Can Scots Tories can return from the margins of political life?

Walter Humes recounts what a death of a friend tells us about the state of the Conservative Party in Scotland

The Scottish Conservative Party conference took place last month only a few days after the funeral of one of my closest friends. The two events are not as unrelated as they may at first appear. My friend and former colleague, Malcolm MacKenzie, was for many years an active member of the Tory Party but eventually became disenchanted and left.

His political journey provides a stark illustration of where the party has gone wrong and, if analysed intelligently by the Conservative leadership in Scotland, could provide valuable insights into possible ways of recovering lost ground. Whatever the outcome of the referendum and the next elections to the Scottish Parliament, it can only be healthy for democracy to have a right-of-centre party that is able to challenge the soft orthodoxies of the left-wing establishment.

Wales in a world of referendums


Tomorrow: David Torrance on the curious case of the SNP’s shift from ethnic to civic nationalism. 

Malcolm MacKenzie was born in 1938 in Clydebank, where his father worked for the Singer company. He often said that although the family was not well off, he was given plenty of ‘cultural capital’. By that he meant he was encouraged to read from an early age and soon became a regular at Clydebank public library. He was also taken to musical and theatrical performances and developed a lifelong love of the cinema. The opportunity to hear visiting speakers at the town hall stimulated his interest in politics. At Clydebank High School he did well academically and was school captain in the 1955-56 session.

His contemporaries at Glasgow University included a number of people who went on to achieve prominence in national politics, most notably two party leaders – Labour;s John Smith and the Liberal Democrats’ Menzies Campbell – and the first first minister of Scotland, Donald Dewar. With Dewar, he won the prestigious Observer Mace debating competition in 1963 and throughout his life his skill in advancing arguments and analysing policy proposals was much in evidence.

Younger readers may be surprised that someone of Malcolm MacKenzie’s modest background should have felt his political home was with the Tory Party. But in the 1950s many aspiring working class people voted Conservative. Indeed in the 1955 general election the Tories gained more than 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland and were a powerful force at local government level.

By 1997 that figure had dropped to 17.5 per cent. It is a serious indictment of the Tory leadership in Scotland that it has never engaged properly with the reasons for that dramatic decline. Scottish revulsion at the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s is certainly a major part of the explanation but the process of growing disillusionment was evident before that.

Malcolm MacKenzie belonged to the liberal wing of the party, believing in a measure of state control on economic matters and adopting a progressive stance on welfare and social issues. His pragmatic, non-doctrinaire approach meant that he was respected not only within his own party but across the political spectrum. He could easily have gone into national politics. As a young man, he attended events designed to prepare Tory activists to stand for parliament and had the opportunity to meet senior figures such as Willie Whitelaw.

However, he opted for teaching and after working in schools and at Jordanhill College, joined the education department at Glasgow University, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was a brilliant teacher, much loved by his students, many of whom went on to occupy key positions. They included Frank Pignatelli, former Director of Education for Strathclyde region, and Sir David Bell, formerly Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education in London and now Vice-Chancellor of Reading University.

Malcolm MacKenzie’s keen interest in politics continued while he pursued his academic career. He became a prominent figure within Scotland, at one time serving as vice-chairman of the Scottish Tory Reform Group and writing pamphlets about the strategic direction of the party. Two of these continue to have relevance to current debates about independence: Scottish Toryism, identity and consciousness (1988) and Scottish Toryism and the union (1989).

What happened to cause him to feel he could no longer remain a member of the party? By the early 1990s his moderate views were out of favour and he began to despair of the hard line policies advocated by Michael Forsyth (then Secretary of State for Scotland) and others. I remember him coming back from a party meeting in Edinburgh deeply depressed at the views that were being advanced by ambitious young political aspirants, only too willing to parrot the extreme monetarist policies favoured by the far right.

He regarded them as crude, greedy and lacking in humanity. The party had travelled far from what he remembered as the ‘principled’ Conservatism of the 1950s. He concluded that it had lost its way and had alienated itself from many of its core supporters of the past. The results of the 1997 general election, which heralded three successive Labour victories, proved him correct.

As I watched a film clip of Philip Hammond, Tory Defence Secretary, speaking to a half-empty hall at the Scottish party conference, I wondered what prospects there were of the Scottish Tories at last coming to their senses and beginning to tackle the deep-rooted nature of their problems. The signs are not good. They await the report of a commission led by Lord Strathclyde on ways of strengthening the devolution settlement and improving the accountability of the Scottish parliament. This is too little, too late. The other parties have been making all the running in the debate about the referendum and its aftermath.

When Murdo Fraser was contesting the leadership with Ruth Davidson in 2011, he put forward the proposal that the Scottish party needed to establish its own identity, quite separate from the UK Conservatives. His argument was essentially that the Tory brand had become toxic in Scotland and that it needed to dissociate itself from the public school/Oxbridge elite south of the border. It was a bold move that almost certainly contributed to his defeat. The party needs to revisit that issue.

Senior Scottish Tories should ask themselves how they are regarded by outsiders. Are they perceived as anything more than a refuge for ‘mature’ voters who simply reinforce each other’s prejudices, as a rallying point for the largely discredited Scottish gentry, and as a networking opportunity for lawyers and business types hoping for personal advancement?

How can the party win back the Malcolm MacKenzies of this world – people who believe that hard work should be rewarded, but who manage to combine this with a social conscience and a commitment to the good society? Until Scottish Tories engage in this kind of frank self-examination, they will continue to exist only on the margins of Scottish political life.

Walter Humes is a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling. This article was first published by the Scottish review here (

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