Phoenix parties – the strange death and resurrection of centre-right parties

Murdo Fraser MSP has made an attention grabbing pledge in his bid for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives. If he wins the election in October, he will wind up the party and start again. He argues that the Conservatives are a toxic brand north of the border, and that Scotland needs and deserves a new centre-right political alternative free from the emotive baggage of the 80s and 90s.

It is hard to argue against the charge that the Scottish Conservatives have seen better days. In 1955 they reached a high water mark, taking 50.1% of the vote and exactly half (36 out of 72) of country’s MPs. Their share of the vote receded decade by decade, falling below 40% in the 60s, 30% in the 70s and 25% in the 80s.

The coup de grâce came in Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, when the Conservative Party’s share of the vote slumped to 17.5% and it was left without a single MP in the entire country. The party declined still further in the three subsequent elections, but did recover a single MP (for the rural border constituencies of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (in 2001) and Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale (in 2005 and 2010).

The demise of the Scottish Conservatives is not without parallel, even in the confines of the United Kingdom. The once mighty Ulster Unionist Party currently has no Westminster representation, with its support largely hovered by the Democratic Unionist Party. The UUP has taken the opposite step to that proposed by Murdo Fraser, by fighting elections on a joint Conservative Unionist platform.

In Wales, the Conservatives were similarly wiped out in the 1997 election, but have since recovered their fortunes to take 27.1%of the vote and 9 of the country’s 40 MPs. Given the party has never been as strong in Wales as in Scotland, this represents one of their best electoral performances (only in 1979 and 1983 did the party do any better, taking 11 and14 MPs respectively).

There are lessons for the Scottish Conservatives from around the world. The most striking example of a party that died and then returned from the grave is that of the Progressive Conservative Party. The Progressives had been the traditional right wing alternative in Canada’s two-party system (alternating in government with the Liberals). They dominated the late 50s and early 60s, and emerged from a long, Liberal-dominated wilderness to rule Canada from 1984 to1993.

In 1984 the Progressives took 50% of the vote and a remarkable 211 seats out of 282 in the Canadian Parliament. They retained control in 1988 with 43% of the vote and169 MPs out of 295. A perfect storm of incumbent unpopularity, recession and the emergence of new political parties saw the Progressives absolutely wiped out in 1993 – they won just 16% of the vote and retained only 2 MPs.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and seems to abhor the absence of a credible right wing alternative. After years of Liberal dominance, on 16 October 2003 the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada announced plans to merge. The new Conservative Party of Canada was an instant success and, in the Federal Election of 2006, it took 36.27% of the vote and 124 out of 308 MPs. Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservatives, became Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister, leading a minority Conservative administration.

The party consolidated its position in the 2011 Federal Elections, increasing its share of the vote to 39.62% and taking 167 out of 308 MPs and earning a slim majority in the Commons. This time, it was the turn of two Canadian stalwarts to face electoral collapse. The Liberal Party’s share of the vote slumped to 18.91% (from 40.9% in 2000 and a sharp decline on their 30.1% share in 2006), and they retained only 34 MPs. The Bloq Quebecois fell from returning 47 MPs in 2006 to retaining just 4 as the New Democratic Party swept their Quebec heartlands.

Closer to home, Ireland’s Fianna Fáil dramatically lost their status as Ireland’s traditional party of government in 2011’s election. In 2007 they formed the government with 41.6% of the vote and 77 out of 166 TDs in the Dáil Éireann. By 2011they had slumped to 17.4% of the vote and returned only 20 TDs.

Fine Gael’s performance in 2011 marked a clear reversal of fortunes that, whilst not as complete as Canada’s Conservatives, was still a notable achievement. In 2002 they had been routed by a Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats alliance riding high on the Celtic Tiger’s booming economy, returning only 31 TDs with 22.5% of the vote. In 2011 they received 36.1% of the vote and returned 76 TDs.

It is too soon to tell if Canada’s Liberal Party and Bloq Quebecois or Ireland’s Fianna Fáil will recover their fortunes. But the success of Canadian Conservatives andIreland’s Fine Gael demonstrates a stunning revival of fortunes is possible. Whether this can be emulated by either the Scottish Conservatives or a successor centre-right party remains to be seen.

Fraser and his supporters may also take comfort in the collaborative example of Germany’s centre-right. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) operates in 15 of the 16 Länder (or states), leaving their sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) to operate in Bavaria (a state that includes roughly 15%of Germany’s population, compared to Scotland’s 8.5%). In Parliament and in Government, the CDU/CSU operate as a single Bundestagsfraktion, and have done for decades.