UKIP-style voters weren’t absent in Scotland, they were just sheltering in the SNP
John McTernan: Conservativism is as native to Scotland as radicalism and it will inevitably find a political voice
If, as Harold Wilson once quipped, a week is a long time in politics then what is a decade? A lifetime? It’s certainly a political generation. Ten years ago, the SNP formed a minority government and set Scotland on a journey which was increasingly – and apparently inevitably – different from the rest of the UK. Even after defeat in the independence referendum, the march of the SNP continued with the whitewash of all other parties in Scotland in the 2015 general election. The 2016 Scottish election followed and with it the renewed demand for an independence referendum. The die was cast, the referendum had set a new course for politics in Scotland, it was just a matter of time. Or so it seemed.
Then came another referendum. This time the question was continued membership of the European Union, the answer Brexit. On the surface, the result in Scotland emphasised Scottish exceptionalism with the country registering – along with London – some of the strongest support for Remain. Beneath the surface, the plates were slipping and shifting.
The large minority in Scotland who voted Leave cut across the SNP coalition in interesting ways. In a simple way, the disruption was that this second referendum created a competing cleavage – a choice between whether taking control was expressed via separation from the UK or by leaving the EU. In a more complicated way, the competition is in the values space – those Scots who voted to leave the EU hold remarkably similar views on immigration to voters across the UK – UKIP-style voters weren’t absent in Scotland, just sheltering with another party, the SNP.
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This concatenation of referenda with competing populist claims has opened up new space in Scottish politics, space that is on the right rather than the left. This is an affront to those for whom Scotland is a uniquely progressive nation, but is a rebalancing that has always been predictable. Scotland has always been a deeply conservative nation, particularly socially. The surprise is not that a right of centre bloc of voters has become available, rather it is that their voice was supressed for so long.
The beneficiary of all this change has been the Scottish Conservatives. Something which will only surprise those who have not been paying attention to Scottish politics. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, politics isn’t easy, but it is simple. To be successful political parties need to have strong leadership, distinct policies and disciplined consistency.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader has all those qualities. Voters know what she is for: the Union, what she is against: tax hikes, havering and nationalism. And even more to the point, people like her – they know that if they went for a drink with her they would have a laugh and a decent bottle of wine too. Getting into this position isn’t as easy as it looks – just ask Theresa May and her team. The Prime Minister’s authority has been permanently diminished in the general election campaign.
Ruth has a double advantage in that centre-right politics is precisely the area in which Nicola Sturgeon is least comfortable. Sitting for a Glasgow seat and defining herself as someone who believes that Foot-era Labour was ‘True Labour’, she struggles to understand let alone empathise with right-leaning Scots.
All predictions are that the Scottish Conservatives will make gains on June 8. Some breathless predictions put those as high as 12 seats. The point, in the end, is the progress not the precise numbers. On the one hand, that is simply because the Tories have for so long been regarded as a toxic political brand that any return to popularity is a news. On the other – and far more significant – is the damage that a Tory revival does to the SNP narrative of inevitability. A higher Tory vote and an increased number of MPs won’t deter Nicola Sturgeon from demanding a second independence referendum, it just makes it a riskier endeavour.
This is not a return to politics as normal. The turbulence of recent years – not just in the UK, but in Europe and the US too – will continue. What is happening in Scotland is the laws of political gravity asserting themselves. First, conservativism – both political and social – is as native to Scotland as radicalism and it will inevitably find a political voice. Second, momentum matters. Politics is a narrative game, if you are not on the way up then you are on the way down.
Anyone who cared to look at the SNP in the Scottish Parliament in 2003 could see politicians who were hungry for office, and while wanting to win isn’t sufficient for victory, it is necessary. Since last year, the most ambitious MSPs are the Scottish Conservatives. Third, as Groucho Marx said, ‘time wounds all heels’. Or, as all governments find, eventually your record trips you up. If you are meant to grow jobs, improve health, raise education standards, deliver social care and so on then there is a limit to how long you can say, ‘Wait for independence.’
In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, this is turning out to be an interesting election.
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