Alex Massie

Today Wales! Tomorrow Scotland?

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Iain Dale says he has absolutely no idea why the Scottish Tories have failed to make as much headway as their Welsh counterparts.

A new opinion poll puts the Conservatives on 32% on Wales, only 3% behind Labour, and a massive 11% up on the last general election. However, in Scotland, the Conservative ratings are only marginally up on 2005, Why is this? Why are Welsh Conservatives so much more successful than their counterparts north of Hadrian's Wall?

We've ridden these marches here before, but another trip can't do any harm. The first and most obvious answer is that the SNP is a much stronger beast than Plaid Cymri for reasons that have plenty to do with the last 700 hundred years of history and the fabric of the Union since its foundation. And in Scotland it is the SNP who are the leading alternative to Labour: unhappy with Gordon Brown? Well it makes more sense - rationally speaking - to vote SNP than it does Tory. (The reverse is also true: unahppy with the SNP? Well it makes more sense to vote Labour than Tory.)

And that's because, at present, there's no prospect of the Tories holding power in Scotland. There is no "Cameron Effect" because there can't be a "Cameron Effect" when most of what he talks about has little to no bearing on life in Scotland. Tory health policy? Irrelevent. Education? Also, sadly in this instance, of no consequence north of the border. Even spending cuts - apart from welfare and defence - won't be decided in Whitehall except in as much as they have an impact on the block grant. The day to day detail will be decided by minisers in Edinburgh, not London.

Which makes it very strange that, as Alan Cochrane and Iain Martin reminded us the other day, the tactics pursued by the Scottish party are being dictated to them by Andy Coulson in London. This is not, to put it mildly, something that is likely to work. (Side-note: count this as aother reason to be sceptical of the Tories commitment to localism and subsidiarity!)

Furthermore, look at where the SNP is strongest: Perthshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Buchan. These are places that, if they were in England would all be reliably Tory seats. That they're now held by the SNP is a matter of culture and sensibility as much as it is a question of politics. Not all these SNP voters necessarily want independence, but their support for the party is the consequence of a small-n nationalism. The Tories are seen as a London party and Labour as a Glasgow party. The SNP, like Fianna Fail in Ireland, have become a catch-all home for voters who don't find either London or Glasgow attractive. Actual SNP policies are less important, individually anyway, than the aggregate sense that the party will put the "national interest" first. And whatever else one says about Maximum Eck, Salmond is very good at playing to this gallery.

In that respect, then, and in a Scottish rather than British context the SNP have stolen the Tories' clothes. They are - or at least they present themselves as - the patriotic party. Indeed, there's some correlation, I think, between the banners you see at Scotland football matches and support for the SNP. The Tartan Army hails, disproportionately, from north of the Union Canal.

So what can the Scottish Tories do? Well, free themselves from London certainly. Every so often there's talk of a CDU/CSU like relationship but it never comes to anything. But for as long as the Scottish Tories are seen as the alien representativs of an English party they will struggle, not just at Westminster but at Holyrood too. This too may be considered unfair but it's also where we seem to be and perceptions are just as stubborn as facts.

At Holyrood, of course, stronger, more decisive, even, dare one suggest, inspiring leadership would be a start. And, as I've suggested before, since no-one* seems to want to play with the Tories they have a choice: trundle along as they are or stop worrying about a comeback or even winning too many seats and become, instead, the intellectual powerhouse at Holyrood concentrating on the battle of ideas - well, having some in the first place - now in the hope that winning this will eventually set the parameters for future editions of the game. Each choice, obviously, carries risk.

Still, the Scottish Tories have stopped the bleeding. There remain something like 350,000 diehards in the blue corner. Replacing those that die each year with new believers, however, means that someday, and soon, the party will have to make a stand.

*Crazy, long-shot punt: the first party to break bread with the Conservatives in Scotland may be Labour.

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.