Why the Scottish Tories are more significant than you think

June 20, 2014 11:13 am

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.

Alex Salmond

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.

  • John Ruddy

    Also worth noting that the Scottish Tories have increased their share of the vote in every council by-election since 2012, in the 2014 Euro elections, every Holyrood by-election since 2011…. this referendum campaign is forcing them to go out and talk to people – something they’ve not done in Scotland for some time.

  • Callum Hawthorne

    I was actually discussing this precise point with a Tory voter/campaigner while canvassing with Better Together last weekend. Its about time such considerations got media coverage and currency with the debate.

  • Daniel Speight

    When free university education and free prescriptions become regressive policies I think we must be in Neverland not Britain.

    It also strikes me that you should say things like that below with care, even if it is true, especially after looking at where the Blairites and Progess would like to take Labour back to.

    In fact, the SNP is a sham social democratic party: its social policies are compromised by its addiction to middle-class perks; …

    • Peter A. Russell

      All you need to know about Scottish student funding: http://www.predictableparadox.co.uk/2012/12/scotlands-free-tuition-scam.html

      • Daniel Speight

        Read that Peter and it’s interesting although I would say it’s a bit of a stretch to say that student loans for living expenses in Scotland are worse than loans in England for both tuition and living expenses. Let’s grant you that one anyway. So what about free prescription charges in Scotland? Surely there’s more to your claim of regression than rich people getting free toothpaste.

        Also I’m sure you are right when you say that it’s a sham social democratic party, but looking at Labour’s recent history, is that have a bit of the pot and kettle to it?

        • Peter A. Russell

          OK – free prescrition charges are not as regressive since the tax threshold for low paid workers has been increased.

          The example given is also a symbol for the necessary debate which Labour is having (and the SNP is not) about whether the limits of universality need to be adjusted.

          My own biggest complaint about free prescriptions at the time of their introduction was that I would have preferred any extra invesment going into ensuring clean hospitals rather than giving the well-off another universal benefit.

          • Daniel Speight

            It’s a funny old world Peter. I wonder if those guys sitting around the cabinet table in 1945 would have thought one day universality would be thought of as regressive. Then again I suppose technically that is correct.

            The fight that Labour used to be unflinching on was against means-testing, but now Ed Miliband is saying we will have it on youth unemployment benefits so maybe you are right, free prescriptions without means-testing are regressive. Maybe we will give employment to a new band of inspectors knocking on doors to make sure nobody says they are poorer than they are.

            For some reason I liked it more how the party used to be.

          • i_bid

            I’d like to know how much is it to administer all this means-testing bureaucracy.

          • Peter A. Russell

            should always be taken into account. No-one denies that.

          • Peter A. Russell

            …which neglects the same guys sitting round the same table a few years later and imposing …prescription charges.

          • Daniel Speight

            Yes that could be argued, although it could also be said that this eventually led to Hugh Gaitskell becoming party leader and another eight years for Labour being out of office.

          • i_bid

            Limits of universality is an oxymoron. I don’t care if the rich are getting benefits – the benefit of it is the rich are usually paying for it, and it speaks to a collective, shared notion we should be trying to engender.

          • Peter A. Russell

            which is one end of the argument. Mine is that of the Sainted Polly Toynbee telling Guardian readers that her Family Allowance was the right amount to buy two bottles of champagne per week.

    • reformist lickspittle

      Labour’s failings are irrelevant in this instance.

      The point here is that many left-wingers in England have a ludicrously starry eyed and idealised view of both the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

      • Daniel Speight

        I can understand what you are saying and yes the SNP is a sham social democratic party mainly because they are followers of a neoliberal economic ideology as seen in their wish to join the death spiral competition on corporate tax rates. But, and it’s a big but, New Labour opened the door to allow them space on the left, as they did for the Liberals. If Labour took a stand on offering social democratic policies rather than more of the same preferred by Progress and its ilk this wouldn’t happen.

        • i_bid

          I’ve made the point before that the SNP – and their ‘celtic tiger’ ambitions – only gain the Left’s loyalty because – as you say – Labour are full-on Thatcherites these days.

          • Peter A. Russell

            An incredibly stupid remark: “full-on Thatcherites.” Does anyone really believe that?

            Those would be the pro-devolution, pro-minimum wage, pro-electricity price freeze, pro-NHS, pro-workers rights, anti-poverty Thatcherites would they?

  • treborc1

    The Scottish Tories you mean the labour party, because while the SNP became the socialist left of the country The Labour party became the right wing New labour Tories screaming for students to pay fees, people to pay for prescriptions, now of course you have to vote in an election so Miliband turns up and says for god sake get real.

    • Peter A. Russell

      Thanks for an excellent example of what passes for intelligent political discourse amongst the Yes campaign.

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