By Mark McNaught
The recent announcement that former Tory MSP Nick Johnston will support independence demolishes any pretence of cross-party support for Scotland remaining in the UK, and is yet another nail in the coffin for the ‘Better Together’ campaign.
For years I have wondered what a Scottish Tory believes, given that there are so few who label themselves as such. Scots have not voted conservative in UK elections since 1955, helping usher in Anthony Eden as PM. ‘Tory’ has become such a toxic label since Thatcher, and their policies so draconian, that they have become virtually extinct in Scotland.
However, Scots are in many ways economically and socially conservative, leaving the potential for Scottish conservatives to move out of the shadow of the Thatcherite greater-London Tories, and establish their own identity and policies. There could become a majority party in an independent Scottish government in the not-too-distant future.
The newly created Wealthy Nation begins to sketch out what Scottish conservatism could look like after independence. It is much more libertarian than socially conservative, holding true to the virtues of self-reliance and freedom from a centralized state in social and economic affairs. Adam Smith is much more their inspiration than Margaret Thatcher.
While much of their policy is consistent with UK Tory ideology, there are several ways in which Scottish Conservatives can distinguish themselves from their English brethren which would drastically broaden their appeal and influence, once they are ideologically and electorally unshackled from dreadful rapacious Westminster governments.
Perhaps the most important is to abandon the class warfare, ‘something for nothing’, ‘strivers vs. skivers’ rhetoric and policy, and acknowledge that everyone has dreams and wants to make it in life. No one enjoys being on welfare benefits, and apophrycal caricatures of the undeserving poor who mooch off the state at the expense of overworked taxpayers masks the plight of many who literally depend on benefits for their existence, through no fault of their own. Give virtually anyone the choice between meaningful employment at a living wage and welfare, and they will choose self-reliance.
Scottish conservatives must embrace the basic premise that certain positive rights, health, education, housing, and welfare, are a necessary foundation for all to achieve self-reliance. No one ever makes it alone. How can a single mother of two pursue her dreams and become self-reliant if she has no place to live after being evicted because of the bedroom tax, and freezes to death living on the streets?
Scottish conservatives must also recognize that there is a difference between the ‘free-market’ and corporate dominance, and that Tories have for too long conflated the two. Rightly or wrongly, UK Tories are perceived as handmaidens to plutocrats, holding nothing but contempt for anyone not born into privilege or achieving exceptional upward social mobility.
All economies are a mix of capitalism and socialism, and the challenge for an independent Scotland is to find the correct balance to promote self-reliance and opportunity. There are certain ‘natural monopolies’ which are better left in public hands, because private companies have no short-term interest in investing in improvements and keeping prices low for consumers. Take for example the privatization of the railroads. Remember how they promised it would increase competition and lower prices? It has simply led to a somewhat accountable public monopoly to a hodgepodge of private monopolies with no accountability, and commuters have no choice but to pay higher prices.
Scottish conservatives must recognize that the Thatcherite dream of creating a free-market utopia in the UK has been an unmitigated disaster, decimating and driving up prices on basic public services to profit investors, broadening the chasm of income inequality, decimating industry and unions, and concentrating wealth and opportunity in greater London at the expense of the rest. What beyond plutocracy did they ‘conserve’ in the process?
The economic system is currently rigged against the poor and middle class, and redressing these imbalances is a prerequisite to providing equal opportunity for people to achieve the self-reliance and prosperity conservatives hold dear.
Scottish conservatives can also burnish their self-reliance and meritocratic credentials by rejecting aristocratic privilege, and holding that one’s status in life must be earned, not inherited. There is no way conservatives can grow their movement in Scotland if they are perceived as a bunch of English toffs with kilts. This includes an acceptance and even embrace of trade unions, who are collectively aspiring for self-reliance and prosperity just as much as any individual does. Denying their right to organize and collectively bargain is an infringement of their individual liberties.
There is also scope for broadening their appeal among religious and ‘traditional values’ voters, as long as it is done in an inclusive manner. There are undoubtedly many Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims who are concerned with rapid social change and the corrosive effects of some popular culture has on children and families, but would never consider voting conservative for economic reasons, especially due to the demonization of welfare recipients. If Scottish conservatives lay out an inclusive positive agenda which preserves family and community stability, while maintaining individual rights, there is no limit to their electoral potential.
Building a successful Scottish conservative party, which builds on the best of Scottish conservative values, is eminently plausible and desirable. All parties need to be strong and electorally competitive for a democracy to function properly. However, they must jettison the class warfare, the free-market fundamentalism, and include everyone in their vision of self-reliance and prosperity in words and deeds, not just hedge fund managers and nobility. Only independence will allow them the opportunity to flourish and help make Scotland the land of opportunity all desire.