Alex Massie

Caledonian Blues

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Ochone, ochone! The plight of the Scottish Tories has been receiving attention again this week. As Pete pointed out, the latest Tartan poll puts the Tories at just 18% north of the Tweed. This means, 12 years on from the 1997 disaster, that, in Iain Martin's words, "They’re getting absolutely nowhere, slowly."  True.

In 1979, Scottish Conservatives won 22 seats and comprised 6.5% of the UK parliamentary party. It's fair to say they'll get nowhere near that next year. But look at this list of some of the seats the Tories won thirty years ago: Aberdeenshire East, Angus South, Argyll, Banff, Galloway, Moray &Nairn, Perth & East Perthshire. Most were taken from the SNP, whose own representation slumped from 11 to just 2 MPs.

Indeed, expectations of a Tory revival in Scotland might usefully be considered in the light of the SNP's own performance in Westminster elections, for the Tories are now where the SNP was thirty years ago when they won 17% of the Scottish vote. Thirty years on, and despite having been the principle alternative to Labour for more than a decade, the Nationalists still only have six seats in London. As recently as 1992, when they took 21% of the vote, the SNP only sent three MPs to Westminster.

And here's the thing: most of those SNP seats are constituencies that, if they were in southern England, would be reliably Tory votes. The Mark of Thatcher, fairly or not, still stains the Tories in Scotland. Or, put differently, the SNP have leveraged a cultural, rather than a political, sensibility to great effect, displacing the Conservatives as the alternative to Labour and as a bulwark, at Holyrood, against Glasgow and the post-industrial counties of Renfrew and Lanark. (This also helps explain one part of the SNP's difficulties in penetrating Labour's heartland.)

The SNP is a stronger beast that Plaid Cymri which is one reason why, as Tim Montgomerie notes, there's been less sign of a "Cameron Effect" in Scotland than in Wales. But why should we even expect there to be such an effect? Most of the Tory domestic agenda - tax and debt aside - won't apply in Scotland and, alas, the Scottish Tories have resisted any temptation to apply Michael Gove's ideas for schools north of the border.

Any Tory in Scotland won't come from Westminster (though it's not impossible that, being more concentrated these days, the Tories could win five, maybe six seats next year) it will have to come via Holyrood. And there too it's a lang, lang road. Understandably so: devolution's first years were spent in a defensive, apologetic crouch. Having opposed the establishment of the parliament, Tory promises that "now we have it, let's make it work" were, while genuine, not the sort of thing the electorate was liable to take terribly seriously. A period of silent penance was required.

The time for that has passed. Since, alas, no other party is likely to share power with the Tories for the foreseeable future (though who knows, stranger things have happened and one day a Labour-Tory ministry in Edinburgh might be just about conceivable) the Tories might as well put some distance between themselves and the Holyrood mainstream. There's little point in cosying along with the consensus just for the sake of it. There's great disatisfaction with Holyrood that could, one likes to think, have been tapped by a more energetic, ambitious, intellectually self-confident Conservative party. 

Which is another reason why, incidentally, the Tories should vote for next week's Referendum Bill. If Unionism is healthy and the preferred option of the Scottish people, what's wrong with testing and proving that proposition? What are they afraid of? And, of course, a Unionist victory would go some way towards re-establishing, or de-toxifying if you like, the Tory brand in Scotland.

Eventually, and sooner rather than later, the talk of a CDU/CSU split with London needs to be revived. Britain may be secure (or not!) but a true Tory revival in Scotland seems unlikely until the party can shake-off the unfair if widely held view that it's somehow an alien or even occupying force that's fundamentally inimical to Scottish interests and "values" (whatever they may be).

But look, it's taken the Conservatives 12 years to recover south of the border where there's a 2.5 party system; it should surprise no-one that it may take longer still to make significat headway in Scotland's four party system. Just ask the SNP: it took them 30 years...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.