The Conservative party has long been said to be an English party, but that’s only partially right. It’s really a south of England party. Just as Scotland has chronic Thatcher syndrome, so does the north of England.
It isn’t an ideal situation for the Tories. It would have helped their 2010 campaign efforts enormously had Scottish Conservatives picked up the six seats they were quietly hoping for and had the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force been a success. After all, much as the Conservatives may extol the virtues of the coalition, they certainly don’t see the situation as ‘ideal’.
As a result, Conservatives in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have lit upon the same remedy – a new party, with its own brand and name, autonomous from the English Conservative party regionally but allied with them in Westminster.
It’s a bold move. Ballot papers are usually strewn with new parties or parties without any chance of electoral success, and if you’re changing your shade of blue, where’s the guarantee voters will see the difference?
The situation for the Tories in Scotland and Northern Ireland is, however, grim. The Scottish party’s quiet hopes for six seats amounted to nothing.
Their leader, Annabel Goldie, was forced to stand down. Major donors fled forcing the party to downsize their office. The chief media strategist, Michael Crow, was sacked (though officially this was blamed on ‘financial constraints’) and the national campaign was criticised and said to have failed its prospective candidates.
In Northern Ireland, Sir Reg Empey stood down after the UUP were wiped out in the Westminster elections. The party’s new leader, Tom Elliott, expressed his wish for closer ties with the Conservative party.
Elliot may not get his wish, however, as a group of Conservatives in Northern Ireland, the ‘Way Forward Group’, are currently meeting to explore the future of the Conservative party in Northern Ireland and what form it could take.
On Sunday, 17th July, the News Letter reported on concerns from Northern Irish Conservatives that the Tory brand had become too “unpalatable” for voters, leading them to consider rebranding as a new party called “One Northern Ireland”.
The party would be unionist, but cross-community and looking to attract Catholic voters, whilst also being a right of centre, business-friendly party. It would be autonomous but allied with the Conservatives in Westminster (and without the UUP).
Irwin Armstrong, chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, also said the Secretary of State and CCHQ were working closely with them on the project.
In Scotland, the current front runner in the leadership election, MSP Murdo Fraser, described the party as “failing” and “not fit for purpose” and it is Fraser who is leading the Scottish charge to disband the party and start afresh.
His idea is the same as the ‘One Northern Ireland’ concept; an autonomous party, allied at Westminster, with its own identity and name.
The Scottish equivalent, however, has gone further in terms of reforming its ideology. Fraser is proposing a party that wants full tax varying powers for Scotland. This is in stark contrast to the current party.
The Thatcher syndrome has ‘toxified’ the brand in Scotland. Here, ironically, it would appear that the ‘Conservatives’ brand polls better than the ‘Scottish Conservatives’ brand. While the Conservative brand represents a fresh, vibrant and modern party, the Scottish Conservatives brand identity is stuffier, lacking clear direction and old fashioned.
Local campaign officials in Scotland were constantly battling with the Scottish Head Office to be allowed to use the English iconography and designs, which inferred the modern, vibrant energy they themselves were playing off for Scotland, but were forced to use the darker, flatter and even lower resolution Scottish alternatives.
The nannying the Scottish party received from CCHQ once led leader Annabel Goldie to ask a question so flawed during First Ministers Questions that SNP leader Alex Salmond immediately managed to laugh it off and correct her.
The situation the Scottish Conservatives are in is, in truth, a disaster of their own making. Even ignoring the pre-David Cameron era, the party has worked hard at its own demise. It is indisputable that the Scottish Conservatives are in serious trouble. The question now is simple; is the Scottish Conservative brand so far gone that it is faster, cheaper and more effective to just start again?
To many Scottish Conservatives, Fraser’s proposals must be appealing. An autonomous party that is a Scottish thoroughbred empowered to go in its own direction and with the ability in Westminster to help the UK wide Conservative effort.
Indeed, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Tory Veteran Norman Tebbit supported Murdo Fraser’s plans;
“I have long thought that the Conservative Party in Scotland had become so damaged by its image as no more than a branch of a highly centralised party run exclusively from Westminster that it would have to make way for a new Scottish Unionist Party.”
Tebbit, coincidentally, suggested the new Scottish Tory affiliate should have the same relationship with the Tories that the UUP had until 1972.
And what of Northern Irish Conservatives? Do they have a similar problem? The NI party chairman did state that the Tories were seen as an English party. While he rejected the term ‘toxic’ for the Tory brand in Northern Ireland, he certainly felt it wasn’t “local”.
The real challenge is how to get traction. In Scotland, the media will be naturally interested in an established party, with an MP and several MSPs, undergoing a fundamental change. In Northern Ireland, the task is much more difficult; how do you get anyone to care about a new party that has, ultimately, come from nothing?
Getting press coverage will be tough, but the assumption that they’d be playing a short game would undoubtedly be flawed. The real question is based on money. They will need considerable money, year on year, to get their efforts off the ground, even if they are playing a long game.
Making people aware of who you are, what you support and then getting the electorate to choose your party over established, more likely contenders is a considerable challenge. Without substantive financial backing, their efforts are likely to go nowhere.
What they will be banking on is the assumption that wider Northern Ireland voters are craving a moderate party, without affiliation to either community who would rather not vote for the major players and who represent a change from ‘Stormont as usual’. They will also be hoping to attract disgruntled UUP voters.
Both concepts are far from guaranteed at this point with the Scottish leadership campaign still ongoing and with discussions continuing between Northern Irish Conservatives, but that both parties are veering toward the same direction does highlight a particular frustration and appetite within regional affiliates.
Patrick Haugseng worked in a target seat campaign for the Scottish Conservatives during the 2010 general election as part of an internship. He has no political alignments .