The record's stuck, Nicola, the SNP need a new tune

The record's stuck, Nicola, the SNP need a new tune

by Murdo Fraser
article from Saturday 13, May, 2017

IT WAS A STAPLE plot device of Boys' Own adventure stories of the 1960s and '70s. Japanese soldiers from the Second World War were supposedly stranded on otherwise uninhabited Pacific islands, cut off from the rest of the world, unaware of the fact that the Second World War had ended years before.

Anyone who had landed on these islands would have been bemused at the sight of these increasingly elderly gentlemen, dressed in tattered uniforms of the once mighty Imperial Forces, brandishing their rusty rifles and ready to fight in the Emperor's name.

It is a very good illustration of what happens when the world moves on, and we don't recognise how it has changed. We cling to the old truths, the former certainties, which once upon a time gave us such comfort, not realising how antiquated and out of touch we have become.

And so it is with Nicola Sturgeon's rhetoric. For years, the SNP leadership under both her and her predecessor have framed the political debate in Scotland as being against "The Tories".

Thus, any decisions taken by the UK government that the SNP didn't like were the work of "the Tories"; any other political party, whether Labour or the LibDems, were damned for any association with the dreaded Tories; in effect, "Tory" was used as a catch-all term of abuse, in the sure knowledge that this was all that was required to provoke a positive Scottish reaction.

Now this approach might have had some credibility in the dark days after 1997, when the Scottish Conservatives lost every Westminster seat that we held, and a Tory MP was something only encountered in England. It may even have been a credible approach when there was one Conservative MP in Scotland, and just fifteen MSPs in the Scottish Parliament (which led Alex Salmond to his famous, dismissive, claim that there were more giant pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs).

But such an approach, painting Conservatives as some sort of alien breed not only out of touch with Scotland, but determined at every turn to act against Scotland's interests, now looks ludicrous in the wake of last year's Scottish Parliament results, where with 31 seats the Scottish Conservatives became the second party of Scottish politics, and after last week's Council results, with the surge in Conservative support.

When the Scottish Tories are entrenched as the second party of Scottish politics, with one in four of those actually casting a vote in Scotland voting Conservative, it is both bizarre and ridiculous to try and claim that there is something intrinsically anti-Scottish about the Party.

And, yet, that is still the message coming from the SNP. So comforting, so familiar, has been the anti-Tory rhetoric from Sturgeon and her colleagues, that they seem unable to wake up to the new reality, to adopt a new language and a new approach.

When a quarter of the Scottish population have just voted Tory, when opinion polls are suggesting that one in three could vote Tory in the General Election next month, for Nicola Sturgeon to continue spitting out the word "Tory" like an expletive shows that she is as in touch with the modern world as an abandoned Japanese rifleman.

So the SNP need to find a new tune to play. Name-calling against the Tories is no longer going to be enough. They are going to have to turn to defending their policy position, and making arguments on the basis of their record in government for the last 10 years.

This is no easy task. This week SNP failures in education have been woefully exposed, with a shocking number of our young people failing to meet the basic standards in literacy. When youngsters being tested have spent their entire lives at school in the period when the SNP have been in control of Scottish education, there is simply no one else for Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney to blame for their failures. And it is the same across a whole range of other policy areas, including the economy, justice, and the health service.

There is a problem here too for the independence movement. Nationalist campaigns, in whatever guise they might adopt over the years, have always depended on promoting the concept of "the other". Scottish nationalism has long defined itself as an opposition to "the Tories", or, as it is sometimes put, "Westminster".

But what if, as appears to be increasingly the case, "the Tories" are not strange, foreign, distant people, but are actually not just among us, but are part of us in increasingly large numbers? The form of Scottish nationalism we have seen in Scotland in recent decades suddenly faces an existential threat.

I can well remember it being argued in the run up to the 2014 referendum that one of the reasons for Scottish independence was that Scots had a different outlook on the world to those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. So, while England (and, to an extent, Wales) largely voted Tory, the Scots voted for anyone but.

Whilst at the time we did our best to argue against this proposition by drawing attention to the Social Attitudes Surveys which demonstrated year after year that views on policy matters varied very little between Scotland and the UK as a whole, it was nevertheless always a difficult case to make when there were more giant pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs. How much easier it will be in future, with a resurgent Scottish Conservative party, to demonstrate that that difference is nowhere near as large as the nationalists used to claim?

So the rebirth of the Scottish Conservatives is good for the Union in the unhappy (and increasingly unlikely) event of us ever having to re-run the 2014 referendum. And it is, of course, good for Scotland in creating a more mature and balanced political debate between left and right, in line with most normal countries in the Western world.

And it means that Nicola Sturgeon, and the SNP, need to find a new tune to play. Simply rapping the word "Tory" isn't going to be enough to sell many records.

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