Scots Tories: On Probation

Assessment time and it’s been a uniquely Scottish revolution

Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale.

A third SNP government term was expected, and duly arrived. However two points stand apart, firstly the loss of their majority and secondly, the sheer strength of the Scottish Tory revival. These happenings took almost all of us by surprise.

Expectation management

The first point comes down to a large extent to expectation management. The SNP failed to manage the hubris, and as a result the loss of their majority comes as a surprise. It proves a costly error on the part of Nicola Sturgeon et al. For the notion that they might not replicate their 49.97% (FPTP) share of the national vote  circa GE2015 never occurred. And when it did, in the dying days of the Holyrood election, their stock mantra ‘both votes SNP’ proved frail.

But let’s not ignore the elephant in the room, the SNP won 47% (FPTP Holyrood), they won a historic third term in government in Edinburgh. Their success continues to lay down a significant challenge to unionist (small ‘u’) voters and politicians across our nation. Their lack of a majority does however suggest something more fundamental: peak SNP has been reached. Their numbers show this:

2011: 45.4% (FPTP)

2015: 49.97% (GE2015)

2016: 46.5% (FPTP)

Expectation management going forward into this new Holyrood parliament will demand the SNP leadership acknowledge a truth that Labour before them never could. A simple truth that ‘non-SNP’ is and remains the popular majority. Gerry Hassan, pro-independence writer and blogger writes about exactly this. Shifting their eyes ahead demands that the SNP acknowledge this, whether they can or shall remains an open question.

The Ghost of Thatcher

The second point I outlined in the opening concerned the sheer strength of the Scots Tory revival. Now yes, to an extent this is also concerning ‘expectation management’, but this can be overplayed. The honest truth is, none of us expected 31 Scots Tory MSPs. I didn’t, I would’ve been happy with 20-22.

Primarily the sheer strength of the Tory vote in Scotland, sitting at 22.9% (Regional Holyrood) isn’t far off the 25.9% secured in 1992 under John Major. What this suggests is a Scots Tory Party which has succeeded in rediscovering a social base. If this proves to be a correct assessment, their second place finish isn’t a short-termist event.

This isn’t the 1980s anymore. A demographical shift has occurred, spitting ‘Tory’ as an insult at someone just doesn’t cut it as legitimate political discourse anymore. I for one doubt Nicola Sturgeon or Kezia Dugdale have it in them to acknowledge this fact. It is far more likely they’ll continue to imagine that ‘Tory’ is a dirty word, and by doing so condemn and ignore the aspirations of the 22.9% who voted Scottish Tory. Gerry Hassan helpfully points out the sneering comment by SNP MP Tommy Sheppard. He comments that the Tory revival only takes ‘them’ back to the popularity enjoyed under ‘Thatcher in the mid-1980s’. He spectacularly misses the point. The ghost of Thatcher is lost on young millenials like myself. I was born in 1989, ‘Thatcher this’ and ‘Thatcher that’ is a history lesson, and one I’ve heard before. And that tired mantra of ‘Tory bad’ and ‘Maggie milk snatcher’ is lost on younger, middle income Scots who look at Ruth and see someone talking our language.

A language of lower tax, more enterprise, better employment prospects, affordable home ownership, and an end to the crippling uncertainties of constitutional griping.

Where next for Scottish Labour?

This is the final issue to wrestle with. And one which presents the clearest answers. For I have no doubt that the Labour decline represents the loss of their social base. Just as the SNP has taken over the low-income urban working class, the Tories have taken from Labour the more affluent middle income suburban and rural voter. Eastwood, Dumfries, Ayr Central, Edinburgh Central, and the huge vote increases seen in places like rural Aberdeen and Tayside illustrate this. Labour have lost their social base, much akin to how the Scots Tories lost ours in 1997.

Where next for Scots Labour? Stagnation and further decline unless they can answer two simple questions: 1) who do you represent? and 2) what are you for?

On the former point, it is no longer clear. The legacy of the independence referendum has pulled from Scots Labour any pretence that they speak for the urban working classes of Scotland central belt. Truth be told, the 45% who voted ‘yes’ just aren’t prepared to contemplate voting Labour anymore. And we know that the YES vote was highest among lower socio-economic groups. So clearly unionist Labour, busily trying to out-unionist the Tories doesn’t and can’t speak for them. And as to the latter question, ‘what are you for?’, that isn’t entirely clear either.

They tried ditching all of their ‘New Labour’ policies and subsequently lost centrist middle income Scots to the Tories. They replaced it with traditional social democratic policy faire only to find the SNP since the referendum had already swallowed that ground up from under their feet.

And just look at the Scottish Labour decline in raw figures (FPTP Holyrood):

1999: 38.8%
2003: 34.6%
2007: 32.9%
2011: 31.7%
2016: 22.6%

Have they finally bottomed out? I doubt it, not with the SNP, Greens happily occupying their former social vote base – and arguably doing it more effectively than the dying days of SLAB Scotland could manage.

Parting round-up

The SNP have swallowed up the former Scots Labour social vote base. The Scots Tories have rediscovered theirs, thought permanently lost since 1992. And the old anti-Tory mantras of Scottish politics no longer hold much sway over younger voters coming through. Ruth Davidson hit the nail on the head when she described the Scots Tories position as ‘on probation’. We could as easily fall back as quickly as we came back unless we get the tone right over the next five years. But Ruth realises this, and shall be sure to repeat the sure touch she learned from her mentor Annabel Goldie circa the 2007 minority government parliament.

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