If there is any doubt that the Conservatives have become a toxic brand, the council election victory of Peter de Vink will dispel it, writes Brian Monteith
I’ll never forget the first time I met the estimable financier Peter de Vink. It was in his office in Edinburgh’s New Town in the late Eighties. I had been told he was a strong backer of the Tories in Scotland, and I was organising some Young Conservative campaign I hoped he would help with.
Never before had I met such a cultured and perceptive figured who could be courteous and charming while at the same time smoking some exotic cheroots and making the air blue with profanities about socialism. As I found out that day, de Vink never thinks twice about calling a spade a shovel, and it is like a breath of fresh air among Scotland’s sycophantic schmoozing elite.
Over the next 25 years my friendship with him has grown, and any Conservative fund-raiser I ever attended was not worthy of the name if he was not taking a table at it or being involved in some way. But although a Tory through and through, he has never been foolish enough to let his own politics get in the way of building good business contacts – and that means he seeks out and rubs shoulders with people from all political parties if they have something creative and thoughtful to say about Scotland’s economy.
I would find him with Labour’s Eric Milligan at the Oyster Club or dining with the SNP’s Mike Russell in the days when Russell had lost his seat and wrote Grasping the Thistle with Denis MacLeod. He has always had the ear of Malcolm Rifkind from his early days at the Scottish Office, but now, too, is on first-name terms withr Alex Salmond. It is smart business, and smart politics too.
Last October, Midlothian Conservatives invited local members to become candidates in the council elections and, living in Midlothian for many years, de Vink thought he should give it a try and went through a selection process to become the Tory candidate for Midlothian East. It did not take long for members to moan about de Vink’s links with the First Minister – the same Alex Salmond that Annabel Goldie had kept in power for four years.
De Vink, being de Vink, would of course praise the First Minister without a second’s thought if he believed he deserved it. He had seen Salmond in action during a Scottish business trip to Qatar, and was impressed. He then organised a lunch in Edinburgh’s New Club, where his mostly Unionist business pals could hear Salmond first-hand and ask him questions. Afterwards, a few became more sympathetic to the First Minister’s reasoning, not least because of its upbeat positive talk of opportunities compared to the fearmongering that Unionists shroud independence in.
In the absence of any coherent and positive advocacy of maintaining the existing Union, de Vink and many other Tories I know have gradually become convinced that the only viable Union has to be a new arrangement, a New Union, a far looser Union than what we currently have.
He has dined with the new Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, listening to her patiently for some 40 minutes and asked for only four minutes in return to convince her to advocate a New Union – but she would not have it, defending her famous line in the sand of “no further” that even the Prime Minister wants cross.
De Vink tried to speak at the Conservative conference at Troon in spring against the motion defending the Union because he wanted to advocate a different approach to fighting independence, one that does not demonise changing the current Union. But the man who has raised so much mullah for the Tories was denied a platform. It does seem strange debating a motion where everybody is expected to agree.
All this came to a head when Rifkind told de Vink that he could not stand as a Conservative only but had to stand as a Conservative and Unionist, and he had to be more beastly to the Nationalists. De Vink pointed out that neither Labour or Liberal Democrats used the word Unionist and he was willing to attack policies (like wind farms), but would not attack people just for holding different views.
Just at that time de Vink was told by many people on the doorsteps of Easthouses and Mayfield what they thought of him, and it was in language de Vink was more used to and fully understood. It involved taking the words Conservative and Unionist and doing something quite intolerable with them.
De Vink decided he should stand as an independent, for if the Conservatives had any ambition in Midlothian it must be to unseat the socialist scourge from one of their “aye been Labour” heartlands.
Last Thursday Peter de Vink, once the colourful fund-raiser to the Scottish Conservatives but now an independent, attracted more than 1,400 first preferences and transfers and was elected by a majority of 40 votes. Labour won eight seats, the SNP eight seats, the Greens one and Peter de Vink the last one, giving the two individual councillors a choice.
De Vink has told Labour he wants to spend the next five years undoing all of the damage they have done locally in the last 30 years, and the Green, Iain Baxter, agrees with him. Meanwhile, in Stirling, the four Conservatives are looking to put Labour back in control of the council they ran into the ground since the early Eighties.
If ever there was a blunt example of just how toxic the Tory brand is in Scotland, it was de Vink’s election last week. He knows himself that if he had not dropped the branding he would have been defeated – the locals told him as much.
Nationally, the Tory vote has shrunk from 13.9 per cent last year to 13.3 per cent this year – and compares with 16.9 per cent in 2007. Ruth Davidson tells us that there are more Conservative councillors in five Scottish councils, but does not want to speak about the 13 councils where there are fewer, and how North Lanarkshire now has none at all.
It should not need repeating, but I shall say it yet again. The Conservatives are finished in Scotland and the only hope for conservatism is to start again before more good people like Peter de Vink walk cross the floor for good.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org.