Are there more Scottish Conservatives than Unicorns in Scotland? Barely.
These days Scottish politics seems to be all about the left. Indeed there is a lot of energy and a smorgasbord of political choice left of Scotland’s “centre”. Meanwhile it can be hard to find signs of life over on the right. Yet there are living breathing “right of centre progressive conservatives” in Scotland. Many of them belong to the Scottish branch of the United Kingdom’s Conservative and Unionist Party, often called “Scottish Conservatives” or simply “Tories”. The Scottish Conservatives are a crowd that the Scottish clan and family diaspora might want to come to understand better. Conservative politics are the political choice of more than a few of today’s Scottish clan chiefs.
As with the Scottish branch of the UK Labour Party, Scottish Conservatives are set up as a sub unit of the larger UK Conservative party organization. Scotland takes it’s direction regarding party personnel, finance and patronage from UK Conservative leadership in London. Also like Labour, the tension that accompanies this arrangement, especially when it comes to policy, plays an important role in how Scottish Conservatives do business in Scotland today. Indeed, Scottish conservative prospects have looked so bleak recently that it was only a few years ago (2011) when prominent and rational Scottish conservatives called for the decoupling of the Scottish Conservative party from the UK Tories to be replaced by a new independent Scottish group of conservatives who would not be tied to London and who could even modify their position on Scottish independence. That idea ultimately failed but no solution to the challenges that created it has yet been found. Just this summer Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson found the necessity to dress down UK Tory boss David Cameron for his statements ruling out a second Scottish Indy Referendum.
The UK Conservative party was founded as the successor to several regional conservative and unionist parties that were combined in 1965. Over the last century and a half conservative politics has played a significant role in UK government including policy matters in Scotland. In Scotland however, that active and influential role came to an abrupt halt in 1997 when Scotland failed to return a single conservative MP to the United Kingdom Parliament – something that hadn’t happened for 180 years.
Conservative political decline in Scotland did not come like a bolt from the sky. Scotland overwhelmingly perceived that it had been treated unfairly and harshly during long road through the Margaret Thatcher and John Major conservative years (1979 – 1997). Additionally, during the nineties, the conservative party began to fight itself in the wake of the rise of political alternatives in Scotland. That and the Conservatives’ steadfast refusal to consider devolution brought about the total Scottish Conservative wipe out in 1997.
While Conservatism’s popularity in the UK continues to rise and fall (Conservatives have been in power at Westminster since 2010) Scotland has never been a strongly Conservative nation and has returned a majority of Conservative MPs to UK Parliament only twice in nearly two centuries (1931 and 1955). On the national front, Scotland has now selected four devolved Scottish Parliaments since 1999. Scottish Conservatives have never gained more than 16.6% of the vote. At present, Scotland is represented by one Scottish MP at Westminster and by 17 of the 129 total MSPs in Scotland’s devolved Parliament. Scotland does a good bit of governing of itself on the local level through locally elected “Councils”. Of the 1,223 Council seats throughout Scotland, 111 are held by Conservative party members. Current party membership was claimed to be 11,000 by the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson in 2012. By contrast, Scottish National Party membership is now at more than 110,000 and on the rise. The Scottish Conservatives’ Facebook page sports 5,595 “Likes”.
Despite their small numbers it would be a mistake to forget to keep up with what the Scottish Tories are up to. It is possible that Tories will represent the major opposition to the ascendant and increasingly dominant Scottish National Party at Holyrood after 2016. Scottish Conservatives favor policies and positions that will be very familiar to American Conservatives although how those policies and positions play out in each nation will of course vary widely given that America and Scotland are, well, two very different nations. People who support ideas like smaller government and more individual choice, personal responsibility and welfare reform, strong national defense and a strong economy are found on the far right side of the Atlantic as well as the left side.
If you are interested in learning more about Scotland’s Conservative party, a great way to begin is a visit to the official Scottish Conservative website.