Brian Wilson: Time to fight SNP on issues they ignore

WHETHER you're true blue Tory or red Labour, it's time to fight on the issues the SNP ignores, writes Brian Wilson
Scottish leader Ruth Davidson is being credited with leading a revival, rather than a regrouping of Tory support. Picture: HemediaScottish leader Ruth Davidson is being credited with leading a revival, rather than a regrouping of Tory support. Picture: Hemedia
Scottish leader Ruth Davidson is being credited with leading a revival, rather than a regrouping of Tory support. Picture: Hemedia

A couple of opinion polls have given rise to excited talk of a Tory revival in Scotland. The evidence remains sparse but, rationally, it would be surprising if such a phenomenon was indefinitely delayed.

The myth of Scotland being a “Tory-free zone”, or something approximating to it, is well past its sell-by date. There are plenty of Tories in the Scotland, and I have known this all my life. They own the land. They run the banks. Some of them are unscrupulous exploiters and others are very nice people, just the same as anywhere else.

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What disappeared was not the presence of right-wing thinking in Scotland – quite the opposite – but its representation through the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. At minimum, this meant that around a fifth of Scottish votes elected hardly anybody, which was very different to the pretence of a “Tory-free” Scotland.

The problem for the Scottish Tories was that a large proportion of their natural support stopped voting Tory and satisfied themselves, from the Thatcher era onwards, with a more respectable anti-Labour vote. So they turned in large numbers to the Nationalists, creating the SNP’s heartlands from Banff to Brechin.

Labour’s dimmer elements joined cheerfully in the “Tory free zone” mantra, oblivious to its inherent perils. There are many good grounds for not liking the Tories. But one of them was never that they did not have a legitimate role in Scottish political life, or that those who supported them were any less Scottish than those who opposed them.

It did not take Old Moore to foresee that having blackguarded the Tories as an alien, anti-Scottish force, and driven them from rural Scotland, the Nationalists would turn to playing the same trick on Labour – which they have now done with consummate success, using the same tactics of denigration and alienation, while claiming the mantle of things they had nothing to do with.

Yet is there really any interest that binds together the yeoman farmers of Buchan and the sinister bampots screaming “Red Tory” in the face of anyone who dared wear a Labour rosette in Easterhouse? Ostensibly, the common cause is independence and on that basis they need each other. Otherwise it is a tenuous alliance, ripe for challenging, from both Right and Left. Nationalist voters who baulked at independence represent an obvious market for the Scottish Tories. • READ MORE: Andrew Whitaker: Nicola Sturgeon could help pro-EU vote

They need only persuade their natural followers that voting SNP can no longer be seen as a risk-free, tartan-wrapped, conservative option. Anyone who doesn’t want another referendum and more years of constitutional wrangling shouldn’t vote for it. That is not a complicated message.

There is some evidence they are getting better at communicating it. But, just as for Labour, the most effective way to challenge the new Scottish Establishment is by dealing with real issues that affect people in their daily lives. From wherever one observes the faces of the town hall clock, there are grounds for challenging the façade of competence and “standing up for Scotland”.

To take one example, from what used to be a largely Tory constituency, few of Scotland’s farmers would now associate the word “competence” with anything coming out of Edinburgh. Scottish agriculture has suffered its worst year for earnings since the 1990s and its difficulties have been compounded by an epic failure to pay out the EU subsidies on which most farmers depend.

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The new Basic Payment Scheme is a fiasco with the vast majority still waiting for money that has been lying in the Scottish Government bank account for months. A new computer system costing £180 million doesn’t work. As the Scottish NFU points out, this equates to £10,000 per applicant, which seems a strange spending priority, even if did what it is supposed to.

When asked to split the payments and get money to hard-pressed farmers last autumn, Scottish ministers did what they normally do – blame someone else. The Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, had to specifically repudiate their assertion that EU rules did not allow payments to be made before the year end. Farmers are still waiting.

The treatment of crofters has been even worse. Only 1 per cent of them has had anything. Any profit on agricultural activity is absolutely marginal, no bank will offer them the time of day and many are simply giving up. Edinburgh already inflicts a mind-numbing level of bureaucracy, out of all proportion to the size of their holdings. Competence? Concern for a fragile periphery? I think not.

This kind of issue has nothing to do with the constitution. In politics as I used to understand them, the people elected to represent the affected section of society – albeit a small minority – should be making as much noise as possible, regardless of party affiliation. But that is no longer how Scottish politics works. I have not seen one critical word from a Nationalist MSP on the dismal treatment of their agricultural constituents.

On the other side of the political fence lie the damage to local government services and job losses that are unfolding all over Scotland. These stem directly from the budgetary priorities set by the Scottish Government and are far more severe than would be necessary if councils had not been treated with disproportionate harshness.

The grim irony is that these are cuts of Thatcherite severity being imposed and defended by people who have built their careers on Scotland’s supposed loathing of that doctrine.

As history has taught us, nationalism is a difficult ideology to combat once it takes hold. The party represents itself as the nation and to attack one is to attack the other. Getting back to a form of politics in which people have a clear view of the social and economic interests they represent is a long haul. Yet without it, we end up with bland government which stands for nothing other than its sole unifying objective.

The SNP’s opponents must escape from the perception of opposing them only, or primarily, on the constitution. “Nationalist versus Unionist” is a dangerous and dishonest trap which distorts the dynamic of politics.

Tories and Labour each have very good reasons for opposing them separately, as well as – on that single issue – together.

If you doubt that, think farming and council cuts for starters.