Monday, 5 September 2011

Conservative Party may disband in Scotland

In an attempt to shed its image as an 'English party', members of the Conservative Party in Scotland are considering splintering off from the Tories and forming a new Scottish centre-right party. The move, which would not be the result of any policy disagreement with the Tory leadership but rather for identification issues, reflects just how strong regionalism has become in Europe in recent years.

The change is being proposed by Murdo Frasier, a candidate in the current race for a new leader of the Conservatives in Scotland. The Tories have been pretty much banished from power by Scottish voters for over a decade now, ever since a massive defeat in 1997. They currently hold only 15 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament and only one of Scotland's 59 seats in the British Parliament. Since 2007 the largest party in the Scottish Parliament has been the Scottish National Party, which wants to seceed from the UK.

Frasier has centred his leadership campaign around a promise to break this trend by dissolving the party, which he says has become a "toxic brand" in Scotland because people see it as representing the interests of Westminster over Edinburgh. The new party would likely not even have the words "conservative" or "tory" in its name.

Separate versions of parties for specific regions are not unheard of in Europe. But there are places where it works well, and other places where it doesn't. In Germany, Bavaria has its own separate version of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union called the Christian Social Union. The CSU is in practice just the Bavarian chapter of the CDU which almost always votes with its sister party. But technically, the CDU is a separate party which can rebel against the CDU on specific issues.

Here in Belgium, there are two separate versions of each political party for each of the linguistic communities. There are separate Flemish and Francophone versions of the Socialists, Conservatives, Liberals and Greens. But in contrast to the German example, the only pair of parties that actually coordinate with one another are the two Green groups. What's more, you are only allowed to vote for the party that matches your linguistic community. So for instance, someone in French-speaking Wallonia cannot vote for the Flemish Socialist party, and someone in Flanders cannot vote for the Francophone Socialist party.

The situation in Belgium has devolved into a bit of a farce. Nobody votes for the Francophone Conservatives and nobody votes for the Flemish Socialists. At this point those two parties are effectively non-entities. Almost all of Wallonia votes for the Socialists and almost all of Flanders votes for the two Conservative/Liberal parties. So there is no point in the separation because the political allegiances are now divided along linguistic lines anyway.

One could see the same thing developing in Scotland, where politics have long been dominated by centre-left Labour and now the centre-left/nationalist Scottish National Party. If all of the parties split into separate Scottish and English versions one struggles to see how it would make much of a difference electorally. You would likely just end up with a situation where the separate Scottish conservative party becomes invisible, much like the Francophone conservative party in Wallonia.

On the other hand, if things worked out like they have in Germany, having completely separate versions of political parties in Scotland could work out hugely in Scotland's advantage - and be hugely disadvantageous to England. It could give Scotland even more political advantage than it has already received under devolution.

Devolution, the process by which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given their own regional parliaments in 1998, has created a bizarre situation in which people in those three regions have twice the government representation as someone living in England. Because England has no separate parliament, a person living in England has only one representative in the British partliament. By contrast, someone living in Scotland has two representatives, one in the Scottish Parliament and one in the British Parliament. A Scot's representative in the British parliament can vote on issues only affecting England. But an Englishman's representative cannot vote on issues only affecting Scotland, because those decisions are taken in Edinburgh.

If a separate centre-right party in Scotland were able to overcome their toxic image and achieve success (and that's a big if), they could enjoy an advantageous situation like that currently enjoyed by the Bavarian conservatives. Germans have long complained that whenever there is a conservative government in power nationally, Bavaria gets special treatment because their separate Bavarian conservative party can threaten to drop their support for the main party if they don't get concessions. The Bavarian conservatives are the strongest party in Bavaria.

That's the tricky business about devolution. When it's done only for some regions, it leaves the rest of the country out in the cold. And when it's done for all the regions, as was done in Belgium, it can create a complicated morass of a system which can end up ungovernable.

Perhaps the biggest irony in all of this is that the original raison d'etre of the Conservatives in Scotland was to support the union of the United Kingdom. In fact the full name of the Scottish chapter of the party is the Scottish Conservatives and Unionists. If the Scottish conservatives were to break away to form their own Scottish-only party, it sends a rather incongruous message about their commitment to the union of England and Scotland. The fact that they are now considering such a move shows just how powerful Scottish nationalist sentiment is these days.


Captain Kid said...

Quo vadis, Europe? Some years ago, we thought nationalism was a thing of the past.

Anonymous said...

It's too little too late. The Tories have been so out of touch with Scotland for so long, do they really think a name change is going to change anyone's mind?