Would autonomy stop them being seen as the English party?
The 2010 general election demonstrated more dramatically than ever before the extent to which Scotland has become a different country politically. While the Conservatives made gain after gain in Wales and England, north of the border not only was there precisely no change in seats but the Conservatives actually went backwards in vote share.
The proposal by the contender for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, Murdo Fraser MSP, to break the Scottish Tories away from the main UK party has certainly captured media attention. Would it make any difference?
In one way, it would be a return to a previous settlement. Up until the 1960s, the Scottish Unionists were not so integrated into the main UK Conservative party but then politics as a whole was less centralised back then. Back before the SNP became serious players, â€˜Unionistâ€™ also had different connotations, as in Northern Ireland, and the decision to integrate needs to be seen in that light.
Devolution however brings different challenges for the Conservatives in Scotland. With virtually no Westminster representation to defend, thereâ€™s surely little to lose in focussing mainly on Holyrood and developing policies and campaigns centred there. The extent to which the Conservatives would then be able to be portrayed by their opponents as the â€˜Englishâ€™ party would really depend on how real that differentiation became. After all, the Tories havenâ€™t been the Tories for over a century and a half but it doesnâ€™t stop people calling them that.
Murdo Fraser is right that there is often more support for Conservative policies than there are Conservative voters – and not just in Scotland – and that image is a significant barrier for many.
Whoever wins the leadership election will need to establish an excellent communications and media unit if the Conservatives (or Progressives, or whatever) to even earn the right to be listened to.
Therein lies an even bigger barrier at Holyrood: the Tories are no longer either the government or principle opposition which creates a dynamic pushing centre-right voters to support the SNP as the best bet to stop Labour (which then gives Alex Salmond a delicate balancing act to navigate). Itâ€™s no longer just a question of popularity but of relevance. While Fraserâ€™s idea may make sense in principle it will only work if the new party understands what it is and what it is not – and therefore how to campaign and operate on the ground. And what it would not be (initially at least) is a party of power.