Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
While it is tempting to see the history of the Scottish Conservatives as being one of decline and fall since the gilded day in 1955 when the party won a majority of votes and seats, it is inaccurate. The Conservative ascendancy was a relatively short period in Scottish political history, and the product of the particular alignment of political forces in the mid-twentieth century. But the longer history is more interesting than the simple tale of decline would suggest. It is a cyclical story of periodic reconstruction and revival punctuated by long periods of decline.
Scotland’s history as stony ground for the Tories does not start in 1997, or 1987, or even in 1959. It is essentially the default state of politics north of the border. From the Great Reform Act of 1832 until the present day, with the exception of the confused period of party politics in the inter-war period, the Conservatives have only won majorities in Scotland twice in general elections: 1900 and 1955. Neither time was it by a comfortable margin – two seats in 1900; one seat in 1955.
Political conservatism is most likely to attract popular support where the pattern of land ownership has an element of legitimacy and consent. This manifestly did not exist in Ireland under the Union, and was weaker in the Scotland of the clearances and absentee landlords than in rural England. In Ireland and Scotland, as soon as the franchise was widened and intimidation became less easy, the feelings of the tenants about their Tory, Anglophile landlords surged through into politics. Scotland’s towns were also shaped by long years as fortified outposts in a turbulent country and were often overcrowded and squalid, in need of reforming energetic government.
Scotland’s different religious history (the 1707 Act of Union maintained the Presbyterian Church of Scotland) also meant that the identification with the Church of England that was part of the Tory identity in England was not present in Scotland. The Liberals commanded the Scottish political landscape. From 1832 until 1841, the number of Scottish Conservative MPs increased from 10 to 22, but it then declined in every subsequent election until the Third Reform Act, with the sole exception of 1874; in 1880 the Tories were reduced to six seats in the face of Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign.
The upheaval of 1885-86 brought a transfusion of energy to the right of Scottish politics. The Liberal Unionists, who split with Gladstone over Home Rule for Ireland, gave an instant boost to numbers, electing 27 Unionists out of 70 seats in 1886. They built a bridge to the small town, respectable Presbyterian Liberal vote. With Ireland in the background, the Liberals in disarray, the Unionists making some progress on land and religious issues, and many Scots serving in the war in South Africa, the Scottish Unionists won their elusive victory in 1900.
As the politics of Irish Home Rule sharpened and the political identity of Ulster Unionism emerged, the conflict was brought to the west of Scotland because of the intimate social and economic links between Belfast and Glasgow. But an infusion of orange could only help in a limited number of seats. The downward trend resumed. Scotland participated in the Liberal landslide of 1906 and, in contrast to England, the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists continued to lose seats in Scotland in 1910, and were back to single figures. In 1912, they merged officially.
Just as the Scottish Conservatives were dwindling again, the political realignment around the First World War gave the party a new lease of life. The Tories did well in the (second) khaki election of 1918, and their National Liberal allies were strong in Scotland as well. Even in 1922, the spirit of coalitionism was still strong in Scotland, and the electoral pact was maintained between the Unionists and the National Liberals, while it usually lapsed in England. A new threat was emerging from Labour, which made big electoral inroads in the west of Scotland in 1922, winning 10 out of 15 seats in Glasgow. Clydeside Labour was more militant than the cautious union bureaucrats and Fabians of the English party, and once again the Conservatives and the centre-right Liberals were thrust together in the face of a common enemy; Labour v Tory politics began earlier in Scotland than it did at Westminster.
Many of the rural seats gained from the Liberals in 1924 remained Conservative until the 1970s, such as Aberdeenshire East, where Bob Boothby held the seat until his peerage in 1958. The accession of another group of National Liberals in 1931 set the seal on the realignment, and allowed the Unionists to expand into the Highlands. Scottish and English voting behaviour converged, which was a tribute to the breadth of the Scottish Unionist appeal, because Scotland’s industrial structure and religious heritage were nowhere near as supportive as in England.
This was maintained with an eye for working class interests on the part of successive Secretaries of State who were drawn from the left of the Tory spectrum, a tradition maintained until the arrival of Michael Forsyth in 1995. If anything, the Tories were more sympathetic to devolution than Labour at the high point of Unionist ascendancy; they moved the Scottish Office to Edinburgh in 1939, and countenanced legislative devolution of some sort several times, notably with Heath’s Declaration of Perth in 1968.
