Alex Massie

The Tory revival in Scotland belongs to the Unionists

The Tory revival in Scotland belongs to the Unionists
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Well, then. It turns out that the revival of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party is a real thing. Last year, the party won 31 seats at the Scottish parliament elections, supplanting Labour as the second force in Scottish politics. This week, it became the second largest party in local government across Scotland. The Tories are a party reborn, the beneficiaries of an increasingly polarised political landscape. It may be ironic that Ruth Davidson’s party benefits from the SNP’s dominance but there you have it.

Caveats apply, of course. The voting system used in Scottish council elections helps the Tories. The single transferable vote is a very different beast to first past the post. That makes mapping these election results onto the general election a risky endeavour. Equally, excited reports of Tory gains - they topped the poll in one Motherwell ward! - fail to account for the fact that in a hefty number of contests the Tories only put up one candidate whereas Labour and the SNP submitted two. Nevertheless, numbers are numbers and they tell a story that cannot sensibly be denied even if many people continue to insist that what has happened has not in fact happened. There is a Scottish Conservative and Unionist revival and only fools cannot see it.

Unionist, of course, is the operative word. At polling places across Scotland on Thursday voters were greeted by Tory signs asking voters to send a message to the SNP: say no to a second referendum. Local issues did not play a significant role in the Tory campaign. Some people seem to think this tantamount to cheating. But it isn’t.

So, yes, the Tory vote was a protest vote just as, in past elections, a significant proportion of the SNP vote has also been a protest vote. Equally, it is true that in some parts of western Scotland, in particular, Jeremy Corbyn’s enthusiasm for a united Ireland is not an electorally attractive message. There has been a revival, at least in part of the west of Scotland, of the working-class, Tory Orange vote.

But if some votes were cast against Corbyn, many more were cast against Nicola Sturgeon. Of course, this was hardly a terrible election for the SNP but, allowing for adjustments for boundary changes, the nationalists actually lost seats. While they may celebrate becoming the largest party in Glasgow, they failed to win an overall majority in the dear green place. In Dundee, meanwhile, they actually lost seats an overall control. This adds to the gathering sense that the SNP vote has maxed-out. Then again, having won almost 50 per cent of the vote in 2015, the SNP could hardly go any higher. Setbacks, or modest checks on their momentum, are only relative.

Even so, the Tory revival is striking. They are now the second largest party in local government, winning seats all across the country, including in areas they’d scarcely thought they would be contenders, let alone winners. Adding 164 seats (again, as measured on notional boundaries) is a colossal triumph. And while, again, we should be careful not to read too much into this result that doesn’t mean we cannot read something into it. Turnout in most Edinburgh wards, for instance, was more than 50 per cent and in some it reached almost 60 per cent. As such, this election was perhaps more meaningful than most council elections.

Some nationalists can recognise this. Noting the scale of Tory advances across the north-east Alex Salmond admitted the SNP would have “do something” about this in five weeks time. Indeed, if the general election were to see a comparable swing to the Tories as that witnessed in these elections Salmond’s own seat in Gordon would suddenly be competitive. I still suspect that is unlikely and that the number of Tory gains next month is likely to be smaller than some excitable estimates currently suggest. It must be thought probable that while many SNP majorities will be slashed, sitting MPs will still be returned with majorities of 1500-3000 votes.

That will allow people to claim, again, that the Tory revival is more ephemeral than the media claims. After all, in 1992 the Conservatives won 11 seats in Scotland (out of 72). But this is a wilful and stubborn misreading of the situation. Since the Conservatives were wiped out in 1997 they have never since held more than one Scottish seat. At the very least they will do significantly better than that next month. And share of the vote also matters. Current polling, now bolstered by the local election results, suggests the Tories will win a greater share of the Scottish vote than at any election since 1983. Ruth Davidson was four years old then. By any reasonable estimate this revival is a real thing.

Fraser Nelson speaks to Ruth Davidson on the Spectator Podcast:

That does not mean the job is even halfway completed and Davidson, for one, appreciates this. There is a hefty difference between articulating opposition and being the vehicle for a protest vote and becoming a plausible party of government. That job has barely begun. But the very fact that the idea may even be entertained, however fancifully, is itself evidence of the Tory revival. Progress is a multi-phase business and the Tories are about to leave one phase and move on to the next.

As some of us have been suggesting for some time, the post-referendum realignment of Scottish politics along constitutional grounds continues. There is an unofficial, unspoken, Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the SNP and the Tories whereby each agrees that the Labour party is Poland and ripe for dismemberment. There is little room for a party that is seen to be equivocal on the national question. Kezia Dugdale might say No to a second referendum but she’s been undermined by Jeremy Corbyn who, repeatedly, has said he’s relaxed on that matter.

Which is no surprise. To the extent there is a constituency for Corbynism in Scotland, it is one that heavily endorsed independence in 2014. There are, for sure, exceptions to that but, overall, the far-left has already left Labour and the Westminster leadership is just as divorced from mainstream Scottish opinion as it is from middle England. Even the dolts who said Corbynism was key to a Scottish Labour revival should be capable of appreciating this by now.

Don’t bet on that, however. People will see what they want to see and if that means denying an obvious reality then so be it. Unionism is not the same as Toryism but Toryism is increasingly by far the most seaworthy vehicle for Unionism. There are seats in which Labour and the liberal Democrats are competitive and in those seats Unionists will cheerfully abandon the Tory candidate but, in general and as a rule, Ruth Davidson is the beneficiary of the ongoing political realignment in Scotland.

Realignment matters since it is hard to “other” a party that commands the support of at least one in four Scottish voters. The SNP’s case for a second independence referendum is increasingly based on the supposedly ghastly prospect of unending Tory rule at Westminster, so it matters how many Tory votes - as well as seats - there are in Scotland.

This is true next month but also in the years to come. This is not a short-term struggle but one, rather, that will be rage for the next five or ten years. The long game matters just as much as the short game. 55 per cent of Scottish voters rejected independence in 2014 and they meant what they said then. As election slogans go, this had the advantage of being true and articulating what many voters feel. That’s always a useful basis from which to begin a campaign.

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.