Brian Monteith: Time for a Unionist Party?

Alex Salmond outside the Palace of Westminster in March 1988. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond outside the Palace of Westminster in March 1988. Picture: PA
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Not a revival of the pre-1965 party, but a new centre-right group taking in Tories and others, writes Brian Monteith

LAST week I thought it necessary to send a message to unionists that while it was natural to wish to avoid a further referendum on the nation’s constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom – not least because it would distract us from dealing with social issues long ignored, would further hold back our economic development and sow yet more bitterness – we should not fear such a challenge but instead be confident about the virtues of remaining in our island family.

This week, as most of us return to our labours and face the months that will take us toward to the general election in May, I thought I should address another aspect of the dilemma facing today’s unionists and ask if there is a case for a new Scottish Unionist Party?

Note that I say “new” rather than write about reviving the old Unionist Party; this is intentional, for it is to my mind important that if there were to be a unionist political movement or party that it would not – and could not – be associated with what went before.

It is often claimed that only the Conservatives have enjoyed an absolute majority of the Scottish popular vote and seats at a general election, but this is misleading, for the fact is that there really was no Conservative Party in Scotland at that time. What existed was the Unionist Party that had supplanted the Conservatives in Scotland in 1912 and which took the Conservative whip at Westminster. It was only in 1965 that the Unionist Party was merged with the London-headquartered Conservative Party and took on the name the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

This is not some minor pedantic point, for the history of these parties and the record of their victories (and defeats) has not only allowed some, including myself, to lay claim to a right-of-centre lineage in Scotland that challenges the lazy assumption of there being an inherent socialist disposition, it has also meant that many Scots, possibly the majority, are unaware that a Unionist Party did previously exist in Scotland.

Why then should it not just be revived? There are three good reasons for this, the first is sectarian and the second and third political.

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It cannot be denied that the old Unionist Party enjoyed considerable support among what might be called presbyterian Scotland. This did not make the Unionist Party exclusively Protestant – for it also enjoyed support from Episcopalians and Roman Catholics – but it did mean that it could at times give the appearance of being the political wing of the Church of Scotland. The Kirk, like so many other Scottish institutions, was decidedly more orange in hue between the 1930s and 50s than it is now.

For a political party today, especially a new one, to base itself, however loosely, on a particular religious disposition would not only strike an outdated and discordant tone, it would immediately ensure that its potential for support would be severely limited and any claim to represent all Scottish voters and their interests would obviously ring hollow.

It is therefore vital that any new unionist movement does not seek to revive any perceived affiliations of the old Unionists that existed two generations ago – save for a commitment to maintaining Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom – but would seek to found itself on modern principles about freedoms, obligations and responsibilities while employing contemporary language about openness, justice and equality. We also need to recognise that Unionists in the past were against Home Rule, but no longer would be, or indeed could afford to be. It was the offer of Irish Home Rule in the 19th century that had precipitated Liberal unionists in Scotland to break from the Liberal Party and give support to the Tories, from which the Unionist Party evolved. It was that strain of belief that ensured old unionism supported a unitary state and the Conservatives were in general against devolution, despite flirting with it on some occasions.

A modern unionist party would have to accept that the Scottish Parliament not only exists but is about to enjoy greater authority and take on extra responsibilities – and that such a policy is designed to strengthen the union rather than weaken it. In that context any new unionist party would commence from a fresh starting point and be unrecognisable from the old.

Thirdly, it is also the possibility that the Conservative brand in Scotland remains significantly damaged. There is a worthwhile debate to be had about how much it may have recovered in recent years but nonetheless we should have better evidence about this by the morning of 8 May. As there is unlikely to be any political realignment that would produce a new Unionist Party before then, we can afford to take it as given that any failure by the Tories to recover in some significant way could then present an opportunity for a new unionist grouping to coalesce.

A new Unionist Party could not simply be a Scottish Conservative Party under a new name; being open to the accusation of “same old Tories” would be the death of it and so while it could not be closed to unionists from the Conservatives – for that would be illiberal and undemocratic – it would have to start afresh and look to attract new names, new people and some new ideas.

Likewise, the Liberal Democrats, whose Home Rule antecedents do not undermine their unionist credentials, could well be humbled at the hands of the Scottish voters in May and this too could contribute to invitations to like-minded supporters and activists to begin a new journey.

Already unionists from existing parties and none are talking to each other in an attempt to build a coalition or encourage tactical voting that may yet stop Alex Salmond from again taking a seat at Westminster.

The political platform of any new Unionist Party would, thanks to the course of history, be unrecognisable from that of the 1950s – it would be New Unionism, as I have called it before. The possibility of a centrist Scottish Unionist Party that would seek to combine the British welfare state with limited government should not be idly dismissed and may yet prove more attractive to those who voted No than voting for those whose time has passed.

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