Mid-century politics pushed centralisation as far as it would go. Labour’s reforms after 1945 operated at a British level, with Scotland treated as a region – the NHS, nationalised coal and railways and the welfare state were all centralising measures. There was the occasional twinge of nationalist irritation in Scotland, apparent around events such as the disappearance of the Stone of Destiny. But the Conservatives in power after 1951 did little to deliver on their hints about decentralisation. Even on the eve of Unionist triumph, the Liberals were creeping back, with a strong swing in the Inverness by-election of 1954 that presaged the recapture of the Highlands in 1964.
British heavy industry maintained an artificially large share of the world market after 1945 but, by the mid-1950s, war-devastated competitors had rebuilt their capacity and mining and heavy industry and the west of Scotland were struggling economically. The Tory governments encouraged new investment such as Ravenscraig steel works (started 1954) and the car factory at Linwood (1961), but deprived areas started to swing towards Labour in 1959, and the Glasgow Orange vote collapsed.
From 1955 to 1966, the Scottish Unionists (Conservative and Unionist as they became after 1965) dropped from 36 seats to 20. A feeble recovery in 1970 only brought them back to 23 seats – after 1966, the second worst result since 1929. The sense of Scottish distinctiveness increased in the early 1970s with the start of the oil industry and the Upper Clyde shipbuilders work-in. In the 1974 elections, the Tories lost seats that had been safe since the 1920s to the SNP, including the Moray & Nairn seat held by Gordon Campbell, the Scottish Secretary. The Scottish Tories were clearly in deep trouble even before Margaret Thatcher became leader.
Revival in 1979 and 1983 was temporary, based on the aftermath of the devolution referendum of 1979 and a split anti-Conservative vote, and the declining trend resumed with a vengeance. The divergence between Scotland and England widened to unprecedented levels in 1987: while the Scottish Tories slumped from 21 seats to 10, the huge English Conservative majority of 1983 survived almost intact (358 MPs – a loss of only four seats). The decline halted only briefly in 1992 on the way down to the dead-in-the-water level of support the party had in every election between 1994 and 2016.
By 1987, the key divide in Scottish politics was between the embattled Conservative minority and the anti-Tory majority, a chunk of which was loyally Labour, but a lot of whom would switch between Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP depending on the circumstances and who was best placed to keep the Tories out. The SNP majority government and the referendum changed this pattern. There was a huge realignment from Labour to SNP, and a corresponding sense that Yes or No on independence was the real litmus test. The 2015 Westminster election, and the 2016 Scottish election, both showed signs that voters were now switching more freely between the three unionist parties rather than among the centre-left parties. The Tories were now not an isolated and despised minority but a part of a – narrow – majority, and were better placed to deliver an effective opposition to the SNP at Holyrood than the alternatives. They also recaptured some of their centre-right vote from the SNP in Moray, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire for the first time since 1992, consolidating the advances that had been apparent for some years in the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway.
Ruth Davidson’s success in 2016 was real but relative. With 22-23 per cent of the vote, it was the Scottish Tories’ best result since 1992, but that is not a very high target. But it would be churlish to deny her personal achievement; Edinburgh Central is surely the most intellectual, liberal constituency to have a Tory representative. Detoxifying the party was partly down to her common sense, good-humoured and modern approach to leadership, and the end of the whiff of arrogance that came from an ancestral memory of the 1931-1959 ascendancy, but was also enabled by the change in the frame of Scottish politics from left/ right to Yes/ No.
The Scottish Conservatives have been capable of periodic upticks in their support without any outside assistance, as in 1874, 1970 and 1983, but it has always taken a realignment incorporating Liberals to break out of a declining trend – as it did after 1886, 1918 and 1931.
Some argue that this historical pattern has prevented the growth of an authentically Scottish, authentically conservative party, but it is more tempting to think of it as a symptom rather than a cause of the weakness of centre-right politics in Scotland. There is the possibility that some creative politics from Davidson and her colleagues could engineer a similar feat over the next few years, involving a more explicitly detached status from the Westminster Conservative Party, and some concessions to social democratic and liberal politics. In exchange, the Unionists could again receive the benefits of a realignment.
The Conservative Party in Scotland is a fragile plant, exotic to its environment but surviving because it has been strengthened by periodic grafts of hardier rootstock from other compatible native varieties, as the Scottish Conservatives managed in the 1880s, 1920s and 1930s. A further graft from the remnants of Labour and the LibDems might be the best way of preserving the Union, providing an alternative government to the SNP, and returning perhaps to 1970s levels of support – and it would be entirely in line with the party’s history.
Further reading: David Torrance (ed) – Whatever happened to Tory Scotland? Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. No doubt the industrious Mr Torrance will have an updated edition for us before long.