The ‘Ulsterisation of Scottish politics' is here, thanks to the Conservatives

Written by Tom Freeman on 8 May 2017 in Comment

Ruth Davidson has undermined the central SNP case for independence - that Scotland never votes Tory

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Union flags by Tom Brogan

The working class Tory is not a new phenomenon. There are many reasons to vote Conservative when you are poor: suspicion of the state, a belief in aspiration and reward, fear of immigration and in greater spending on defence.

In recent years people will have seen a Government which raised the tax threshold and increased the minimum wage. A government which followed a Labour one which abolished the 10p tax bracket.

But that is not why some of the most deprived parts of Scotland voted Conservative in last week’s local election.


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Because the truth is the last few years have also seen lower wages stagnate, while cuts in tax credits mean many of those who are working are now experiencing poverty. And for those out of work, evidence shows benefit cuts and sanctions are pushing people into more and more desperate situations.

Yet some of those people opted to elect a Conservative last Thursday. They did so because Ruth Davidson campaigned with razor-like clarity on one issue only: the union.

Never mind the fact that Conservative councillors may be less protective of the very services these particular voters rely on, they wanted to “send a message to Nicola Sturgeon” about a second referendum.

In other words, for the moment being British is more important than other economic considerations, and West Fife, once represented by Britain’s last Communist MP, and Ravenscraig, a place synonymous with post-industrial decline under Margaret Thatcher after her legacy closed the steelworks there in 1992, have therefore elected Conservatives.

The phrase ‘Ulsterisation of Scottish politics’ seemed rather shrill when the dominant debate centred around how an independent Scotland could take a new approach to inequality, but when those suffering that inequality put their national identity above their economic circumstances, it is a phrase which has resonance now.

Davidson deserves the credit. She got her vote out, and then some.

And not only has Davidson won the support of traditional Labour voters, she has also undermined the central argument for independence which the SNP has constructed in the decades since the days of Thatcher.

That Scotland never votes Tory; that it is governed by a party it never votes for; that it could be a left-leaning progressive small nation is an argument fostered by the late nationalist thinker Stephen Maxwell and successfully argued under the leadership of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. It is an argument which brought the country close to voting for independence in 2014.

Now though, Davidson has cast herself in the role of the protector of Britain, backed by a Prime Minister who has adopted wholesale the British nationalist arguments of UKIP.

Never mind that both of these women voted to remain in Europe, the Conservatives are now the party of Brexit and British jobs for British workers. Our European neighbours, so recently our closest trading partners, have been recast as the villains issuing “threats against Britain” for suggesting the country pays its bills. And whatever the evidence says, immigrants are a drain on our resources.

“Give me your backing to fight for Britain”, the words were May’s, but they so easily could have been Davidson’s. Or Farage’s.

And the reaction to the Tory surge in Scotland has been telling. The SNP continues to crow about the demise of Labour and pitch the ‘Scotland vs Westminster’ line while Labour itself presses the panic button, adopting exactly the same language as Davidson in an attempt to claw back votes from the Tories.

Only a vote for Labour, we are told, would “send a message to Nicola Sturgeon” to reject an independence referendum. It is an acceptance that the only votes to win are those lost to the Conservatives, not the thousands lost to the SNP. After all, the SNP's share of the local election vote was unchanged from 2012.

But leader Kezia Dugdale couldn’t outdo Ruth Davidson’s British nationalist credentials if she wore a sash over a union jack suit and paraded through the streets of Glasgow with a flute.

And while nationalism versus nationalism now dominates a general election campaign for the next five years of UK Government, council groups will be negotiating power-sharing agreements.

In the aftermath of the local election result, Kezia Dugdale told a television interviewer “Labour will be strong opposition to the SNP around the country.”

Is she suggesting Labour won’t form alliances in local authorities such as the one which has run Edinburgh for the last five years?

Only during a Scottish Parliament debate on the tax credits rape clause, when Labour and the SNP united to condemn the policy, has Davidson been under pressure in the last few years. Both parties would be wise to remember that.

And such alliances would benefit both parties. Labour would finally be able to distance itself from the ‘Red Tories’ tag and shift debate back onto progressive social justice, and the SNP would protect its soft civic nationalist argument.

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