Joyce McMillan: Tories the leading choice for Scotland's Unionists

Back in September 2014, on the morning after Scotland's independence referendum, it was obvious that something seismic had happened to the country's political landscape.

The rosette of a Scottish Conservative Party supporter. Picture: Getty Images

After years of dwindling confidence and trust, most of Scotland’s poorer communities – from inner Glasgow, through Lanarkshire, to Dundee – had finally abandoned their allegiance to the Labour Party and thrown in their lot with the cause of Scottish independence, mainly represented by the SNP; as many observed at the time, the referendum victory for the No campaign was therefore to a substantial extent a victory of the older, the well-to-do, and the more conservative-minded, over the young, the relatively poor, and those with less to lose.

And now, with the results of Thursday’s election, we can see that huge, dramatic political shift beginning to play itself out in Scottish party politics, as the SNP continue to grow, and to take seats from unionist parties, in areas like North Lanarkshire, Glasgow, the urban south-west of Scotland, and west Fife, but begin to see their share of the vote stabilising, and sometimes declining, in more prosperous areas, like Perthshire, the Borders, and parts of the North-east.

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The change is further dramatised by the continuing collapse of the Labour vote across Scotland, and the rise in Tory representation.

After three decades during which many moderate middle-class Unionists in Scotland chose to support the Labour Party of John Smith and Gordon Brown, as the strongest bulwark against independence, Ruth Davidson’s jolly and robust moderate-Scottish-Tory persona, combined with Labour disarray, seems finally – and it is a historic achievement – to have restored the Tories to their traditional position as the leading party of choice for Scotland’s Unionists.

For those who care about democracy and social justice in Scotland, this is therefore a result that offers both more opportunities, and more dangers, than seemed likely a week ago.

The opportunities include the return to a parliament in which government has to negotiate with other parties, and may depend, in many areas, on the new six-strong Green group, with their radical manifesto for a just and sustainable Scotland.

The threat, though, lies in the emergence of a leading opposition party still linked to the cruel and reactionary policies of the UK Tory government, and in the persistent practical weakness of the SNP in defending Scotland’s poorest and most vulnerable, as they have promised to do.

In the coming months, Scotland’s new Tory opposition will therefore face tough questions about whether they are really just the Scottish representatives of David Cameron and George Osborne, or are genuinely returning to a more popular, viable and useful Scottish centre-right politics.

And the SNP will face even tougher questions: about how they will respond to their new role as the prime party of hope for Scotland’s dispossessed, how hard they will work to heal those divisions by maintaining and restoring their support in more prosperous areas – and above all, how they will convince a majority of Scots across society that their prime goal of independence is profoundly linked to those goals of social justice and prosperity for all, which they have pledged to deliver.