26 April 2017

Scotland is about to vote on independence again


Earlier this week, the Royal Mail delivered a remarkable piece of election literature to thousands of households across Scotland. It made no mention of any candidate. Nor did it refer to any policies or make any promises of any kind. Most remarkably of all, it did not even mention whether it was concerned with next month’s local elections or the general election to be held on June 8th. But then it didn’t need to.

Because it’s message was bluntly clear: “WE NEED TO SEND NICOLA STURGEON AND THE SNP A MESSAGE THEY CAN’T IGNORE. SO LET’S ALL TELL THE SNP: SCOTLAND DOESN’T WANT ANOTHER INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM.” Labour and the Liberal Democrats, it boasted, “are now too weak to stand up effectively to the SNP” and “Only Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives can send a strong message to the SNP”.

And there you have it, the alpha and omega of the Tory campaign this year. A single, all-purpose, message that can – and will – be deployed in every and any circumstance. The local elections? A chance to send a message to the SNP that Scotland doesn’t want a second referendum. The general election? The same as the local elections, but with added vim and gusto. When it comes to message discipline these days, even Theresa May must give way to Ms Davidson and her colleagues in the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party.

In this respect, the party is redeploying the same tactics it used during last year’s Scottish parliamentary elections. Then, a campaign based almost exclusively around Ruth Davidson and the need for a “strong opposition” at Holyrood was rewarded with 31 seats at Holyrood. The Scottish Tories, so long the object of condescending pity, were back.

All the available evidence is that the same tactics will be similarly successful in this general election campaign. Two recent polls put the Tories in Scotland on 28 per cent and 33 per cent of the vote respectively. Which, given the party won just 14 per cent of votes cast in 2015’s general election, represents a stunning turnaround. Anything less than 25 per cent of the Scottish vote would now be thought mildly disappointing; for the first time since Ms Davidson was at primary school – she is 38 – the Scottish Tories are burdened with high expectations.

The reasons for this remarkable turnaround are not hard to discern. Ms Davidson is a bonnie fighter in her own right but, thanks to Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, she has been given something to fight for. The Scottish Tories endured nearly 20 years in the wilderness, much of which was spent apologising for their perceived past misdeeds and plaintively asking the Scottish electorate to stop kicking them. This might have been a necessary period of penance but it gave voters little reason to vote for the Conservatives.

The independence referendum changed that. Scottish Tories, at long last, found their voice. They had something to say that was important and in which they believed. Once again, they could be a party of conviction. They believed in the Union.

Ms Davidson’s party remains a right-of-centre proposition but it is a Unionist party winning votes from other Unionists more than it is a Conservative party. That is, if push came to shove and Scottish Tories were asked to choose between their Unionism and their Conservatism, the former is increasingly a more important part of their identity than the latter.

Which is just as well since the battle in Scotland this June is not the same as the battle in England. South of the border, the election will deliver a verdict on Jeremy Corbyn’s fitness for office. In Scotland, by contrast, two different questions dominate the campaign: can the SNP’s wings be clipped or will Scotland unite once more against the prospect of a Tory government in Westminster?

Ms Sturgeon certainly hopes so. For her, as for many other middle-aged Scots whose political awakening came in the 1980s, Tory has always been, remains, and ever will be, a four-letter word. Only the SNP, the First Minister says, can “stand up” for Scotland and restrain an otherwise “unfettered” Tory party.

The SNP’s essential message is no more subtle than the Conservatives’ pitch to Scottish voters: “The Tories are Them; We are Us. Vote for Us. Vote for Scotland.” Only the SNP can “protect” Scotland against the worst ravages of a Conservative government obsessed with a “hard” Brexit and, allegedly, determined to claw back powers to Westminster that were once devolved to Edinburgh.

If this tune seems familiar it’s because it is. Once upon a time, Labour deployed precisely this message to warn Scottish voters that the Tories were intrinsically hostile to Scottish interests and realities. Only Labour could be a shield or a bulwark to offer relief and sanctuary. And it worked. Mrs Thatcher’s majorities allied with Tory hostility to devolution slowly but surely helped make the case that Scotland suffered a “democratic deficit” that could only be mitigated by the creation of a Scottish parliament.

Now even that parliament – charged with legislative control of education, health, transport, income tax and some welfare responsibilities – is too weak to protect Scots from the hated Tories. And, besides, if 90 per cent or more of Scottish constituencies return SNP members, even as the Conservatives win a landslide in England, the democratic deficit argument returns, this time with added piquancy.

According to the nationalists, this would demonstrate again that Scotland and England are diverging places with increasingly distinct political cultures. So much so, in fact, that independence is not just sensible or desirable but acutely necessary.

Labour’s self-destruction has a part to play in this narrative. Jeremy Corbyn is open to a second referendum and his equivocation is a gift to the Tories whose Unionism allows them to speak to and be heard by the 55 per cent of Scottish voters who rejected independence in 2014. That has dramatically expanded the potential Tory vote. You don’t need to be right of centre or a Tory to back a Tory candidate in this election.

Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon warns that Labour’s walk into its own wilderness will leave the Conservatives in power for years to come. Does Scotland really want 20 years of Tory government? Or might there be a better way?

Ms Sturgeon believes, with some reason, she already has a popular and parliamentary mandate for a second referendum on independence. But it is also the case that while the SNP will win a thumping victory in Scotland this June, the scale of that triumph still matters.

It becomes harder to maintain the fiction that the Tories are an unwelcome “other” if one in four or more Scots is happy to endorse Tory candidates. Equally, if the SNP vote falls from 50 per cent to, perhaps, something south of 45 per cent then Ms Sturgeon’s claim to speak for Scotland is correspondingly weakened. Reality matters but so does the perception of that reality.

In truth, there is a danger some Unionists risk losing the run of themselves. Predictions of a dozen or more Unionist gains are excessively optimistic. Even so, it is not difficult to imagine the Lib Dems winning in Edinburgh West and East Dunbartonshire and equally easy to think the Tories have a real chance of picking up a  handful of seats from the SNP too.

For that to happen, however, anti-SNP voters must gravitate towards the most likely non-SNP candidate. That was the story of last year’s Holyrood election at which the SNP lost its overall majority but it would be a surprise if the nationalists sustained much more than half a dozen losses. And, possibly, not even that.

Everything in this election, however, comes down to the national question. The post-referendum realignment of Scottish politics is not yet complete and it is no coincidence that it favours the two parties who largely enjoyed themselves in 2014: the SNP and the Tories. Scottish politics is a game of identities these days and that benefits the nationalists and patriots on both sides of the great constitutional divide.

The SNP cannot walk away from independence any more than the Tories can walk away from the Union. That ensures that while this election does not have independence on the ballot paper, it remains a proxy referendum on the idea, or desirability, of a second independence referendum. Everything else – including policy – is just a secondary matter.

Alex Massie is a political commentator