Brian Monteith: Being right-wing should be a Tory strength
The centre ground is no place for Conservatives, but support is far from waning, writes Brian Monteith
Anyone who has read my criticisms of the Conservative Party over the last few years will be aware that, despite my Conservative leanings, I have regularly been more cutting and less sparing than those who have opposed the party. My motives have not been born from personal rancour to past colleagues with whom I disagreed, nor because those politicians that I have favoured (such as David Davis and Murdo Fraser) have not prospered as leaders, but because I care deeply about the party’s broad philosophy.
Based upon a core belief in individual freedom, the party has, since the mid-1970s, supported liberal economics, the rule of law, a property-owning democracy, popular capitalism, voluntarism and localism. Many of these ideas required it to fight single-handedly against parties that wished to ensure control remained with union leaders rather than union members, unelected bureaucrats rather than elected politicians and European politicians rather than the British people.
If I have a problem with the general approach of the Conservatives at the moment, it is that they have dipped too greatly into the cynical triangulation, sound-bite, follow-the-focus-group approach of Mandelson, Blair, Campbell & Associates, and have eschewed trying to lead the British public by instead following what pollsters think people might want.
This leads to the nonsense that the centre ground should be the party’s destination – when the centre ground is a shifting sandbank crafted by political forces that try to pull the ship of state in certain directions. The centre ground under Wilson, Heath and Callaghan had different geographical co-ordinates to the centre ground after Thatcher and Major, and again under Blair and Brown. Unfortunately, Cameron does not seek to move this sandbank but see it as a landing ground to plant his flag.
To therefore read the regular column in Saturday’s Scotsman by Gerry Hassan – an unashamed advocate of the so-called democratic left – caused me to reach for my hypertension medication. He argues the problem with the Tory party is that its right-wing brand of politics is making it unelectable beyond London and the South East and that this should be of concern to those of us who hold democracy dear.
Firstly, his premise that the Conservatives are not a national party and are pretty much unelectable north of the Watford Gap is plain wrong. One only has to look at the constituency map of the UK and see that the vast majority of England is coloured blue: not just London and the south-east but divisions such as Carlisle, Penrith and the Borders, whole swathes of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire, the overwhelming majority of the East and West Midlands, and most of the south-west.
In Wales, the Conservatives are the official opposition, gaining a 5.6 per cent swing from Labour in 2010, while the map of council administrations reveals Tories running places such as Trafford in Greater Manchester, countering the idea that councillors cannot get elected in the north.
There is much room for improvement but, clearly, being right-wing is not the problem. Given the growing appeal of UKIP, might it be that not being true to the party’s right-wing beliefs is a greater concern?
It is true that there is only one Conservative MP in Scotland, and this has been the case for the last three general elections after the wipeout of 1997, but anyone taking an openly objective approach would have to admit that the difficulty the Conservative Party faces is that it is the only significant right-of-centre party in Scotland fighting three different left-of-centre parties. While Scottish Tories have always had a significantly larger vote share than the Liberal Democrats, they have been spread too thinly across Scotland to beat the three other parties and have persistently come fourth.
I am the last person to make excuses for the Conservative Party’s failings but they are just not the ones for which Gerry Hassan seeks to finger the party. Hassan’s sweeping generalisations just do not fit the facts.
Indeed, the idea that over the years a growing London-centric nature of the party is tied in with it becoming more right-wing is simply absurd.
There is little doubt that the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland, a year ahead of England, was used by the party’s opponents to say Scotland was a guinea pig for uncaring “English” Conservative machinations. Anyone who has studied this episode knows this is a complete falsehood: Thatcher was against the idea, as were other Cabinet members, but the argument to start in Scotland first was won by Secretary of State George Younger with the help of strenuous lobbying by Scottish party chairman Lord Goold.
More recently, the party, having lost the devolution argument, has not come to terms with what the seismic shift must mean for the Union’s institutions at Holyrood or Westminster and, rather than debate this, has sought to bury the issue in a stew of platitudes and clichés about doing what’s best for Scotland. It has therefore continued to be painted as anti-Scottish by its opponents.
There was a great deal more in Gerry Hassan’s sweeping diatribe – such as suggesting that boundary redistribution that creates fairer seats is undemocratic – that deserves reply, but space prevents.
What is the ultimate absurdity that cannot be allowed to pass, however, and the idea that by adopting more so-called London-centric, right-wing policies, Conservative support in the rest of Britain will shrink. Yet Hassan argues, bizarrely, that those of a like mind to him should rally round to defeat a detached, zombie-like right-wingery.
Why bother? If Hassan’s prognosis were true, then Conservatives would never again be in government, which is precisely what he would prefer.
More likely is that by rediscovering what they stand for, Conservatives could begin to win back support in places currently lost – and this is truly what Gerry Hassan fears.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org
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Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
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Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east