Scottish Tories rediscover their unionist mojo

Scottish Tories rediscover their unionist mojo

by Brian Monteith
article from Friday 20, May, 2016

AS THE DESERVED celebrations by Ruth Davidson and her supporters ease-off the question of why the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party not only leapt into second place in the Holyrood elections, but did it so convincingly has yet to be answered adequately.

To have a revival that kicks firmly into the past the idea that the Scottish Conservatives are toxic is no mean achievement in itself. To do it by pushing Labour into third place by winning an astonishing thirty-one seats is a political landmark.

There are some who, rather churlishly, suggest that the Tory campaign downplayed its Conservative credentials and relied upon Ruth Davidson as a person to improve their vote. There are a number of reasons why this is wrong, and begrudgingly so.

The obvious point is that David McLetchie and Annabel Goldie were both well-liked figures, by which I mean they enjoyed popularity and respect beyond their party faithful. Polling regularly showed they had greater appeal than the Conservative Party in Scotland. Indeed the latter was almost treated as a national treasure, the nation’s favourite auntie, no less. The last three Conservative Holyrood campaigns, before Davidson’s leadership, sought to maximise this advantage by excluding other Tory figures and focussing on the leader, but all to no avail. Election after election the Conservative vote share plumbed new depths to the point where Murdo Fraser and others, including myself, thought a new Scottish centre-right party was the solution.

The second point is that no one could doubt that Ruth Davidson is a Conservative, a Tory, or even an “expletive deleted” Tory. Admirably, Davidson has never hidden her Conservative credentials, but has instead played-up her blue-collar background and been open about her sexuality, although from my own experience many in her party would have more difficulty with her previous employment at the BBC. Davidson is therefore a Tory moderniser, just as back in the days Teddy Taylor, Alex Fletcher and Michael Forsyth were modernisers, although it was never a term they would have thought of using. They fought the dinosaurs too, demanding the party keep up with what concerned people rather than fighting old wars over again.

Being a moderniser has meant that Davidson could redefine what being a Conservative in Scotland means – and this is the key point, for she has redefined the party as the leading proponent of unionism. Her party is now not so much the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party as simply the Unionist Party.

Ironically this particular branding was being considered for the possible launch of a new Scottish party, but Davidson has done it herself by simply changing perceptions about what her party stands for. Ironically her greatest support in this has not been the Orange Order, followers of the “Teddy Bears” or Presbyterian believers – no, it has been the Scottish National Party and Nicola Sturgeon in particular. Consciously or unconsciously the SNP tactics made the case for voting Conservative & Unionist far stronger.

By pushing the demand for independence so high up the agenda that a referendum took place and polarised the nation, the SNP helped Scottish unionism find its long-missing mojo. Then, by not accepting the outcome with dignity and grace but raising the spectre of a second referendum Nicola Sturgeon focussed the electorate’s collective mind. Sturgeon used the ploy of a Brexit “triggering” a second referendum not just to placate her impatient supporters but also because she knew it would guarantee her UK media coverage in the run up to the Holyrood elections.

It was Sturgeon pitching against Cameron on UK television – and doing a better job of it than Miliband – that had earned her the reputation as a formidable opponent, so finding a way to keep that pot simmering was undoubtedly smart. Sturgeon and her team borrowed from the Trump playbook of saying something outrageous so you don’t have to spend a penny in advertising – as the media will report it for free. And oh, how they did so, the London-based media obligingly raising repeatedly the prospect of the UK breaking up if Brexit became a reality.

As the Holyrood election neared its climax so for Sturgeon her referendum threat became the “go-to” issue – a second referendum would be more likely she kept telling us and it would be the dreaded Tories’ own fault. Not that she had the balls to put it in her manifesto, but she could talk as if she had.

Unfortunately the strategy unravelled, because the majority of Scots that voted No to independence do not want another referendum.

This reality collided with the other reality from Holyrood elections in the past – held (crucially) before the referendum – where Scots that are not nationalists would often vote for the SNP as a way to get Labour out or because the SNP might speak up for Scotland.

Faced with this clash of choices it is clear from analysis of the polling in SNP seats, where there were big swings from the SNP to the Tories (of all parties), that many SNP voters have simply had enough of the First Minister’s sabre rattling.

No longer were Unionists at heart, but part-time SNP voters, willing to put up with Sturgeon pitching the country against itself. With the Labour and Liberal Democrats both equivocal about their unionism there was only one place for them to go – Ruth Davidson’s devoutly Unionist Conservative Party.

A happy confluence of a party confident in its unionism and having an able leader – who was a willing sport for all the necessary photocalls but then robust in debate, where she excelled at putting the First Minister’s feet to the fire for her disrespect to the Edinburgh Agreement – gave her an edge over the other opposition parties.

Davidson is likeable. She calls a spade a spade and she wears her Unionism with pride.

No longer can people say that the Tories are an old people’s party that is dying off. There will be tens of thousands of voters that gave their support to the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party for the first time, and tens of thousands of them will be below forty and willing to consider voting Tory again.

Rather than dwindling away to nothing as it had been doing, achieving support in the range of 22-23 per cent of vote share is a position that can be built upon so that Ruth Davidson’s party can actually challenge the SNP for power the next time around.

It is for this reason Davidson has been attracting all the headlines; it is too early to say the SNP is in decline, but there is every reason to believe the Scottish Tories are in the ascendency. At last.


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