Michael Fry: Missing the target Tories

As the Scottish Conservatives gather for the annual conference, former diehard Michael Fry explains why the party isn’t winning lost voters back

Michael Fry campaigns as a Conservative candidate for the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Picture: Adam Elder
Michael Fry campaigns as a Conservative candidate for the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Picture: Adam Elder
Michael Fry campaigns as a Conservative candidate for the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Picture: Adam Elder

There are many people who vote SNP, but don’t back independence, who can be persuaded to vote Conservative.

So said Ruth Davidson, leader of the Tories, in her interview with this newspaper’s political editor, Eddie Barnes, this week, as she looked forward to the party’s conference at Stirling which begins today.

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I suppose I am, sort of, one of the people she is talking about. I have come round to thinking independence is a good idea but I used to be a fervent Conservative.

I first joined the party in 1966, when barely out of short pants, because I found Harold Wilson such a creep.

Through thick and thin I maintained my membership for four decades. In 1983 I was the parliamentary candidate in East Lothian, and with a couple of points extra national swing at that Tory landslide I might even have got to Westminster.

I never stood again till 1999, the first election for the Scottish Parliament, when the party in its loving kindness directed me to Maryhill.

With no worries about winning, my campaign was at least fun. All the Glasgow papers came to cover it, without lifting me off the bottom of the poll. Who says the media can manipulate elections?

That time there were still 360,000 Tory voters in Scotland. Since then the party has lost nearly one in three of them, ending up with 245,000 in 2011, 12 per cent of the total turnout compared to 15 per cent in 1999. So over 100,000 votes have gone missing.

If Ruth Davidson’s task of reconstruction is to get anywhere at all, then it is presumably with them, including me, that she has to start.

My own desertion came about halfway through this shrinkage. The main reason was the absolute refusal of the party even to start coming to terms with the devolved Scotland in which it now found itself – much against its will, of course, but that did not seem to me good reason to shrink away from any fresh thinking at all.

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I used to say at the time that the Scots Tories were like the dinosaurs after the asteroid hit: “Oh, Myrtle, let’s just keep munching these ferns. I’m sure next year everything will be all right.”

What actually lay in the future was extinction. The dinosaur brain functioned with painful slowness, and so did the Scottish Conservative brain. “We must wait for the tide to turn,” the former leader, David McLetchie, had always answered when asked for his strategy.

When by 2010 the tide had turned, washing a Tory back into No 10 Downing Street, the party in Scotland remained stuck in the mud.

There had to be a better answer. In the end Davidson was it: gay, media-savvy, baggage-free.

On the strength of Eddie’s interview, I would pay Davidson the tribute of saying that she still, after a couple of years in the job, reads like a breath of fresh air.

Yet it is not a blast of fresh air, and, so far, clearly not enough to alter the Scots Tory reality: no progress in votes or polls, a struggle to be heard while the bigger beasts of the Nats and Labour slug it out, above all a failure to overcome the sense among Scots that this branch-office of English Conservatism has nothing of interest or relevance to say to them.

It is fair enough for Davidson to point out that 20 years of decay are not to be turned round in two. But I would judge that even two years’ experience has been enough to prove the Scots Tories’ problems are not just problems of presentation, which is the analysis they continue to whisper comfortingly to themselves.

Davidson was to be the key to a new presentation, and she has not so far opened any doors on fresh prospects. Would I, as an ex-Conservative, return to the fold simply because of that change in leadership? The answer is no. To me the problems lie in substance, not in presentation. That may make life more complicated, yet to me there are only two issues that really matter, one of which is perfectly obvious and the other of which remains, for some reason, not obvious to Tories at all.

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The perfectly obvious issue is the constitution. Davidson once spoke of “a line in the sand” to draw the contrast with her defeated rival for the leadership, Murdo Fraser, who is ultimately in favour of fiscal autonomy as a promising environment for tax-cutting Tories.

Now, despite her hints she may be moving his way, her real problem is not to find a workable scheme so much as to shift the dinosaurs from their total intransigence on this point.

Lord Forsyth, Lord Sanderson, Margaret Mitchell, with their hangers-on in the press, have made clear they still will not cross the line in the sand.

On the other hand, people like me, targeted for winning back, have already moved far beyond that line and so beyond whatever half-baked compromise may emerge from the party’s latest facelift.

We departed in the first place just because we had despaired of these exercises ever going anywhere.

The not-so-obvious issue is the economy. As a matter of fact, Scots Tories have never been that keen on free markets, even in the glory days of Thatcherism when, against the odds, they kept public spending high north of the Border and continued to subsidise dying industries.

THE exception to this picture was Forsyth but by 1997 even he, with his back to the wall, was defending Conservative rule in those corporatist terms.

As the party conference opens in Stirling today, the most horrifying prospect Sanderson can hold out to a Scotland headed for change is that it may affect the Barnett formula.

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Today, the glaringly vacant position in Scottish politics is that which offers, via free markets, an exit from the subordinate position we occupy in a British economy totally subject to the interests of the City of London, despite the disasters these have brought and continue to bring.

Our high public expenditure is thought in the conventional wisdom to be a protection. Actually it is the opposite: it keeps Scotland locked into a system where native enterprise is shackled by the policies that we used to call regional. I would expect liberation from it to produce the same sort of results as Lithuania and Slovakia have seen since they cast off Communism.

You do not have to tell me that this argument is not exactly identical with the policy of the government of Scotland either.

But independence would prompt and force transformations which it cannot foresee, especially as we have to exist in a global economy intolerant of states spending too much and changing too little.

At least along that line I see some prospect of a better Scotland.

I will not go back to a Tory Party which tries to tell me I need more of the same.