Oh Snap

Why Scotland Stopped Hating the Tories

At the local elections last week, there was a Tory "surge" in a country that prides itself on its lack of Conservatives.
May 8, 2017, 1:17pm
Scottish Tory Leader Ruth Davidson (Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images)

In a barrage of bad suits, sparkly Union Jack heels and identical Tory-boy haircuts, the Conservatives stormed back into the frontline of Scottish politics last week, as the results of Thursday's local elections became clear.

"There was only one winner last night," they declared, the day after picking up 155 fewer seats than the SNP. But as their opponents pedantically pointed out that the SNP had actually won, it was really besides the point. The Tories had more than doubled their representation on Scotland's councils and, after finishing ahead of Labour in last year's Scottish Parliament elections, cemented their place as the second force in Scottish politics. What's more, they had picked up seats that include within them some of the country's most deprived communities.

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Suddenly, everyone was talking of a "Tory surge", and there was a lot to celebrate for the bright young hopes of Scottish Toryism who had, overnight, found themselves thrust into the spotlight.

"I'm not much of a partier," concedes Euan Blockley, one of the new Conservative intake to Glasgow City Council, when I ask him how his weekend has been. Aged 19, he is now the youngest councillor in Scotland. "I've just been taking it easy – it's all a bit surreal," he says. "My mum said sleep on it and it might seem more real. I've slept on it and it still seems pretty surreal."


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It's more than just the candidates themselves who are finding the idea of triumphant Tories in post-industrial central Scotland unusual. Last week saw the Conservatives gain seats in Glasgow's Calton, where life expectancy was famously – if inaccurately – once said to be 54, and in Ravenscraig, a name synonymous with Scotland's industrial past, even if its huge steel mill has now been replaced by Wimpey homes.

The trend was repeated elsewhere. Across Lanarkshire, West Lothian, the Highlands and Fife, the Tories crept into seats that were once firmly no-go areas. It is a remarkable turnaround for a party that has had a long period in the doldrums of electoral irrelevance in Scotland, the butt of tedious jokes about being in a country with more pandas than Tory MPs.

Blockley represents a ward on the southside of Glasgow that takes in some of its wealthier suburbs alongside Castlemilk, a solidly working class post-war housing scheme. Describing himself as "new breed of Conservative, a Ruth Davidson Tory", he puts his party's recent success north of the border down to their "strong opposition" to the SNP and their unerring resistance to a second referendum on independence.

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Like many of those now active on all sides of 2017 Scottish politics, Blockley and many of the young Tories were brought into campaigning by the indyref a few years ago, when 16-year-olds were able to vote for the first time. In his case, he then joined UKIP before falling out with the party a year ago. A quick rise up the ranks of the Scottish Tories followed.

"I was 16 when I first got involved in campaigning against independence during the referendum. Since then, I wanted to take it one step further and actually make it my job. It now is my job to fight for local services, for better roads, and to fight the SNP," he says.

Blockley adds that he will make it his mission to "fight young people's corner", so I ask him what his party has to offer young people in Castlemilk, where 40 percent of children grow up in poverty. "We can offer them the security of the United Kingdom," he says.

"There are different elements to the Tory revival, from rural constituencies where small-c conservative voters are 'returning home' to the detoxified Tories, to the Rangers FC fans singing 'we all voted for a Tory government' in a beer garden in Glasgow on Saturday"

That's the line the Tories have been relentlessly pursuing over the past few months in Scotland, with critics accusing them of obsessing over the constitution at the expense of day-to-day issues, ironically the same charge that they in turn level at the SNP.

But it's the key factor in the Tory revival. The party has gone in hard on opposition to independence, and in doing so shored up the unionist vote across Scotland that did, after all, win in 2014. In the same way that Labour across the UK has rarely managed to outdo the Tories when it comes to appeasing right-wing voters on cutting welfare or slashing immigration, Scottish Labour now finds itself helpless in the face of a resurgent Tory unionism, but unwilling to change tack.

There are different elements to the Tory revival, from rural constituencies where small-c conservative voters are "returning home" to the detoxified Tories, to the Rangers FC fans singing "we all voted for a Tory government" in a beer garden in Glasgow on Saturday. If you wanted to, you could even view it within the polarising trend of politics across the world and a wider reaction against liberal, progressive values.

It is also important to put the Tory success into perspective. In Calton in the east end of Glasgow, the party won a seat with 11 percent of first preference votes, bulked up by transfers in later rounds. In Paisley North West, a ward which many were quick to point out includes Scotland's most deprived area, Ferguslie Park, the successful candidate received just 13 percent of first preferences. In that light, it seems like more of a quirk of the electoral system than any real surge, although other areas were more clear cut.

The Tories will be going into June's General Election hoping to put splashes of blue across the near uniformly SNP-yellow electoral map of Scotland, and in a handful of constituencies it could be a tight race. For a country that bases a substantial part of its self-image on hating Tories, it's a lot to come to terms with. @parcelorogues