Gerry Hassan: Cameron victory will pose the 'Tory question'

ANNABEL Goldie has taken the brave step of acknowledging that the Conservatives have a problem in Scotland.

In a speech on Wednesday, the Tory leader in Scotland insisted that if her party wins a UK general election this year but wins few Scottish seats, it will not justify a return of the argument that the Tories have no mandate north of the Border.

This is the reality the Scots Tories face: Scotland as the only part of Britain immune to the Cameron bounce, and a place where the Conservatives have flatlined since 1997. Miss Goldie argues that the "no mandate" case is nonsense and that "this is a British general election, to elect a British government and a British PM". Have we not been here before? And wasn't devolution meant to stop all this?

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How the Scots Tories do in a UK election matters. They have one Westminster seat and, despite having targeting a total of 11, they have realistic hopes of winning only three to five seats. In terms of votes, the Scots Tories have been on 15-18 per cent for a long time in the Westminster polls. While they can say they have been a minority for a long time, as late as 1979 Margaret Thatcher won 31 per cent of the Scottish vote.

Scotland in 1979 was much more Tory than today, with 22 MPs opposed to today's one. Edinburgh was a Tory city, Glasgow and Aberdeen elected Tory MPs, and large swathes of rural Scotland were Conservative. The Tories were a national force, but even then it was not enough to stop the emergence of the "no mandate" argument.

The Scottish Parliament was meant to address this "democratic deficit" and stop us being ruled by governments with minority support that we did not vote for. But devolution did not do this – because it is not in its power to do so.

Instead, Scotland brought a host of areas home to the parliament, but left unanswered the question of the fact that, with so few Scots voting Tory, what happens when the UK returns a Conservative government?

Historically, the Tories did Unionism well. However, Mrs Thatcher changed Tory Unionism in tone, attitude and character and dealt it a powerful blow in Scotland, which the party has never fully recovered from.

David Cameron's Unionism instinctively seems to want to adapt those older, decent Tory traditions. Many challenges face such a prospect: the narrow base of Toryism; the folklore of Mrs Thatcher and, of course, the economic and social realities any government is going to inherit, with the prospect of savage public spending cuts.

The Thatcher cuts of 1979-81 are still remembered across much of Scotland in part because they hurt so much and in part because in some of the most disadvantaged areas, people never fully recovered. A Cameron government would have to implement cuts as savage and do so from a popular base much smaller and feebler, and with wider opposition from the Scottish Parliament and society.

The instinct of the UK Tories will be to seek conciliation while delivering harsh medicine, and this could come in the form of devolving more powers to Scotland. Cameron will attempt to show himself an astute politician who values the Union and Scotland's place in it. Whether most Scots will give him a listen is another thing.

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How a lot of this develops depends on how other parties react. It has been assumed that a Cameron government would be music to the ears of SNP leader Alex Salmond. It might well be, but it will be more complex and in part dependant on what Scottish Labour does.

Miss Goldie touched on this when she asked what was more important for Labour, "the short-term future of the party or the long-term future of the UK?", while pleading with Labour not to fall for the attractions of "nationalism with a small 'n'".

This is likely to become one of the defining features of Scottish politics: how the SNP and Labour compete for being the most authentic Scottish voice. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and experience of the 1980s point to Scottish Labour after a UK election defeat and in opposition in Holyrood and Westminster, going down the route of a Scottish agenda. This would be pro-autonomy, developing a distinct Scottish agenda and a new, quasi-federal relationship with the rest of the party.

This has been spoken about for years in Labour: by Jack McConnell in his youthful days; by Wendy Alexander in her brief period as leader and by Henry McLeish. The obstacle to it has been British Labour, Gordon Brown and some of the Westminster MPs who MSPs see as unreconstructed dinosaurs. The momentum for this would grow after a UK election defeat.

From this shift could emerge a new politics, which offers the prospects of the three main anti-Tory parties – Labour, SNP and the Liberal Democrats – bitterly competing for votes, but engaged in co-operation in ideas. Where this leaves the Tories is governing a cold, inhospitable northern nation, one even more immune to their charms than the experience of Thatcher and Major. This is not going to be an easy ride or comfortable for the Tories, or indeed for anyone.

What it does illustrate is the perils of devolution in an unreformed UK, with a British winner-takes-all government, and devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the English question left festering.

Miss Goldie is right to raise the questions of the "no mandate" now, although her dismissal of it is a little too shaped by party politics, and too reminiscent of 1980s Tory scorn towards home rule. There is a real set of challenges emerging for all the Scottish parties, and when Miss Goldie talks of "Unionism beating nationalism", most Scots do not see themselves in such terms.

While a politics of Unionism v nationalism refuses to go away, it also does not answer the huge challenges we face as a nation. Whoever can capture a post-Unionist, post-nationalist politics of the centre-left has the opportunity to speak for a generation of Scots hungry for a different political dispensation. That is the challenge post-election for Labour, SNP and Lib Dems.