One of the strengths that the SNP has that none of the Unionist parties in Scotland can match is that their leader is in the Scottish Parliament, that their leader is focussed only on Scotland and that their policies only focus on Scotland.
The Scottish Labour Party is basically the Scottish Constituency Labour Party as opposed to a national Scottish Party. The Scottish Liberal Democrats, although being a separate Scottish party within a federal constitution are suffering from being able to show real differences and even disagreements with what is happening in Westminster. It certainly doesn’t help that there are Scottish Liberal Democrats in the cabinet. Scottish Liberal Democrats are against tuition fees? Yet Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs voted for them. It’s a hard to argue against that fact. No amount of positioning and debate can truly make Scottish Liberal Democrat polices and politicians very distinct from the federal party. The Scottish Liberal Democrats aren’t even a separate political party registered with the Electoral Commission.
The Tories, full name the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, are in the same boat as Labour with no real distinction between the party in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Which is one of the reasons that Murdo Fraser, one of the candidates to replace Annabel Goldie as leader of the Tories in Scotland, has proposed that the Tories in Scotland disband and reform as a new Centre-Right Party.
The Tories in Scotland have never recovered from the 1997 General Election and even now have only 1 MP. As the Scottish Liberal Democrats have found, the Scottish electorate have a tremendous hatred of the Tories. For many nationalists and socialists, the 1979-1997 Tory Government is unaccountably seen as the worst thing to happen to Scotland since the last eruption of the volcano underneath Edinburgh Castle.
There is little chance of a political party overcoming that kind of opprobrium so the idea that the Tories should disband and reform is an attractive one. However, if Murdo Fraser is elected leader and the membership of the party does vote for the idea it won’t actually make much difference in the short-term. The party will still struggle in next year’s council elections and in other elections in Scotland when it is party of the UK. A big reason for this is, like the other Unionist parties, the Tories don’t seem to be able to put forward an argument that offers an optimistic and ambitious view of Scotland within the current constitutional framework. The genius of the SNP since taking power at Holyrood as been to concentrate only on Scotland, offer a positive vision of Scotland and seek as much power for Scotland as possible.
The SNP have governed pretty competently with less scandal and ministerial upheaval than their Holyrood predecessors and those in Westminster. They have a number of competent ministers and, as a party, have stayed pretty much on message and on target for a positive (for them) referendum result.
I wonder if Murdo Fraser can see the way the wind is blowing. I wonder if he can see that there is no real positive campaign message for Scotland sticking with the current constitutional settlement. He would never admit that of course and campaign of Scotland staying where it is, but in establishing a new Scottish centre right party he could be stealing a march on other parties for the first Scottish election campaign after the SNP win their referendum.
What would happen if Scotland said yes? How quickly would there need to be a general election for the new parliament of Scotland. For any party to govern with a mandate in a new nation there would need to be an election fairly quickly. The SNP would be in a quandary, as one of their key policies would have been met so how many members would stick with them? Should they be a low or high tax party? How many would bleed away to other parties?
What about the other two Unionist parties? The Scottish Liberal Democrats would at least be able to look to their current constitution as the basis of quickly adapting to the new political situation. It would still need ratified and approved at a conference by our members.
Scottish Labour would, arguably, be an even worse position (unless the current review adopts a similar constitutional position to the Scottish Liberal Democrats). What this means is that Murdo Fraser and his new Centre Right Scottish Party would be able to offer Scottish policies and Scottish solutions very quickly and be able to gain momentum that the other two parties would be unable to match. And if those pro-business, pro-low tax SNP members and voters leave SNP for the new party then they could become one of the bigger parties in the new independent Scotland.
Willie Rennie is in the process of establishing a Commission to investigate both Home Rule and devolving more power to local communities. I wonder if its worth also considering more independence for the Scottish Liberal Democrats as well?