Alex Massie makes a brave defence of the Tory revival thesis proclaiming not just the popularity of Thatcher and the Poll Tax in Scotland but much more. In doing so he inadvertently charts the long-term decline of the party and their ideology. Where now are the giants of the 80s like Michael Forsyth and Malcolm Rifkind? Forsyth is ensconced (like all good entrepreneurial meritocrats should be) in the House of Lords, while Rifkind has retired a bit early after a good few years coping with the vigours of a Kensington constituency. The reality is these senior figures and their party were driven from Scotland as the rejection of their values and social and constitutional policy was understood.
In fact as Conservative historian Lewis Bastion writes:
“Scotland’s history as stony ground for the Tories does not start in 1997, or 1987, or even in 1959. It is essentially the default state of politics north of the border. From the Great Reform Act of 1832 until the present day, with the exception of the confused period of party politics in the inter-war period, the Conservatives have only won majorities in Scotland twice in general elections: 1900 and 1955. Neither time was it by a comfortable margin – two seats in 1900; one seat in 1955.”
Massie is right to say that at Holyrood: “half a million people endorsed Conservative candidates. The Tory vote doubled. In percentage terms – by way of comparison – this was a significantly greater increase than that enjoyed by the SNP between the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections. That SNP success in 2011 was remarkable and stunning and a real thing and so it seems reasonable to grant that the increase in the Tory vote in 2016 is also a remarkable, stunning, and real thing.”
What also seems without doubt is that this was a protest vote. This was the backlash of everyone who hates the SNP, who didn’t want the referendum, who hates the whole national conversation and who just wants it all to stop and go away.
Massie writes: “No-one I have spoken to in Tory circles is getting carried away. “ Tell that to Charles Moore.
As Jamie Maxwell has noted the turnout in highly motivated well-heeled constituencies who feel under threat was significant and should not be underestimated. What is being challenged is not the phenomenon – it’s the viability of it to be carried forward into a workable political platform. It may be that just railing against a second referendum is enough, but I doubt it.
If people want a referendum it will happen, if they don’t it won’t. In this context just wailing about it for five years will be difficult to sustain.
The triumphalism is almost unbearable and in the hyperventilation the judgement of the far right commentariat is seriously clouded. Iain Martin has written that:
“A second independence referendum is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, no matter what happens in the EU referendum. ..Her only hope would be be to patch something squalid together with the dreadful Patrick Harvie of the Greens, which would be a constitutional outrage and make the SNP a laughing stock.”
Really? Why would two pro-indy parties with a majority working together be a constitutional outrage? Only in the hermetically sealed world of right-wing paranoia would this be outrageous. It’s straight from the notion that independence will somehow be thrust on us, unexpectedly. It’s part of the claims that the voters have been ‘tricked’ or hypnotised, it’s part of the inability to come to terms with what’s happening.
Actually the case for Yes is strengthened by having a plurality of pro-indy voices. This idea that this election was about a referendum is a myth perpetuated by people operating in their own policy void. This was a revolt of the shires and a coming together of the hurting Unionist tribe.
There’s no doubt that everyone was shocked by the Tory gains at Holyrood but wider questions remain. Here’s ten:
- To what extent will it be possible to sustain or protect those advances in the light of further exposure? They are pro-fracking, pro-new nuclear, defenders of the benefits changes that have created the boom in foodbanks and the sanctions benefit culture. While no-one really cared about them before they will now have to stand up and defend these values and policies in public each week.
- Commentator Gerry Hassan has suggested that the Conservatives have gone to ‘new terrain’, but nobody knows what that is? What is it?
- How do Scottish Conservatives distinguish themselves from Osborne economics or the language and policy of Iain Duncan Smith or the impact of Amber Rudd’s thinking? If they don’t – how do they suggest they will reverse the electoral fortunes that have left them reduced to a single MP? There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘new Conservatives’ but what is it? Even poor Iain Martin accepted that: “Ruth Davidson will have to build a bigger policy operation to apply pressure and hold Sturgeon to account.” That’s a bit of an understatement.
- How does Ruth Davidson move on from the phenomenon of Ruth Davidson?
- There’s been a lot of talk about ‘trajectory’. What’s the demographic of these unionist ultras? How does this look in ten or twenty years?
- How will advocating British nationalism rather than Scottish nationalism change the terms of the debate on to ground the unionists prefer? It won’t.
- Adam Tomkins
- What will be the fallout from the civil war currently raging in the Conservative Party over Europe? The Scottish Conservatives can not be immune from scrutiny by virtue of being Scottish.
- How will the Conservative media officers cope now that the era of the ‘free pass because you are irrelevant’ is over? In other words it is one challenge to message to your core vote and appeal to the wider No community, but it is quite different to make a narrative about Conservatism to the wider public.
- Who are the new intake of MSPs and how will they come across?