Scottish Tories take dinosaur's path to the polls

IF THERE was ever a sign that the Scottish Conservative Party has lost the plot, it came last week with the contest for the post of deputy chairman.

The battle was between a car salesman who was castigated last year for telling racist jokes at a campaign launch and an eccentric, right-wing, 77-year-old former MP famous for his absolute devotion to Thatcherism.

The veteran Thatcherite, Bill Walker, won the election, defeating Jackson Carlaw, who makes up in ambition what he lacks in talent.

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No offence to Mr Walker, he is undoubtedly deeply committed to the Conservative cause and will bring the wisdom of experience to his new job, but, to be frank, he is no David Cameron.

Many, both inside the party and outside, have been left incredulous that the Scottish Conservatives seem to have learned nothing from their London counterparts.

At a time when the English Tory party is transforming itself into the New Conservatives, embracing many of the ideals that Margaret Thatcher railed against - society, green politics, the fight against global poverty and economic stability over tax cuts - the Scottish Conservative Party is going the other way.

The contest for the post of deputy chairman presented the Scots with an ideal opportunity to inject fresh ideas into the party hierarchy.

It should have been between someone like Richard Cook, the young and charismatic Glasgow Tory who has done a huge amount to try to build Conservative grass-roots support in that city, and someone like Kate Pickering, the articulate young doctor who showed that there are at least some Scottish Tories who are neither male, nor elderly, nor reactionary.

But neither Mr Cook nor Dr Pickering stood for the post, both have no doubt become increasingly disillusioned about the party's failure ever to select them on winnable places on the party lists.

Instead, the Conservatives have turned, with depressing regularity, to the same bunch of well-meaning but uninspiring time-servers. The average age of the Conservative group in the Scottish Parliament is 55. Almost a third of the MSPs are over 60 and only one, Derek Brownlee, is younger than Mr Cameron himself.

What last week's election needed was leadership. Annabel Goldie should have made it known that she wanted to see young, radical and enthusiastic Tories stand for the post of deputy chairman and pressurised the party until it happened.

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The Scottish Tories do not seem to realise that British politics is changing. Mr Cameron epitomises the new spirit of youth and new agenda of change that is sweeping through the country.

Not only was the election of Mr Walker bad for the Scottish party because it will inhibit the spread of new ideas, but it sends a message of Conservative stagnation to the public.

Mr Cameron wants to see more talented young people, women and men, white and ethnic minority, in the Commons as Conservative MPs.

What is the Scottish party doing? It is preparing to reselect all but two of the present bunch of generally white, middle-aged men back to the parliament again for the elections next year.

So, even if the Tories win a couple more seats, the shape and tone of the Scottish parliamentary group will remain almost the same as it is now, which is hardly dynamic enough to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents.

Mr Cameron knows the Tories have to start making progress in Scotland if they are really to challenge for power at Westminster, but he is likely to despair when he meets the party leadership at the party's annual Scottish conference in Perth tomorrow.

He will be confronted with 55-year-old Miss Goldie, who has been disappointing and ineffective since becoming leader and who has not done anything to modernise the party in Scotland, Peter Duncan, who was a Westminster MP for just four years before losing his seat last year, and Mr Walker, who is the caricature of the last remaining Thatcherite in Scotland.

So why is the party going in the wrong direction?

First, it is the fault of the party membership. There may be 15,000 Scottish Conservatives in Scotland but most are elderly, reactionary and traditional. It is no surprise that they should choose someone in their own image to become deputy chairman and that they should shy away from selecting young, risky and radical candidates to be their MSPs.

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Second, it is the fault of the party leaders. Miss Goldie should be opening the door to talented young candidates. Instead, many find their way barred by being told they cannot be selected in winnable positions for Holyrood without being on the party executive, and cannot get on the executive without being an MSP. The current approach appears to be: wait until Mr Cameron is elected to Downing Street on a wave of English support and then hope that some of that new-found enthusiasm for all things Tory rubs off in Scotland.

The problem is that the Scottish Conservatives face their big election test first, next year, and at the moment the most they can hope for is modest progress, but even that chance may be denied them if, as expected, they are squeezed by a rise in Liberal Democrat support.

Another failure to make headway at a Holyrood election would not only spell the end of Miss Goldie's political career, but it will leave the Scottish Conservative Party with a choice - reform or die.

The meltdown could be avoided, however, if the party had the guts to face up to that choice now. But there seems to be no evidence that it is prepared to do so.