Brian Wilson: '˜Tory-free Scotland' an appeal that is past its sell-by date

Maybe it's because of where I grew up that I never bought into the myth of Scotland as a 'Tory-free zone' or thought it particularly clever to peddle it.
Leader Ruth Davidson launches the Scottish Conservatives' general election campaign. Picture: SWNS.Leader Ruth Davidson launches the Scottish Conservatives' general election campaign. Picture: SWNS.
Leader Ruth Davidson launches the Scottish Conservatives' general election campaign. Picture: SWNS.

The idea of there being no substantial body of conservative political opinion in Scotland is as far from the truth as the one about us all being Jock Tamson’s bairns united around egalitarian values unknown to lesser peoples (particularly in England).

Rural Scotland was once dominated by Tory MPs. The first I recall was Sir Duncan MacCallum, who represented Argyll of my childhood. Ostensibly, he was the kilted scion of landed gentry with a whiff of war hero and adventurer thrown in. It was a CV to guarantee the deference vote.

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Actually, as my father enjoyed pointing out to local Tories, Sir Duncan was the son of a music hall favourite, Charles Coburn, who made his money from recording “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” rather than anything more blue-blooded. His successor, Michael Noble, was another nouveau laird whose family fortune came from munitions on Tyneside.

But image was all and for the large proportion of the electorate who supported them – over 50 per cent in 1955 - the Scottish Tories were reliable, patrician and generally consensual. Secretaries of State like James Stuart, John McLay and Noble did not frighten the children with ideological zeal. By today’s standards, they were remarkably interventionist.

They brought in new industries to places like Linwood and Bathgate. In the early 1970s, a Tory-run Scottish Office created the big local government regions which did so much to improve strategic planning – much against their own political interest. In Alick Buchanan-Smith, they had the most liberally enlightened Justice Minister Scotland has seen. They may have been opponents but were not pantomime villains.

Against that background, the eclipse of Scottish Tory representation over the past 30 years has been a distortion which was largely self-inflicted. It fed both the rise of Nationalism and an exaggerated narrative of “difference”, neither of which has proved healthy for Scotland.

Though there was some crumbling through the 1970s in face of the “Scotland’s Oil” campaign, particularly in the North-East, it was guilt by association with the Thatcher era that really did for the Scottish Tories. It did not necessarily transform people’s underlying instincts but did change their voting habits, particularly by making the SNP a “respectable” non-Labour alternative in much of Scotland.

By encouraging the “anti-Tory” mindset, the Nationalists set out to create a façade of common purpose – hence the “Tory free zone” slogan. But, of course, that created for Labour a very large trap, as some of us tried to warn, for there never was any genuine common purpose.

The SNP paid lip service to devolution but never saw it as anything other than a stepping-stone and in due course, once the scaffold was in place, turned their fire-power on Labour (while doing a deal with the Tories in 2007 to take control of Holyrood).

The current upsurge in Tory support is a long overdue development which has been awaiting some cathartic event to release it. Nicola Sturgeon’s opportunistic demand for a second independence referendum, less than three years after the last one, finally did the trick. A more productive political dynamic may yet be resumed as a result, if the constitutional issue can be side-lined.

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Headlines about the risen poor, from Ferguslie Park to Cowdenbeath, turning to the Tories in their cathartic hour owe more to poetic licence than reality. The more prosaic truth is that many Scots who identify their economic interests with right-of-centre politics and constitutional stablity now feel no barrier to saying so through the ballot box. Why should they?

For the Scottish Tories, the challenge is to confirm themselves as a modern centre-right party, freed from the baggage which put them beyond the pale for so long. It is still a tough ask which relies not only on how they currently present themselves but also the shortness of memories, including folk memories. But time does move on.

When Sturgeon relies on the assumption that snarling the word “Tory” will send voters in search of repentance, she is appealing to perceptions which are past their natural sell-by date. If much of Scotland (at that time, not yet born) can forgive the SNP for voting to bring Thatcher to power (did you know that, young people?), then it is not a big stretch to marginalise the Thatcherite bogey after 25 years.

Some of us, of course, go back even further to find reasons why our hands would fall off at the prospect of voting Tory. In industrial Scotland, they were the party of the hard-nosed employer, who hated trade unions and ground the faces of the poor. In rural Scotland, they were the party of landlordism and feudal power, capriciously exercised.

It may be that, beneath the veneer, they are still all of these things but the SNP’s mistake is to assume that is still an a priori assumption shared by many Scots, who may have been brought up not to like the Tories but find it quite difficult to equate what they see at present with the bogey-man images from the past. However, in their current flush of success, Ruth Davidson and Co should be aware that it would not take much to reverse that benefit of the doubt.

With this week’s disgraceful revelations about plummeting literacy standards in Scottish schools, it is more obvious than ever that the shadow of constitutional upheaval must be removed from Holyrood, if we are ever going to progress on any other front.

From my political position, I want to debate with the centre-right about how better to use scarce resources to stimulate the Scottish economy, educate our children, run our NHS and care for those in need. That will never happen in any intelligent, dynamic way until the constitutional issue is taken off the table and Scottish politics moves on.

On devolved issues, the Scottish Nationalists are now the party of austerity, skewed priorities and widespread incompetence in government. It should not be surprising if voters conclude it is now essential to create SNP-free zones and vote tactically to achieve that.