David Torrance: A lesson from Tory history

Thatcher revived the Tories but her legacy is tricky to deal with
Thatcher revived the Tories but her legacy is tricky to deal with
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A century on from when Unionists and Conservatives joined forces for success, the Right is again faced with the challenge to rebuild, writes David Torrance.

The centenary of any organisation ought to be time for celebration, an opportunity to look back with satisfaction on 100 years of achievement and, if nothing else, sheer longevity. Marking its half-century in 1962 that might have been true for what was then known as the Scottish Unionist Party, but another 50 years later, and for what is now known in full as the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, there seems to be little worth celebrating.

Although the party has had its share of triumphs – not least the unique achievement in Scottish politics of securing not only a majority of the popular vote but also a majority of MPs at the 1955 general election – its recent history has been a tale of managed decline. There is, however, a neat circularity in the condition of Scottish Conservatism circa 1912 and again in 2012. History might not repeat itself, as Mark Twain is supposed to have observed, but it does rhyme.

One impetus for the “fusion” of Liberal Unionists (those who split from the Liberals in opposition to Irish Home Rule) and Conservatives a century ago was the then Liberal government’s renewed push to tackle the “Irish Question”. Thus the “Conservative” moniker was dropped (it was considered a handicap) and the new Scottish Unionist Party emphasised its opposition to Irish Home Rule as directly as possible.

In 2012, meanwhile, a devolved Scottish Government’s push to achieve “Home Rule with Independence” informed almost everything the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party did – only the “Unionist” portion of its name was now taken to refer to the Anglo-Scottish Union, rather than that binding Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland together for more than two centuries.

There are other parallels. In 1912, Conservative representation in Scotland was relatively weak (nine Conservative and Liberal Unionist MPs were elected in December 1910); in 2012 the party has just one MP and 15 MSPs, derived from winning around 14 per cent of the popular vote.

There is also a Liberal dimension. A hundred years ago, one wing of the Liberals joined with the Conservatives to form a new party; in 2012 the Liberal Democrats are in coalition with the Conservatives at Westminster. Then, as now, Liberals make a virtue out of keeping their more instinctively right-wing bedfellows in check.

The dramatic political events of 1886 recalibrated UK politics. As it became clear that William Gladstone, the Liberal leader and then prime minister, was serious in his conversion to Irish Home Rule, his party split along Home Rule and Unionist lines.

At a national level, co-operation between the Conservatives and “Liberal Unionists” was immediate, with the latter giving Lord Salisbury his majority (but not a formal coalition) after the 1886 general election, and going on to join his Conservative administration following the 1895 poll in what became known as a Unionist government. As Lady Bracknell tells Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest, Liberal Unionists “count as Tories”. She adds: “They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate.”

However, the two parties maintained separate organisations, not just in England and Wales, but also in Scotland, where Liberal Unionists easily outnumbered Conservatives.

In 1911, the revived prospect of Home Rule for Ireland (the Parliament Act of that year having removed the House of Lords’ power to veto it) encouraged a movement formally to merge the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists at a constituency and national organisational level. This had already happened to some extent in Ireland, and in most of England and Wales. In Scotland, however, pressure to form joint constituency parties had largely been resisted.

By May 1912, a formal merger of the two parties had created the Conservative and Unionist Party, although this applied only in England and Wales. 
“We agreed that we could not bind the Scottish organisation in any way,” recalled Austen Chamberlain (a Liberal Unionist) in his memoirs, “that the cause of Scotland must be separately treated, and that the Scotsmen must settle it for themselves.”

Unification had, however, already been discussed in Scotland, the Western Divisional Council of the Conservative Party having investigated the possibility in 1911. The following year, a joint committee representing the National Union of Conservative Associations for Scotland, the East and North of Scotland Liberal Unionist Association and the West of Scotland Liberal Unionist Association had been convened under the presidency of Sir George Younger. It recommended unification.

This proposal was adopted by special conferences in Glasgow and Edinburgh on 5 December 1912 – seven months after the merger south of the Border.

Both Liberal Unionists and Conservatives adopted the resolution “That it is desirable that the present Central Conservative and Liberal Unionist organisations in Scotland should be united to form one consolidated Scottish Unionist organisation”. This was to be known as the Scottish Unionist Association.

Following luncheon at the Scottish Conservative Club on Edinburgh’s Princes Street (in the building that now houses Debenhams), Sir George explained the twin rationale behind the fusion: “It would tend to greater economy of administration, and [he] hoped it would result in what they all earnestly desired, in sending into the wilderness at the earliest moment a party and a government of which most people were heartily sick.” He meant, of course, HH Asquith’s Liberal government.

The West of Scotland Liberal Unionist Association, meanwhile, met at the Christian Institute in Glasgow, where one speaker, Mr J Cumming, argued that not only had the Liberal Unionists “carried on the principles of the true Liberal party, but they had brought their Conservative friends a good deal in their direction”.

He continued: “The word ‘Tory’ was all that remained of the old Tory, who revered things that existed simply because they existed, [and] was as dead as the dodo. Personally, he was a Unionist because he was a Liberal. Unionism meant not only the union of Scotland, England and Ireland, but the union of all classes of the Empire, and also the union of all classes of the community in a homogenous whole.”

That “homogenous whole” – at least as applied to Scotland – soon became remarkably successful. Within a few years of the 1912 merger, the Unionists had been transformed from a pre-First World War rump into Scotland’s pre-eminent political party.

Since the late 1950s, however, the Scottish Conservative Party has struggled to adapt to a rapidly changing political landscape. Margaret Thatcher instigated a brief revival in the late 1970s and early 1980s (at least in electoral terms), but her legacy also caused long-term problems.

Ruth Davidson, the current Conservative leader in Scotland, therefore, faces similar challenges to her Unionist predecessors in 1912: rebuilding support for a minority party while simultaneously defending the Union.

Does history offer any glimmers of hope? With the Irish Question settled in 1922, the Unionists forged an identity that was both decentralist and Conservative, nationalist (with a small “n”) and unionist. It was a strategic masterstroke – but even if contemporary unionists emerge triumphant in 2014, it is most likely an historical example that won’t repeat itself.

l David Torrance is editor of Whatever Happened to Tory Scotland? published by Edinburgh University Press