Return of the tartan Tory bogeyman: what happens if the Tories win in England and lose in Scotland

Gerry Hassan
23 January 2010

Annabel Goldie, leader of the Scottish Tories has taken the brave step of acknowledging that the Tories have a problem in Scotland. She has stated that if the Tories win a UK election this year, but win few Scots MPs this is no reason for the return of the ‘no mandate’ argument.

This is the reality the Scots Tories face: the only part of Britain immune to the Cameron bounce, and a place where the Tories have consistently flatlined since 1997.

Goldie argues that the ‘no mandate’ case is nonsense and that ‘this is a British general election, to elect a British government and a British PM’. What is going on? Have we not been here before? And wasn’t devolution meant to stop all this?

How the Scots Tories do in a UK election matters. Firstly, the Tories have one Westminster seat – and despite having a target total of 11 – have realistic hopes of winning between three to five seats top.

Secondly, in terms of votes the Scots Tories have been on 15-18% for a long time in the Westminster polls. While they can say they have been a minority for a long time as late as 1979 Mrs. Thatcher won 31% of the vote.

Scotland in 1979 was much more Tory than today. Then instead of one MP they had 22. Edinburgh was a Tory city, Glasgow and Aberdeen elected Tory MPs, and large swathes of rural Scotland were Tory. Then the Tories were a national force across all Scotland unlike today and even then it wasn’t enough to stop the emergence of the ‘no mandate’ argument.

Scotland’s elected Parliament was meant to address our ‘democratic deficit’, give us our own government, and across large swathes of public life stop us being ruled by governments with minority support that we didn’t vote for. Truth is though devolution did not actually do this, because it is not in its power to do so.

Instead, Scotland closed its ‘democratic deficit’ bringing a host of areas home to the Parliament, but leaving unanswered the political question of the fact that so few Scots vote Tory and what happens when the UK returns a Tory Government.

The Tories historically used to do unionism well, and there is an argument that they were better at it than Labour who had all those grandiose centralist ideas. Thatcher changed Tory unionism in tone, attitude and character, and dealt it a powerful blow in Scotland which the party has never fully recovered from.

Cameron’s unionism instinctively seems to want to adapt those older, decent Tory traditions to modern times. Many challenges face such a prospect: the narrow base of Toryism, the folklore of Thatcher, and of course, the economic and social realities any government is going to inherent, with the prospect of savage public spending cuts.

The Thatcher cuts of 1979-81 are still remembered across a huge swathe of Scotland in part because they hurt so much and went against Scottish sentiment, and in part because in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country, people never fully recovered.

A Cameron government would have to implement cuts as savage and do so from a popular base much smaller and feebler, and with wider opposition from the Scottish Parliament and society.

The instinct of the UK Tories will be to seek some element of conciliation while delivering harsh medicine, and this could come in the form of devolving more powers to Scotland, whether on the lines of Calman or not. Cameron will attempt to show himself an astute politician who values the union and Scotland’s place in it. Whether most Scots will be prepared to give him a listen is another thing.

How a lot of this develops depends on how other parties react. For too long it has been assumed a Cameron government will be music to the ears of Alex Salmond. It may well be, but it will be much more complex and in part dependant on what Scottish Labour do.

Annabel Goldie touched on this when she asked what is more important for Labour, ‘the short term future of the Labour Party or the long term future of the UK?’, and pleaded with Labour not to fall for the attractions of ‘nationalism with a small ‘n’’.

This is likely to become one of the defining features of Scottish politics: how the SNP and Labour compete for being the most authentic Scottish voice.

The creation of the Scottish Parliament and experience of the 1980s point to Scottish Labour after a UK election defeat and in opposition in Holyrood and Westminster, going down the route of a Scottish agenda. This would be pro-autonomy, developing a distinct Scottish agenda and a new quasi-federal relationship with the rest of the party.

This is an agenda which has been spoken about for years in Labour: by Jack McConnell in his youthful days, by Wendy Alexander in her brief period as leader, and by Henry McLeish. The obstacle to it has been British Labour, Gordon Brown and some of the Westminster MPs who MSPs see as unreconstructed dinosaurs. The momentum for this will grow after a UK election defeat.

From this shift could emerge a new politics which offers the prospects of the three main anti-Tory parties: Labour, SNP and Lib Dems, bitterly competing for votes, but engaged in co-operation in ideas.

Where this leaves the Tories is governing a cold, inhospitable northern nation, and one even more immune to their charms than the experience of Thatcher and Major. This is not going to be an easy ride or comfortable for the Tories, or indeed for anyone.

What it does illustrate is the perils of devolution in an unreformed UK, with a British state with winner takes all government, and devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the English question left festering.

Annabel Goldie is right to raise the questions of the ‘no mandate’ now, although her dismissal of it is a little too shaped by party politics, and too reminiscent of 1980s Tory scorn towards home rule. There is a real set of challenges emerging for all the Scottish parties, and when Goldie talks of ‘unionism beating nationalism’, most Scots do not see themselves in such terms.

A politics of unionism v. nationalism is not only the return of a Groundhog Day movie which refuses to go away, it does not answer the huge challenges we face as a nation now and in the future. Whoever can capture a post-unionist, post-nationalist politics of the centre-left has the opportunity to speak for a generation of Scots hungry for a different political dispensation. That is the challenge post-election for Labour, SNP and Lib Dems.

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