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How Scotland Found Itself Backing the Conservatives

How come so many people in the famously anti-Tory country voted Tory?

by Liam Turbett
13 June 2017, 6:30am

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson (Lesley Martin/PA Wire/PA Images)

Scotland did the unthinkable last week and elected loads of Tories. This is a country that was condemned by Fox News for partying on the street when Thatcher died; where the legacy of the Poll Tax and deindustrialisation are still election issues; and which bases a large part of its self-image on a near mythical hatred of the Conservative Party.

So what the hell happened? To properly understand, it's worth looking back to 2014, when Scotland had its own "Corbyn moment" of unfiltered optimism that things were about to change forever. Sneering critics who said it could never happen? Check. A youthful mass movement that stretched the boundaries of what was deemed possible? Check.

It's easy to draw comparisons between that year's campaign for Scottish independence and the recent Corbyn-led Labour surge. Both started from a low base and enjoyed a steady climb up the polls. Each relied heavily on turnout from the young and previously disengaged working class voters. This support was brought into campaigning by social media, a raft of celebrity endorsements and, above all, a sense of sheer hope in the face of a deeply hostile media. Equally, neither campaign actually won, yet still managed to leave their opponents in total disarray in the aftermath, with a conviction that they would prove to be on the right side of history.

Scotland's vibrant movement for independence was rapidly subsumed by the SNP, whose membership spiralled to over 100,000 and neatly translated into the party taking 95 percent of Scottish seats at the 2015 general election. The SNP were an unstoppable force, and independence remained on the agenda. It was just a waiting game – once a "natural majority" emerged, as seemed inevitable over the next decade, mechanisms could be put in place for another referendum and it would be difficult for any Westminster government to disagree.

Then Brexit changed everything. In a bid to seize the agenda in a country where the 62 percent voted remain, the SNP began gearing up for another referendum, much earlier than the usually risk-averse party had ever anticipated.


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Figures in the party now concede that the rush towards another referendum was a misjudging of the public mood, not least because many of the key weaknesses of their 2014 prospectus – a fluctuating oil price, questions over currency – remaining unresolved. But Sturgeon's announcement of another referendum meant the issue would continue to dominate Scottish politics. As the SNP's Westminster candidates tried to push it to one side and shift focus to Brexit, their opponents gleefully brought the issue up at every opportunity.

No one was more effective at this than the Scottish Conservatives, who fought last week's vote on the single issue of opposing a second referendum, allowing them to avoid the awkward matter of standing up for their own record in government. In a country where the party was wiped out in 1997 and since 2001 has had just one MP, they now have 13.

Overnight, a key plank of the independence argument – that Scotland repeatedly gets Tory governments that it never votes for – has disappeared. We now have a situation in which Theresa May's government is reliant on a sizeable bloc of Scottish Tory seats that, if they had been held by the SNP, would likely have meant Corbyn stepping into Downing Street.

On the face of it, vote share appears to have gone straight from the SNP to the Tories, and in more rural areas of the country – like the old SNP heartlands of the north east – that may well have been the case. Elsewhere, it was probably more complicated, with unionists coalescing around the Tories and left-wing voters attracted to Labour, who defied all expectations to pick up seven Scottish seats. And while the SNP still did well, winning 35, there was a universal swing against them that suggested they simply hadn't been able to get their own vote out.

"People voted SNP [in 2015] as the logical extension of voting Yes, but they didn't engage with the party's politics in the same way, because those politics are very different. They're very boring, and about managing the economy," says Rory Scothorne, co-author of Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland. "Voting yes was about changing the economy for a lot of people. Those people have seen what the SNP does with power, and not seen any reason to turn out this time."

That argument seems compelling. While turnout in England soared, in Scotland it fell from the last election, when the country was still on a post-indyref high of democratic engagement. This time nearly half a million fewer people voted SNP, Labour gained just 10,000 votes, and the Tories gained over 300,000.

The Scottish right are now buoyant, in contrast to Tory turmoil elsewhere. So long as there's a strong pro-independence party in the SNP, the Tories will be on hand to hoover up anti-indy voters. Scottish Labour tried, and largely failed, to run a campaign along similar lines. One Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, told the Sunday Herald that a stronger focus on Corbyn's manifesto "that was bringing in people from across the Yes-No divide", rather than just opposing independence, could have seen the party win 15 MPs and beat the Conservatives north of the border.

While the Tories had the referendum issue and Labour had a radical manifesto, the SNP were left with little to motivate anyone. "The trouble is that the SNP doesn't have the kind of internal conflict that can generate new ideas," says Scothorne. The party's wider approach to politics reflects this – at elections last year, they published a leaflet posing the question "Who benefits most from our policies?" with "everybody" as the answer, beside a beaming Nicola Sturgeon. It stands in stark contrast to Labour, who at this election promised to stand for the "many not the few", directly raising questions of power and wealth.

The idea of Scotland being "anti-Tory" also disguises the fact that the country does actually have its fair share of right wing voters. They can now vote for Ruth Davidson's detoxified Tories, safe in the knowledge that devolution will shield them from many of the party's worst excesses – Tory pledges to maintain Winter Fuel Payments and free prescriptions, but only in Scotland, being good examples.

"You've got to look beyond simple anti-independence sentiment. It's a proxy for a much deeper wellspring of right-wing opinion, part of which is a reaction to the joy and excitement that came out of the Yes campaign," says Scothorne. "People wanted to stamp on its face a bit, and voted Tory as a way of punishing young people for voting Yes."

The test for the SNP is to try and recapture some of the Yes energy of three years ago, as the class and generational dividing lines in the nation's politics bed in. If Brexit is perhaps not the defining issue they thought it was, then trying to find other ways to stop more of their supporters drifting to Corbyn's Labour will be a challenge.

@parcelorogues

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Election 2017