predicament has become. My best guess, as an outsider, is that their best chance of clawing their way back to relevance would be by electing the able and likeable newcomer Ruth Davidson as leader. Such a move would have the advantage of being radical without the emotional wrench of ditching the Tory brand altogether.

There’s still room in Scotland for a centre-right alternative to the SNP-Labour-left consensus. Its absence has not helped political debate in the last 14 years; it has stilted and warped the political landscape. Annabel has tried valiantly to provide that alternative in the past six years. The responsibility for her failure should not be laid at her door alone, for she has done as much as anyone could, as energetically and enthusiastically as could have been expected from any party leader.

But perhaps I can offer Annabel just a morsel of comfort after all: as she beheld the delegates in the conference hall, as she admitted the task that confronts the Caledonian blue-rinses, she might have reflected wryly that although it’s been nearly a generation since the Scottish Tories won more than ten Westminster seats, it’s been exactly the same length of time since the UK party won a majority, or 40 per cent of voters’ support.

There are still regions of England where Tories are just as much an endangered species as in Scotland. Okay, not much of a comfort, I’ll admit. But as I join my comrades in Scotland to stare into the abyss, you’ll have to forgive me for feeling short of sympathy.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South

Tags: , , , ,

5 Responses to “How the mighty are fallen”

  1. swatantra says:

    Its like banging your head against a brick wall. What it needs is some original thinking to get the SNP out. It may even come down to a Unionist Alliance as Goldie suggests a pact between Scots Labour and the Scots Tories.
    You forget to mention that one Tory contender for the Leadership came up with a stark proposal of calling the Scots Tories something else and distancing themselves from Westminster!. Thats what I call original thinking.
    If only Labour had some original thinking then we might be getting somewhere.

  2. Ian Cawsey says:

    Good piece Tom. When we played (with MP4) at the SNP Conference a few years ago our Tory drummer (Greg Knight) was chatting to some delegates who said they pleased to see a Tory MP in Scotland. When he asked why they said they were Tories but had thrown their lot in with the SNP as the only realistic alternative to Labour. Whilst the SNP can continue to spread their net and capture an anti-Labour coalition it is bad news for Labour and the Tories. But there is a test for the SNP as well, these Tories are, by nature, unionists so can they push for independence without losing the very supporters who have tactically used their vote to put them in power? Interesting times in Scotland.

  3. Dougthedug says:

    A couple of factual errors in here. Annabel Goldie is not the Scottish Tory Leader she simply heads the Tory MSP’s in the Scottish Parliament exactly as Iain Gray does for Labour. Like the Labour party the Conservative party has no regional leader in Scotland so to blame all the problems on Annabel when she is not the leader is perhaps a little unfair.

    Tom might talk about a, “Scottish Labour Party”, but there is no such beast. There is a Scottish region within the British Labour party but there is no defined Scottish party or leader just like the Conservatives.

    The, “Capable, principled people”, are denied office for the simple reason that they are in parties with policies the electorate doesn’t particularly like. Perhaps they might consider why as. “Capable, principled people”, they are in these parties.

  4. If the tories are a lost cause in Scotland, and have been for a generation, why devote an entire article to celebrate the fact?

    I’d rather labour focused on getting its own act together in Scotland. The Scottish parliament general election result was unnerving.

    Yes, it’s highly likely that the Scottish people will vote to remain part of the union come the referendum. But the electorate in Scotland have proved somewhat mischievous of late.

    While they may vote for the union, their next move might be to return the SNP to Westminster in ever greater numbers at the expense of Labour.

    I’m really surprised at the way Labour has reacted to the results in Scotland in so much as they haven’t reacted with the sort of urgency I was expecting from them.

    Arguments surrounding how Ed Miliband is defining the centre ground in the UK may prove utterly irrelevant. For if labour loses many seats in Scotland at the next Westminster election…it loses.

  5. Headbangingunionist says:

    @Dugthedug God you cybernats do get everywhere. I don’t know how you do it. You must spend every waking minute of every day trawling every website to look for something related to Scottish independence. Do you cybernats not have jobs to go to???

Leave a Reply