Twenty years ago, Conservatism all but died in Scotland. Tony Blair’s landslide victory made Scotland, at least in terms of its Westminster representation, a Tory-free zone. At no point since has the party won more than a single Scottish seat, and the last time the party won more than a quarter of the Scottish vote, in 1983, its current leader, Ruth Davidson, was four years old. Two years ago, the Tories won just 14 per cent of the vote, an even worse result than 1997. This seemed to fit a broader narrative: Toryism had been beaten back into England, a sign of the union’s exhaustion and a Scotland moving inexorably towards independence.
How different it all looks now. The most recent opinion polls in Scotland suggest the Tories could win as many as one in three ballots cast on 8 June. One opinion poll even suggested that, albeit on a uniform swing, the party could win as many as a dozen Scottish seats — including Moray, seat of the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson. In an era where elections are delivering extra-ordinary results, one might just be a stronger union and a strange rebirth of Scottish Conservatism.
The general election here is a very different beast to the one taking place in England. The Scottish Tories do not talk very much about the need for a ‘strong and stable’ government. Nor do they warn voters about a vanishingly improbable ‘coalition of chaos’ that would arise were the SNP to prop up a Labour government. With a Tory majority at Westminster all but assured, it is little surprise that the latest episode of the battle for Scotland should become a matter of greater interest.
Just as it remains hard to imagine how the SNP could have risen to its current state of supremacy without Alex Salmond, so it is difficult to underestimate Ruth Davidson’s importance to the Scottish Tory revival. Her personal background — working-class, lesbian, BBC journalist — is often used to explain her ability to reach a wider audience than previous Tory leaders, but there is more to it than that. Viewed from one angle, she is every inch the modernising Tory — her influence played a large part in persuading Theresa May to maintain the commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid. But seen from a different perspective, she is also a traditional Conservative: a god-fearing Christian and former army reservist. She believes in gay marriage because she is a Conservative, not despite it.
Ruth Davidson speaks to Fraser Nelson about the resurgence of Scottish Conservatism:
Most of all, she offers an alternative to SNP orthodoxy. Sturgeon warns that only a vote for the SNP can ‘protect’ Scotland against an ‘unfettered’ Tory govern-ment whose values are alien and inimical to those of Scotland. Davidson observes that ‘the SNP is not Scotland’. Unionists are Scots too. Labour, not so long ago the party of Scotland, might even finish fourth in this election, at least in terms of seats won. If Ian Murray retains Edinburgh South, he will be Scotland’s only red panda.
Political anthropologists are already asking why the Scottish Tory party, previously thought close to extinction, has made such a remarkable recovery. For more than a generation on the left, the idea of the Tories being an invasive species in Scotland has been the foundation of first Labour and then SNP politics — but it no longer holds. If at least one in four Scots are prepared to endorse Tory candidates, can one really maintain the fiction there is something grubbily disreputable or even unpatriotic about voting for a Conservative candidate?
Still, there’s an unspoken alliance in Scottish politics, whereby the SNP and the Conservatives collude to crop Labour out of the national political picture. ‘We couldn’t have had a better person than Nicola Sturgeon to amplify our message that it is now the Tories versus the SNP in Scotland,’ Ms Davidson told me when we met last week. ‘As the Americans say, she has done us a solid.’
The prospect of a new independence referendum has focused minds in Scotland. Just as the post-referendum realignment of Scottish politics shifted Yes voters from Labour to the SNP to give the SNP their astonishing 2015 triumph, so a second, more gradual, shift has been happening on the unionist side of Scotland’s constitutional equation. The Tory message can be reduced to a bumper sticker: ‘We said No to independence in 2014. We meant it.’
So Ms Davidson owes a lot to Salmond and Sturgeon. If it weren’t for the SNP, the Tories might still be in the doldrums. Every action demands a reaction, however, and by making the constitution the central — and most divisive — issue in Scottish politics, the SNP gave the Tories something to believe in and a reason for being. ‘There’s a real, genuine anger’ over the SNP’s referendum manoeuvring, Ms Davidson says. ‘I’ve not heard people use the phrase “That woman” in the way they use it about Nicola Sturgeon since Margaret Thatcher was “That woman”.’
Although Davidson has a direct line to the Theresa May, relations between the Scottish party and the UK mother party are not always easy. Fiona Hill, the PM’s Greenock-raised co-chief of staff, has assumed responsibility for Scottish operations. Stopping English Tories from behaving in a ‘toxic’ fashion, one of Davidson’s allies says, is a time-consuming, often exasperating business.
