The Conservatives must preserve the Union

By Chris Jaffray

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In the many series of analysis about how Scotland came to a referendum the collapse of the Tory vote in Scotland seems to be a prominent factor. Independence was a laughing matter in 1959, the last time a party other than the Labour party won a UK wide election in Scotland. The collapse of Tory Scotland is debated hotly, some say it was a long term decline from the 1950s others say Thatcher killed it off and others that Tony Blair landed the final nail in the coffin. After all in 1992 Scotland returned 12 Tory MPs, not many but enough to contribute to Major’s small majority nationwide. Some had got something out of thirteen years of Thatcherism. In 1979 30% of Scotland voted Conservative, at this stage the people you would expect to vote Tory were doing so. It was only after 1997 that jokes about lack of Scottish Tories emerged, the least funny of which is pandas. My personal favourite is Hugo Rifkind’s comment that he thought being a Conservative in Scotland was like being a Jew, something only his family did and the others did not really understand.

A key factor in the decline of Tory Scotland was that somewhere along the line they came to be seen as anti-Scottish and a foreign entity. The Labour party were as guilty as the SNP of forging this perspective. As well as obvious mistakes such as putting the Poll tax in place in Scotland a year early, the Tories were self-destructive. This attitude was also forged in the two devolution referenda. It remains to be seen whether Major was ultimately right that devolution would be used by the Nationalists to break up Britain. However, the perception emerged from his contrasting stance with Blair, inherited from Smith, that devolution would be delivered. The failure of the 1979 Home Rule bill also helped, as the Scottish suffered from deindustrialisation.

The collapse of Tory Scotland allowed the nationalists to portray Scotland as a different country with a different political culture, divergent from the 1950s onwards, but when Scotland returns 1 Tory MP they claim it is different beyond repair. A resurgence in the Scottish Tory vote can ensure there is no call for a future referendum and restore the Union to health. There is good reason to believe this can happen.

Firstly, the Conservatives must devolve as much as possible in terms of taxation and welfare. In tandem with this an answer to the English question must be solved, but the Nationalists are waiting to call foul (indeed some already have) on any deal to push for a new referendum. Lessons from Quebec to show failure in this regard will make another referendum likely in the future. We may fall some way short of devo max, and around 10-20% of Scottish taxes should go to defence and security no doubt leaving room to complain about trident, but if the Conservatives deliver this they may finally lose their anti-Scottish tag.

Secondly, this settlement will by its very nature give the centre-right an edge. Such a politics can never have much hope where Holyrood receives a block grant and dishes it out like pocket money. Ruth Davidson captured this well in her speech to the Tory party conference. Whatever is good is the nationalists’ doing, whatever is bad is because Westminster did not give enough. Milton Friedman argued against tax and spend saying nobody spends somebody else’s money as well as you spend your own. The current settlement is the worst of all worlds because it’s not just somebody else’s money, it’s somebody else’s money you aren’t even responsible for raising. When you face the taxpayer demand for efficiency will become greater. With tax cuts available on the agenda, the right may re-emerge at last.

Three other factors may boost the Scottish Conservatives. Firstly, the tribal nature of Scottish politics may at last have broken. They used to joke that in the West side of Scotland they stacked Labour votes rather than counted them. The West side went to the SNP, with Glasgow voting 53% yes. It would still be a miracle for the Conservatives to make any inroads there. It would also be one for the SNP in a UK wide election given a large number of seats there boast a 50% Labour vote from 2010. However, the point is that the formerly tribal nature of Scottish politics has broken down, territory is there to be contested that was closed down beforehand. Alongside the potential for a party to offer tax breaks from Edinburgh the Conservatives may fare better.

Secondly, old Tory strongholds of Scotland who voted SNP in 2011 came out for the no. Much of the collapse of the Tory vote from 1992 found its way to the SNP, possibly via New Labour. Social attitude surveys show not a marked difference in world outlook between the average SNP voter and the average Tory voter. These areas must now be focused on with the aim of recapturing some of that lost vote. With the anti-Scottish thing gone, they may be persuaded to return. The SNP also adopted a hard left line in the final days of the referendum, having previously attempted to be all things to all people, making it more likely these areas will abandon the SNP.

Lastly, the collapse of other parties should boost them. It remains to be seen where the SNP will go from here. After devolution they abandoned a nuclear approach to independence, which held that an SNP majority would lead to secession, and replaced it with a gradualist approach. Their governance since 2007 has had this in mind, to show the people of Scotland they could govern well and that independence would not be so dramatic. If they return to their nuclear approach, which has been mentioned by some who say a majority in 2016 will be enough, they will be rejected as they will have no interest in governance. It is hard to believe they will be able to have the same energy going forward.

Labour likewise had a bad referendum. Their two star performers were dragged out of retirement politicians who had pursued politics on a UK level, Brown and Darling. Better Together strategists in Labour preferred to work with Ruth Davidson than Johan Lamont. Labour failed in large parts to blow the dog whistle to their voters in the West side of Scotland. Labour’s approach to will suffer in a more accountable parliament.

All of this suggests fertile ground for the Scottish Conservative party, the like of which they have not seen in recent times. There was hope after devolution, but as well as the sort of politics being unfavourable to the right, there was always a sense that they didn’t want to be there because they didn’t really believe in it. If they get on the right side of further devolution, their vote may rebound enough to kill the notion that Scotland is a different country in need of a referendum.