Scot Free

Later today, the results of the Scottish Conservative Party Leadership contest will be confirmed. All the smart money, and some of the maverick pounds too, has backed Murdo Fraser, the man who will win the Leadership, thank the men and women and cake bakers and raffle ticket sellers for all their hard work, and then announce the immediate termination of the Scottish Party’s existence.

Murdo thinks the only solution to the “Scottish Problem” which has infected the Conservatives with pox marks and scars is to rip it all up and start again.

And the man has a point.

In terms of brand awareness, word association plays a huge part in ensuring your target audience stay with you. “Labour” brings to mind so many thoughts and considerations, as does “Liberal Democrat” (and post-Coalition, heaven knows how many swear words amongst the images, but that’s for another thread….).

In Scotland “Conservative” is essentially a swearword. At the 1997 General Election, the Party fell   to a complete collapse north of the border, and to this day the Tories have but just one Scottish Member of Parliament. In the Holyrood elections this year, even with a proportional voting system, the Party musters fifteen members, a minority grouplet in one part of the United Kingdom where the current Prime Minister is one of their number. When Murdo Fraser points to the reputation issue as justification for wanting to rebrand the Party, you can see his point.

 At the core of Fraser’s concern is an issue more substantial than changing the letterhead and choosing a decent typeface (though, if the leaked document discussing names is accurate, “The Caledonians sounds like a novelty act on the X-Factor and Scotland First is a discount travel agents).  Fraser complains that the need for a real centre-right party in Scotland is hindered by the negative connotations attached to the words “Conservative” and even “Unionist”. His victory later today would draw a thick black line under the history of the Party going back centuries; Scottish politics would move further away from its already semi-divorced status to the rest of the United Kingdom, becoming ever more European in its political structures. The  new Party would take the Conservative whip, but would form independent from the Cameron-led Conservatives in its policies and practices.

There is danger in this radical idea (and for the Conservatives, this is about as radical as things get). Scottish political culture is a distinctly different place to the English equivalent; at the last Westminster election the swing was to Labour, conversely  at Holyrood the Labour Party was wiped out of its heartlands. Pinning a new badge on a lapel is not enough. For the Conservatives need to combat a distinctly Scottish problem without having the Oak Tree logo and David Cameron’s face moving into frame, to combat the SNP without the connotations of doing so with an English accent.

The influential Conservative blog, ConservativeHome, recommended the strategy in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election. As Unionists it might come as an unusual tactic to deploy but when everything else has failed…

I am no Tory, though I am certainly no lefty-leaning apologist either. The Labour Party is a walking, talking economic disaster zone, one which has proven itself adept at persuading great swathes of the electorate to support its candidates despite taking those voters for granted. Scotland is going through an unusual two-tier electoral development, pro-Labour at Westminster, creating a built-in Labour bias regardless of circumstances, whilst rejecting the Labour model at Holyrood. The consequences for other parties, including the Scottish Liberal Democrats, is the political equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly. There is nothing to suggest the SNP have coherent policies beyond “independence now, oil profits for a brighter tomorrow!” written in North Korean-style poster boards.

I live in Northern England, where “brand Tory” is devalued in some major population centres. Whilst it is true that Conservatives have many councillors in Cheshire, Trafford and even Salford, their numbers in Manchester and Liverpool can be counted…er….in thin air. Whatever repair job is achieved by Fraser in Scotland will need to be carefully watched by the English party.

All democrats need to accept the vibrancy and urgency which comes from a multi-party system. The Labour Party has an attitude of entitlement which is drawn from years of lacklustre opposition; if the Scottish Conservative rebrand fails, it might mean opposing the Labour Party on both sides of the border becomes even harder.