Euan McColm: Who's afraid of the big bad Tories?

In the good old days when Scottish Conservatives were rarely spotted in the open, they made the perfect bogeymen for both the SNP and Labour.

Ruth Davidson leads the only party in Scotland thats on course to show growing support. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
Ruth Davidson leads the only party in Scotland thats on course to show growing support. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
Ruth Davidson leads the only party in Scotland thats on course to show growing support. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

Elusive – possibly even dying out in Scotland – the Tories became a symbol of all that was malign; politicians on the left needed to do little more than mention the name Margaret Thatcher to gee up their supporters. Labour and the nationalists, alike, prosecuted the case that the Tories were the personification of evil and the broad consensus was that they were on the verge of extinction.

Last week, a poll suggested that as many as a third of Scottish voters are considering backing the Conservative Party in June’s general election. A party once considered an irrelevance in Scotland is, under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, growing stronger. The Tories are – without a doubt – back in the game.

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Where Labour was once the SNP’s primary opponent, now it is the Scottish Conservative Party that threatens the nationalists in a number of seats across the country. Scottish politics has fundamentally changed.

This being so, one might expect the SNP’s approach to the Scottish Tories 
to change fundamentally. It has not done so.

The SNP, dependent as it is on winning the faith of voters in an untested project, places greater importance on telling a story of what Scotland is than it does on matters of policy. Scottish Government ministers invited to talk about their portfolios won’t take long before explaining the ways they are held back by the existence of the United Kingdom.

The SNP has successfully told a story of a Scotland uniquely compassionate among the nations of the world. Cabinet secretaries frolic in the fountain of Scottish exceptionalism; Scots are more generous, more morally upstanding than our southern neighbours, the Westminsters.

A central part of this tale of Scottish wisdom and generosity has been the almost complete eradication of the Conservative Party from the landscape; a defining part of the Scottish identity described by the SNP is the rejection of conservatism.

That particular yarn has been righteously gubbinsed by the rise in popularity of the Scottish Tories. Now, when the SNP chooses to attack the morality of the Conservatives, it is pointing the finger not just at a convenient spectre in the shadows but at a growing number of Scottish voters

The SNP used to talk about Scotland being ruled by a Tory Party that had been completely rejected by the electorate. This line – and variations thereof – has served the nationalists well for years.

But the Scottish Conservatives are the country’s second biggest party now. It can no longer plausibly be argued that they are completely rejected by voters.

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Signs are that the SNP hasn’t yet come to grips with this new reality.

Its politicians and supporters, by and large, are still trotting out the old lines about the Tories being a spent force in Scotland. Once upon a time, that charge might have elicited a “damned right”; now it invites a “wait a minute”. The 
SNP has been uncharacteristically slow to respond to this change of Tory fortunes.

Meanwhile, in England, the Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has been dependably inept. So empty is the Labour policy cupboard (I mean, four extra bank holidays? That’s the big idea?) that its candidates also fall back on “Evil Tory” rhetoric all too easily. Of course, in the eyes of Corbyn and his political nearest and dearest, the Conservatives are nothing less than a malevolent force.

Faced with polls which suggest a Tory landslide, a group of Labour supporters has started a crowd-funder to raise money to prevent this outcome.

This is preaching to the choir stuff. There is unlikely to be broad support for a campaign to stop a Tory landslide among an electorate that has repeatedly told pollsters that it’s perfectly comfortable with a Tory landslide.

A reasonable rule to follow in politics is that, to succeed, parties should talk about the country before talking about themselves and their opponents. Voters can be persuaded to change their minds but it requires something special to make them do so. Neither the SNP narrative in Scotland or the Labour one across the UK is likely to appeal much beyond those parties’ core support.

With the Tories breathing down the SNP’s necks in seats such as deputy leader Angus Robertson’s Moray, the nationalists are going to have to come up with something better than its current lines of attack which, it seems to me, are more likely to entrench Tory support than to persuade voters to change their allegiances.

Given its starting point, with just one MP in Scotland, the Conservative Party will count any victory against the SNP as a significant step forward.

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Recent predictions, based on polling, of anything up to a dozen Tory MPs being sent to Westminster from Scotland are a little reckless for my taste. But if Davidson doesn’t help her party take at least another three seats in Scotland I’ll be very surprised indeed.

It is not just the number of seats won that matters to the Scottish Conservatives. The party wants to take a vastly increased share of the popular vote across the country. Scottish Labour’s ongoing decline means this will happen.

After 8 June, Davidson will be able to claim not only to be the leader of opposition to a second referendum, she’ll be able to claim she has the wind at her back.

Yes, all parties have a ceiling on the support they can expect to achieve and it may be that the Tories in Scotland are about to hit theirs. It will take more elections for us to discover whether this is so.

But for now, Davidson leads the only party in Scotland that’s on course to show growing support.

For years, both the SNP and Labour pledged to ensure Scotland remained a Tory-free zone. Now that Scotland has decided it doesn’t want that, the Conservatives’ opponents need a new line of attack.