One of the big differences between English and Scottish politics is the Tories. Indeed, many outside Scotland will see the situation north of border and assume that they are irrelevant: one MP, no influence, no mandate. It is true that they have been marginalised and even anathematised, following their decline under Thatcher and wipe-out under Major. But they are more significant than meets the eye.
The Yes Campaign in the Scottish referendum campaign starts from the knowledge that historically the ceiling of support for independence has hovered around 35%. That means the project is, more-or-less, beginning from a position of disadvantage and trying to drive the vote up to 50% plus one vote for the day of the referendum.
Unlike devolution in 1997, there is no pretence that such an outcome would represent the settled will of the Scottish people. Indeed, in his SNP Conference speech, Alex Salmond set out his plans in terms of how to co-opt the pro-UK parties to accept independence, if his ambition was to be fulfilled.
At the same time, the SNP projects itself as left of centre – and left of Labour party – although it does nothing that Scottish Labour would not have done, except for tenaciously supporting regressive policies. These include a Council tax freeze (so beloved of Eric Pickles in England), free university education (paid for by cuts to FE places) and free prescriptions (which extend to toothpaste for the rich).
This also gives an insight into the type of politics an independent Scotland might enjoy: hand-outs here, a client group kept happy there. The danger is a drift towards a Fianna Fail – Fine Gael type politics, based on historic bitternesses and perpetuated by the Narcissism of Small Differences.
Be that as it may, when challenged and defeated in all other discussion, nationalists fall back on two points, which they think can trump all others: Trident and the Tories.
The first can be easily seen off by pointing out simple facts. Unilateral nuclear disarmament can rid the world of some nuclear weapons; multilateral nuclear disarmament can rid the world of more nuclear weapons (potentially all of them); and Scottish independence will not rid the world of single warhead or delivery mechanism. So as a disarmament policy, it is a fraud.
The other argument goes that if Scotland gets independence, “we will never have a Tory government again.” Leaving aside the obvious question posed by the reality that forever is a long time, it is worth looking at this idea, which sounds rather seductive,. It has a certain currency, if only briefly, amongst the tiny but noisy band of Labour members who are intending to vote Yes.
In fact, the SNP is a sham social democratic party: its social policies are compromised by its addiction to middle-class perks; and its democratic credentials are undermined by its intended willingness to force through independence without the sustained support of the majority of Scots.
Further left, the Scottish Socialist Party is so enfeebled that it no longer stands candidates for elections. Its most celebrated leader is now appealing once more against his conviction for perjury, and his successor now charmingly tells referendum voters that Labour’s achievements in power were, in his erudite phrase, “f**k all”.
Add the Scottish Greens: a forlorn bunch, tagging along sadly with the SNP, no doubt hating the excesses of the Yes campaign, like the Cybernat monstering of J K Rowling, but all the while lending it a little vicarious credibility.
The other great hope of the left, the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project does not even describe itself as a political programme but as “an idea that belongs to anyone who wants that something different. It is for each person or organisation to say what that model means to them, to contribute their ideas to that model and to explain how they believe that transformation can be achieved.” In other words, “this is what we want – we want someone else to get elected to do it.”
So, in what may come as a surprising contrast, we can also look at the Tories.
Their leader, Ruth Davidson, who is having an excellent referendum campaign, and defies Tory stereotypes by being a lesbian kickboxer and former services reservist, (which beats the SSP’s jailbirds and foul-mouthed would-be demagogues).
The Scottish Tories have also put forward a more far-reaching proposal for extra devolution than any other party (remembering that the SNP reject devolution.)
What’s more, they have 15 MSPs, in contrast to zero for the left and 2 Greens, one of whom has never been known to make a public utterance. In 2011, they secured 16.6% of the Holyrood vote as opposed to the Green’s 4.5% and the SSP’s under 0.5%. In 2010, the Tories took 17% of the Westminster vote (although only one MP) while the Greens took under 5%. The far left vote was again not worth recording. In short, the Scottish Tories are a credible and serious political party, while the SNP is a sham – and its hangers-on further left are negligible in terms of popular support.
This means that the Tories in Scotland are closer to being in government than any of the left factions would ever care to admit. Moreover, this has considerable implications for the referendum, in that the Tories represent a solid bedrock of nearly 20% of support for the union, i.e., the No vote. They are well-organised, and look certain to vote.
My guess (and it’s no more than this) is that the referendum outcome will be at the upper range of the Yes campaign’s realistic expectation: about 40%, (therefore 60% No and a difference of 20%). If the difference is less than that, the voters will have dealt the Yes campaign and the SNP a deeply ironic blow: defeat by 15% would be entirely due to the frequently maligned and usually marginalised Conservative voters.
If the referendum vote is close, look out for the Revenge Of The Tories.