Oh, Canada. Oh, Ruth. As seductive it may seem for the Scottish Tory leader to look towards Canada for solutions to her problems, it just isn’t that simple.
The past fortnight could count as the worst in Ruth Davidson’s political career. She has seen the embodiment of everything she’s tried to change in Tory politics take charge of her party and enter Downing Street, triumphant. One of Boris Johnson’s first acts in office was to sack Davidson’s ‘work husband’, David Mundell, who is among her closest political allies and friends. Johnson’s Government is now eagerly marching the country towards a no-deal cliff.
Hence the latest flurry of suggestions, borrowing from Canada, for a breakaway party in Scotland – the Tory north, strong and free. Murdo Fraser revived his proposal from the 2011 Scottish Tory leadership election, citing the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) – the governing party of Canada’s second-biggest province, a centre-right pro-business group that embraces key strands of nationalism while rejecting separation. It was formed from the merger of two groups that broke away from the Parti Quebecois, the francophone nationalist party of government since the 1970s.
On John Beattie’s Radio Scotland programme on Monday, the former Scottish Conservative head of communications Andy Maciver also invoked a Canadian solution. In Alberta, the heartland of Canadian conservatism, the Conservative Party of Canada no longer exists at a provincial level. The government in Edmonton is run by the independent United Conservative Party, formed from the merger of what was the Canada-wide Progressive Conservative Party and the local, populist Wildrose Party.
Both seemed to suggest that was evidence an independent party could succeed in Scotland. Maybe. But, like Kenny MacAskill in yesterday’s Scotsman, I believe building a separate Conservative brand in Scotland would be easier said than done – for two reasons in particular.
First, in a devolved political system, it helps to be in government when you’re differentiating yourself from the centre. Scottish Labour at Holyrood forged its identity and enacted some of Scotland’s most radical reforms when it did so in defiance of Tony Blair; the SNP was confirmed as the natural party of government once it could argue it was standing up for Scotland against Tory London. It’s harder for Davidson to fight that fight from opposition; like Wendy Alexander when Labour were out of power in Edinburgh, in Johnson’s first week in office the Scottish Tory leader got squashed.
Second, you can only leverage one nationalist or constitutional divide at a time. In Alberta, the right has been fuelled by anger that the province’s oil wealth was being squandered by the federal government. In Quebec, the linguistic, cultural and constitutional divides remain strong even with the question of independence apparently settled. In both provinces, when these political forces have been split between different parties, the door opens for their rivals. When they have come together, as under the United Conservative Party and the CAQ, they dominate.
But Scotland now has two cleavages, and one of them runs right through the Scottish Conservative Party. Davidson is losing support on one side to the Brexit Party, while pro-EU unionists now have an alternative in a revitalised Liberal Democrats – with a Scottish leader, too.
The independence movement is no monolith, and the SNP’s struggles are well-documented, but while support for independence continues to sit at nearly 50 per cent, Nicola Sturgeon’s party has solid foundations. If there’s anything the Canadian example tells us, it’s that unionism needs a single, dominant force – but we’re not about to see any mergers there.
Independence for the Scottish Tories would solve half their troubles, at best. A northwest passage out of Davidson’s problems will be hard to find.