Saturday, 19 April 2014

Down, not Out

A common theme on the internet and in conversation that emerges from the separatist camp is if we get Independence, the Tories will never rule Scotland again. It's an interesting idea, but it suffers from two common defects that lie at the heart of the Yes campaign - ignorance of Scotland's past and short-sightedness when it comes to the country's future.

I'm old enough to remember when Scotland was a Tory stronghold. The party that sent the most Scottish MPs to Westminster until the early 1960s was the Unionist party, a separate entity from the Conservatives south of the border, but one which shared a common conservative ideology with their Saxon siblings. As Wikipedia reminds us, much of the the Unionists' strength lay in the fact that it could claim a Scottish identity, which their primary opponents, the London-based Labour party, could not. It was also closely linked with the Church of Scotland, a mirror of the Sassenach saying that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer.

In 1955, 50.1% of the electorate voted Unionist and gave them 36 of the nation's 71 seats, the only political party to ever achieve a majority in Scotland. (Yes, Salmond and Sturgeon, the only party ever to do so.) That was the peak of its achievements. The social and political changes that swept Britain in the 1960s began the weakening of establishment ties that have continued to this day. In 1965 the Unionists merged with the Conservatives, although its name remains in the official party designation today as the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

The indifference of many Scots to the Tories turned to hostility as during Margaret Thatcher's premiership, most notably during her implementation of the poll tax and that hostility remains in a large segment of the population today. And the fact that only 15% of Scots voted Tory in the 2011 Holyrood elections is evidence for many that the party will never gain power in Scotland again. Yet this is wishful thinking. A Yes vote in the referendum would bring the paradoxical result of the SNP's greatest triumph and the beginning of its downfall. With its primary goal achieved, the party would have to focus on governing the country and at that point it would become clear whether it saw itself of the left, the right or - heaven help us - populist. And if the vote is No, the SNP would, like its Parti Quebecois cousins, find itself increasingly irrelevant.

Whichever way the vote goes, once the distraction of the referendum is out of the way, Scottish politics will almost certainly revert to the left-right model common to Western democracies. Assuming the SNP stays on the left rather than revert to its right-wing roots, many of its current supporters are likely to return to the Conservative fold. Under independence or devolution, therefore, expect the Tories to gain more votes and seats in future Holyrood elections; do not be surprised if a right-wing government comes to power in Holyrood in the next ten or twenty years. If you think a Yes vote guarantees a social democratic paradise, think again. The Tories may be down in Scotland, but they are certainly not out.

For the record, I have voted Conservative once in forty years. I have no intention of doing so in the 2015 Westminster elections. I will probably abstain in the 2014 European elections, while voting Labour in Hackney, where I am currently registered, because the local council seems to me to be performing well. Despite being Scottish-born, Scottish-speaking, owning property in Edinburgh and spending several months a year in the Scottish capital, I am denied a vote in the forthcoming Scottish referendum. When I complete my move to Edinburgh later this year I have no idea which party I will vote for, for Westminster, Holyrood or the local council, or whether I will abstain. Alternately, I will vote for the first political party that understands and responds to the critical long-term social, financial and environmental situation in which this country finds itself in.  

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