THERE ARE TWO organisations in Scotland that were once all powerful but today are on the brink of collapse. Both were pillars of the Scottish establishment and had massive influence. Today both have seen a precipitous collapse in membership and support. One retains some legacy but greatly declining influence and in the other makes a lot of noise and blames others for its largely self-inflicted demise.
These two organisations are the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party.
I shall write in more detail in a future article on the decline of the Kirk. I think the institution is of profound moral and political, importance but for now consider that in 1966 the Kirk had 1.23 million members – whereas today perhaps a tenth of that number attend a Kirk service on an average Sunday – and you get the measure of the collapse.
The Scottish Conservative Party’s fortunes are equally distressed. It has underperformed the UK party materially for three generations now with a support that was broadly in parity with the UK average to a little over half that today. Like the church its supporters are generally elderly with only a tiny number (far less than 10%) of those under 30 admitting to support it.
Moreover, its membership has melted so much so that at the last contested leadership election (Feb 2020) the victor received a princely 4917 votes, that’s around what Partick Thistle might get on a very good Saturday whencrowds are actually allowed. The current leader, Douglas Ross, was elected, if that is the word (Aug 2020), without even a popular vote of the members at all.
Scottish Conservatism has a well-documented problem, but the remedy is the polar opposite of what the current leadership of the Scottish Conservative Party are both shouting with a megaphone about and then doing. Time will tell, but I would wager their recent actions will prove to be totally counter-productive, damaging their limited support even further.
Why have the Scots Tories and the Church of Scotland failed?
In both cases their core beliefs have been hollowed-out in an attempt to be what they think is ‘popular’ and also not offend. In the Church’s case the leadership always seems an uncool two steps behind the political mores of the time, focusing on social, environmental and ’equality’ issues much more than actual faith – and in so doing they often jar with the remaining faithful in the pew. But more profoundly why bother if the local minister apologises for the faith and seems to prefer modern secular norms. What’s the point?
Likewise, the Scots Tories have completely lost confidence in their mission too – offering a weak, confused, incoherent and apologetic alternative that appeals to very few. I would wager their support largely votes for them for negative reasons like ‘we don’t want a second referendum’ and ‘we need to stop the SNP’ rather than any positive vision – for I can’t see one. That is a bad square.
Losing much of their intellectual heft when heavyweights from all wings of the party a generation ago – like Rifkind, Forsyth and Lang – left the field after losing their seats they turned in on themselves to become little more than a soggy private club feart of attacking the SNP in case they offend. With a complete lack of vision and a cautious echo chamber their voters aged and declined.
If they fail to believe in Conservatism why should anyone else? This gnawing lack of confidence in their own message, an abject lack of political vision, as to what they might actually achieve if in office, together with a degree of hesitancy in actually attacking the opposition, is their real undoing.
Ditching Johnson will make no difference to that at all. Indeed as I shall explain the constant attacks on their own side and many of their own supporters will only undermine their pretty modest level of support further. Ross is doing the Nationalist’s work for them and their stated belief it is all Johnson and Brexit’s fault is delusional. Wrong diagnosis, wrong cure.
The irony is there was so much to target from dreadful outcomes in education, drug abuse, financial waste, high taxes, low investment, NHS operational failure despite vast sums, plus the optimistic and mutually beneficial case for the Union. Unfortunately, all the leadership thinks of is attacking Brexit and Boris while offering very little optimism themselves, or even effective opposition, thus confirming in voters’ minds both were mad, bad and pointless.
It’s fine not to like Boris but discussions and reservations, which we all have, should be behind closed doors. Furthermore, to go ‘so large’ before all the facts are known and an independent enquiry is conducted, where you don’t call the shots, is simply bad politics – particularly when Johnson at least has regular proven successful at the ballot box, something conspicuously lacking up north.
If you tell someone your leader’s bad don’t be surprised if people believe you. Moreover, they won’t think what a clever, powerful, independent loyal chap Douglas Ross is for pointing this out. They will likely either think ‘When thieves fall out ’ or ‘if they don’t have belief in themselves why should I?’ It didn’t do Gerard Ratner much good when he hold his customers his product was “total crap” and it will be the same for Ross. It’s so obvious it is tragic it even needs repeating.
They have made it impossible for Johnson in Scotland. They have hung him on their prejudice and innuendo. Instead of lauding his far from perfect but superior approach to lockdown than Sturgeon’s, or the fact there would have been no furlough or bounce-back loans without the Bank of England, or his steadfast support for the Union, most of their energy has been spent on trashing their own side. This simply confirms in voters’ minds how rotten those Tories are. The aggression against Johnson has been far greater than their criticism of Sturgeon. Truly bizarre and no wonder the SNP are grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
It may be Johnson does resign over the next few weeks, who knows? If he does go doubt there will be high fives amongst the Scots Tories claiming they caused it and they have real influence. Well, that’ would be one interpretation.
I’ll wager, however, they have misunderstood why they are unpopular. Their problems are actually structural, long term and self-inflicted and they have just damaged their brand a stage further. It is their lack of self-confidence that has done for them.
If Boris goes there will be no recovery in Scotland for Tories without a radical change of performance, attitude and vision. Worse,
they have just further split and undermined support for what they claim is most precious of all, the Union.
Now in our sixteenth year, ThinkScotland is not for profit (it makes a loss) and relies on donations to keep publishing our wide range of opinions and writing – You can help support ThinkScotland by making a donation here.
Photo from Sky News / Colin Fisher / Alamy Live News