IN COMMON with the UK Conservative Party, the Scottish Conservatives have not issued a manifesto for tomorrow’s EU election. Campaigning on the ground by the Conservatives has been virtually non-existent in Scotland, as if party managers were afraid to ask the faithful to turn out.
Or knew it was pointless.
The key message in Scottish Conservative communications for the EU election has been to assert “No more referendums”. This promised to kill two birds with one stone: it elides Brexit, which Scottish Conservatives really, really don’t want to talk about, with Scottish Independence, which they want to talk about at every opportunity. NO TO INDYREF2 has been their election-winning strategy since 2014.
Of course the SNP hasn’t been able to stop itself from dancing along, even as the First Minister has coquettishly postured that an SNP vote in the EU election was a vote against Brexit, and a vote for a second EU referendum, and most certainly not a vote for Scottish independence or indyref 2. The polls will barely have closed before the First Minister will be interpreting every SNP vote as a de facto indyref2 vote on the gleeful grounds that only independence can save Scotland from Brexit.
The Scottish Conservative strategy was also at work when last week Adam Tompkins leapt on comments by the Brexit Party’s lead Scottish candidate Louis Stedman-Bryce that it would not stand in the way of a second independence referendum “if the people said that is what they wanted”. Immediately a Scottish Conservative press release was issued lambasting the Brexit Party for giving “a green light for indyref2”, but it was a low move that found little traction.
Stedman-Bryce’s reasoning for his position is impeccable. The full quote reads: “If there was a demand for it, we are democrats, we believe in democracy, if the people said that is what they wanted then I don’t feel we would stand in their way”. Who could disagree with that? It’s consistent with a view which has been widely endorsed by Conservatives, namely that if pro-independence parties win an overall majority in Holyrood in 2021, it will be difficult to resist the democratic pressure for a second referendum.
Then on Tuesday night Teresa May sent the Scottish Conservative message of no more referendums up in smoke.
She offered the House of Commons a vote on a second EU referendum as a sweetener in her last, desperate try for a Brexit bill. Yesterday afternoon twitter reported David Mundell scurrying to Number 10 to complain that he was “very very concerned about referendum issue being 'exploited' in Scotland by independence supporters”. The wonder is that he wasn’t at Mrs May’s door the evening before or indeed that no one consulted the Scottish Conservatives on this move, or that that no one around the PM had an inkling of its implications for Scotland.
Staunch unionist he may be, but Nigel Farage has also appealed directly to the third of SNP voters who backed Brexit. They don’t just display a certain logical consistency - if you want an independent Scotland, surely you want independence from Europe as well as the UK.
They also highlight a deeper affinity between the EU and Scottish referendums: both revealed a deep dislocation from politics as usual. Many Leave-voters and Yes-voters share an alienation, a sense of powerlessness and marginalisation by a political establishment whose members primarily look after themselves – the marginalisation may be economic, social, cultural, educational, national or geographical, or any mixture, but the feeling was common to many who voted in the two referendums.
This feeling is not stable or straightforward in its political affiliations. It is inherently labile, and there are dangers for any party that relies on it. While the SNP owes its rise and continuing popularity to popular alienation from the Union (specifically Westminster), positing itself as the non plus ultra of the UK’s Remain parties is now driving away SNP Leave voters. As the party of government in Scotland for 13 years, the SNP is firmly entrenched as the political establishment here, even if its constant iteration of itself as a nationalist underdog under Westminster’s thumb has obscured that for a long time. But that underdog image is becoming less and less credible as devolution progresses and the SNP persists in government, and its failings in devolved areas become more apparent.
Ruth Davidson’s Blue Conservatism and the SNP’s Community Empowerment Act also gesture to this disenchantment, and wish for a new politics which connects with people.
But neither Conservatives nor SNP, let alone Labour, have grasped the depth of the crisis in our politics that the two referendums have revealed, as they tread their well-worn rhetorical ruts, and make the same old plays for power.
By contrast, the Brexit Party promises to go back to democratic basics by honouring a vote with a record turn-out. If it can maintain its appeal to the politically disenchanted beyond tomorrow and beyond Brexit, if it can articulate a wider programme of democratic revitalisation than a single poll of protest, then this is may be the beginning of a Glorious Revolution for the 21st century.