Could this be the Scottish Conservatives’ moment? They have certainly been on a long journey from irrelevance to optimism.
In particular, one question has overshadowed and constrained the party’s thinking: what is the appropriate Conservative response to the Scottish Parliament? The Scottish Conservatives arrived at a definitive answer only in 2014. Having been anti-devolutionists (until 1999), willing participants (1999-2009) and then half-hearted supporters of further powers (2009-2014), the party finally put the issue to rest by proposing significant further powers for the Scottish Parliament through the Strathclyde Commission. It even managed to outflank the Labour Party to become a more radical proponent of a fiscally accountable Scottish Parliament.
However, whilst it appears like they have finally resolved the devolution issue, there are some reasons to be cautious about the Scottish Conservatives’ progress. First, a new gain of three seats at this election would take their total to 18. This is a good result, but it would only return the party to the same number of MSPs they had in 1999. It deals only therefore with the post-1999 decline and equals but does not surpass their best ever Scottish Parliament result. The Conservatives would be back to the beginning again.
Second, whether the Tories become the biggest opposition party in the Scottish Parliament is to a large extent outside their control. It depends not only on how well the Scottish Conservatives do, but also how badly the Labour Party suffers. Only one poll has shown the Conservatives to be neck and neck with Scottish Labour in 2016.
Third, sometimes parties are over-optimistic. We also have to remember that the Conservatives recorded a dreadful 14.9% result at last year’s UK general election.
If the Scottish Conservatives overtake the Labour Party in May, what impact might it have on the Scottish Parliament? For many Conservatives, this might be seen as an opportunity to put constitutional issues to rest and simply have a left versus right debate. However, as David Eiser points out, the debates about fiscal policy have been postponed, rather than fully resolved. The constitutional question is therefore likely to still loom large over the long term.
The psychological impact of being the main opposition party may have a bigger effect on the Conservatives. For the first time since 1997, there will be pressure on them to outline a programme for an alternative Scottish Government. The answer to the question ‘What do Scottish Conservatives need to do to be in government in Scotland?’ may yield more radical answers than the question of what they needed to do to show their commitment to devolution. This would involve not only perhaps making a ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer to another party, but also being seen as a credible coalition partner.
The Conservatives may have got over the Scottish Parliament and be setting their sights higher. However, both their past record and the wider context mean there are reasons to be cautious about 2016.
This post was first published by the Centre on Constitutional Change and is reproduced with permission