There is a difference between Holyrood and Westminster Conservatism, and protecting that difference is also hard work. Davidson’s most difficult moments invariably come when she is forced to defend UK government policy, especially welfare. Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘tough love’ policies have been far harder to sell in Scotland, and even Ms Davidson struggles to defend them. During a Holyrood debate on welfare reform last month, she uncharacteristically declined to take any interventions as politicians from every other party lambasted changes to tax credits and child benefit.
It was an uncomfortable afternoon for the Tory leader and enough to make some of her colleagues squirm. (‘This isn’t our stuff’ notes one Davidson ally.) The SNP equates Toryism with nastiness, and has made much of the ‘rape clause’. If you haven’t heard the phrase, it’s because you aren’t in Scotland. A two-child tax credit limit has been imposed across the UK, although women can claim for a third child if they have been raped. But they have to declare it. The SNP lambasts this as an ‘abomination’. Jeremy Corbyn has never mentioned it.
Sturgeon is convinced that a further decade of Tory rule at Westminster will, in the long run, boost the democratic imperative for independence. She bets that the same ‘democratic deficit’ argument that helped secure a devolved parliament in Edinburgh can now help deliver independence. But if the SNP lose seats to the Conservatives — and their share of the vote falls beneath the 50 per cent the party won in 2015 — unionist parties will argue that the SNP’s momentum has stalled. The moral mandate for a second referendum will have been reduced.
Still, the scale of the challenge for the Scottish Conservatives remains formidable. For a start: how much of it is a genuine Tory revival, and how much rests on Ms Davidson personally? ‘Everyone knows how important she is. The rest of us don’t matter very much,’ says one MSP. ‘Our job is to get her to Bute House.’ A Scottish Tory government would need a policy agenda that is sufficiently different from the SNP’s, but also not just UK government policy wearing a kilt. So far Ms Davidson’s strength has been as a campaigner; now she must develop policy.
A year ago, the idea of First Minister Davidson would have seemed preposterous; now it is merely unlikely. The Tories won 31 seats in last year’s Scottish parliament elections. ‘When I joined the party in 2008,’ Davidson says, ‘we would start conversations with “I’m sorry, I’m a Conservative but…” Now we start “I believe in X and I’m a Conservative and if you believe in X you’re a Conservative too.”’ As a result, the Tories are campaigning in places — North Lanarkshire, North Ayrshire, East Glasgow — where they’ve not been seen in years. The days of sackcloth and ashes are over. Across Scotland, Tory candidates report they can now canvass in areas previously marked ‘Abandon hope’.
In this election, that means the party has high hopes of winning three seats in southern Scotland — creating a blue border — but the real action will be found further north. ‘Something is happening in the north-east,’ says a senior Tory, noting that as well as Moray, Banff and Buchan are ‘real targets’. On the face of it, this seems unduly optimistic. Moray has been an SNP seat since 1987 and Robertson has an 18 per cent majority, while in neighbouring Banff and Buchan, Eilidh Whiteford was elected with 60 per cent of the vote two years ago.
These are Scotland’s Brexit(ish) constituencies, though, where the support for leaving the EU was closer to the UK average of 52 per cent than the Scottish average of 39 per cent. Nonetheless, the odds are that both seats will remain SNP. The Tories may be on course to return their highest vote share since 1983, but this may not translate into more than a handful of seats. Most SNP MPs enjoy two-digit majorities; unseating nationalist incumbents will not be easy. And as in the rest of Britain, supporting the Tories is also a sign of age, not class. YouGov’s latest poll suggests 47 per cent of pensioners intend to vote Conservative but only 17 per cent of Scots under 50 will do so. Turnout differential mitigates some of those concerns but, viewed in the longer term, the party — and the union — needs a fresher, better appeal to younger voters. (It will also require a functioning Labour party in England, but that’s a different matter altogether.)
In other words, for all the progress Davidson’s party has made, the job is only half completed. The SNP has not yet enjoyed a meaningful Brexit bonus, but as Davidson is careful to acknowledge, Brexit hasn’t happened yet. The Tories’ short-term future depends on a muscular defence of the union, but the party’s longer-term interests will require the political battlefield to be expanded beyond the national question.
For the moment, though, something has stirred in Scotland. The Tories have a cause in which they believe and a leader they will follow from Annan in the south to Fraserburgh in the north. This is not the first time Sturgeon and Davidson have gone head to head. Nor will it be the last. The fate of one state and two nations hangs on who wins — not just in this election, but in the next two to come as well.
Alex Massie is Scotland editor of The Spectator.