Increasingly, the Unionist vote is concentrating in one placeby Malcolm Rifkind / May 2, 2017 / Leave a comment
Scotland and the Scots are unpredictable. It was once remarked that we are well-balanced; we have chips on both shoulders. That balance now seems to be changing. If the evidence, so far, is to be believed the General Election on 8th June will have one outcome which we have not seen for generations.
Not only will the Conservatives triumph in England. It now seems likely that they will, for the first time ever, dominate Wales and enjoy a resurgence in Scotland to an extraordinary degree. Such a result would mean that the Conservatives would become again a British, not just an English, party; a title they have been unable to claim, with any conviction, for many years.
This would have profound implications for the future of this island as a “United” Kingdom. It would be a severe blow to Nicola Sturgeon and the Nationalist’s apparent bandwagon.
One is occasionally reminded of how the Tories were once before a powerful force in Scotland; indeed, of how, in 1955, they won over 50 per cent of the vote and 36 out of 71 seats north of the border. That is true; 1955 was an “annus mirabilis.” But such statements are, nevertheless, misleading.
Scotland has, rarely, been Tory territory. After the 1832 Reform Act it was, as a poor country, overwhelmingly dominated by the Liberals with the Tories rarely able to win more than a handful of seats. This dominance lasted until the collapse of the Liberal Party after the downfall of Lloyd George in 1922 and the emergence of Labour as the party of the Left. Labour, quickly, dominated the industrial central belt of Scotland where most of the population live. But with the exception of Dundee and Aberdeen, they never won majority political support elsewhere. The Highlands, the North East, the Borders and Edinburgh were difficult terrain for them.
With the collapse of the Liberals and the nonexistence of the SNP in the early 20th century, the Tories, usually referred to as Unionists, were a minority but held a solid bloc of Scottish seats for the next 50 years.
The General Election of 1955 did indeed give them a majority but only because the SNP did not exist and the Liberals only put up candidates in 6 out of 71 seats. In the rest of Scotland you had to vote Tory if you did not want to vote Labour.
That all began to change from the 1960s onwards. The SNP became an increasingly formidable force and the Liberals revived under Jo Grimond and David Steel. The Tories also lost the Orange vote in Glasgow and the West of Scotland. As in Liverpool many working-class Protestant Scots had voted “Unionist” while Catholics, mostly of Irish background, voted Labour. While sectarianism remained on the football terraces its political counterpart, thankfully, disappeared.
It is conventional wisdom to blame Margaret Thatcher for the collapse of the Conservative Party in Scotland. While she was highly unpopular the rot had begun before her leadership and, indeed, the Tories won back six seats from the SNP when she first came to power in 1979.
It was in 1997, under John Major, that I lost my seat in Edinburgh and Scotland became a Tory free zone. As the same happened in Wales and the Tories were drastically weakened in the North of England this was far from being a purely Scottish phenomenon.
The current resurgence of the Scottish Conservatives is unlikely to make them dominant in Scotland. They are not going to overtake the SNP in the short-term. But their advance would represent a serious threat to Sturgeon and the SNP. Why does it seem to be happening? It is only partly due to the traumas of the Labour Party under the hopeless leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. It was Ed Miliband not Corbyn who led the Labour Party when they lost all their seats in Scotland bar one at the last General Election.
The possible change in the political map of Scotland to the advantage of the Tories is more a reaction to the success of the SNP in appearing to turn Scotland into a one-party state which was moving, inexorably, towards the break up of the United Kingdom. The Nationalists remain very strong in Scotland and are popular with a very large minority of Scots. But they are a minority and after 10 years in charge at Holyrood the SNP may be approaching their sell by date as happens to all democratic parties when they have had a monopoly of power for too long.
Their extraordinary parliamentary dominance is because the 45 per cent of Scots who voted for independence in the referendum vote for them in elections while the 55 per cent who voted for the Union have been split between Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems. That “unionist” vote is now recognising that separatism is even more important an issue than Brexit in Scotland. It is choosing to concentrate on the one unionist party that seems, at present, most deserving of support.
Their choice is the Conservatives for four reasons. The Tories are united under a respected prime minister and not facing an existential challenge like the discredited Labour Party.
Secondly, the Scottish Conservatives have a leader in Ruth Davidson who gets higher approval ratings than Sturgeon and deserves them.
Thirdly, it is also an important factor that the Tories are now the only low tax party in Scotland. Both the SNP and Labour wish to keep Scotland higher taxed than the rest of the UK in order to increase further government spending.
The evidence suggests that at least 30-40 per cent of Scots want to see the tax burden reduced and know that will not happen with the SNP. The Nationalists, in order to capture the Labour vote, have become a left wing party pursuing left wing policies on tax and spending.
Finally, the United Kingdom has, in recent years, become a quasi-federal state in all but name. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have powerful, though different, devolved governments. England is now decentralising control of massive resources from London to the English regions. There is no longer a constitutional barrier that divides the Conservative Party from the aspirations of at least 55 per cent of Scots. It should not, therefore, surprise anyone that Theresa May will reap the benefit of that extraordinary change on 8th June.