Tories should celebrate and then think of the Union
The Scottish Conservatives have exceeded expectations by winning 13 seats in Scotland. This is the party’s best result in Scotland since 1983. It surpasses their previous tally of 11 MPs in 1992. Like in the Scottish Parliament and local elections, they fought a disciplined campaign on their key messages and were particularly adept at highlighting problems in the SNP’s domestic record.
The party’s new group of MPs presents a great opportunity. However, the party’s MPs will want to reflect on their predecessors’ experience. One of the most toxic legacies of the 1990s was the impression among some Scots that Scottish Conservative MPs put the Government’s interest before the Scottish interest. New Scottish Conservative MPs need to be seen to be standing up for Scotland. They are in a good position to influence government policy and the party already appears to be throwing its weight around. However, tougher tests will come. One of the problems for the territorial branches of statewide parties is that they end up having to take the flak for decisions they did not make (see, for instance, the recent Scottish Conservative troubles in the Scottish Parliament about UK Government welfare changes). The 13 Scottish Conservatives will need to decide what issues to prioritise and what they will need to compromise on in order to sustain Theresa May’s majority.
Second, the party’s new MPs have an opportunity to think about the Union. The intellectual case for the Union took a battering at the Supreme Court last year when the UK Government’s lawyer reasserted a Diceyan interpretation of Westminster’s constitutional position. Most notably, he argued that the Sewel Convention could be ignored at will. The Scottish Conservatives now have a chance to make the case for a more plural interpretation of the constitution and to push the UK Government to engage more constructively with last year’s House of Lords Constitution Committee report on the territorial constitution. Intergovernmental relations, for instance, are ripe for reform and new MPs might usefully promote some incremental ideas in this area (for instance, from their own Adam Tomkins). What does the Union look like when Scottish Conservatives get the chance to shape it? If the answer is ‘no different from now’, then they might find it much harder to defend in future.
Finally, the idea of a separate party in Scotland need not necessarily be dismissed following this result. Scottish conservatism already looks different from English conservatism and this divergence may increase over the coming years as Scottish Conservatives turn their thoughts to how they might govern Scotland. Ruth Davidson has already implemented most of Murdo Fraser’s ideas from his 2011 leadership campaign and it would not be out of place to effect this final change. If the Scottish Conservatives are going to be pursuing a distinctively Scottish agenda at Westminster, then they might as well take full credit for it. In doing so, they might also demonstrate how a looser Union can still work in everyone’s favour.
Conservatives can enjoy this success, but they must also be mindful of how things went wrong the last time the party had more than 11 MPs. Independence may be off the agenda for the moment, but the issue has not gone away. Scottish Conservatives may therefore regret not using this opportunity to fix the Union’s roof while the weather is at least overcast.