“He told me of evictions in the year…It was far more than a political grievance. It was the lament of the conservative for vanished days and manners. ‘Over in Skye wass the fine land for black cattle, and every man had his bit herd on the hillside. But the lairds said it was better for sheep and then they said it wass not good for sheep, so they put it under deer, and now there is no black cattle anywhere in Skye’. I tell you it was like sad music on the bagpipes hearing that old fellow. The war and all things modern meant nothing to him; he lived among the tragedies of his youth and his prime.
“I’m a Tory myself and a bit of a land-reformer, so we agreed well enough…I told him that after the war, every acre of British soil would have to be used for the man that had earned the right to it.” (John Buchan, Mr Standfast.)
In modern times, the three legs of the Conservative Party’s stool have been economic liberalism, social conservatism, and patriotic feeling – a love of Britain’s institutions. It may still be able to stand if one of those legs goes wonky, as one of them certainly has since the 2010 election at least. (“What’s happened to social conservatism?” would make an interesting series for this site.) But that stool certainly can’t stay solid or serviceable if two legs give way – let alone all three.
There is no real evidence that today’s Scotland is any more or less socially conservative than the rest of today’s Britain. But there is plenty of evidence that national feeling in Scotland has gradually, over the past 50 years, identified itself more and more with Scotland alone rather than with Scotland and the other parts of the United Kingdom – especially England. Indeed, escape from England is bound up Scottish nationalism, hence the higher support in Scotland for EU membership.
Thus, too, the stark polls that suggest that Scotland could vote for independence in less than a fortnight. The causes can be debated back and forth: the end of Empire (in which Scotland played a big role: between 1885 and 1939, one third of colonial governor-generals were Scots), the decline of Protestantism, the fading-away of wartime memories. Roll these reasons together and you have the decline of Scottish Unionism itself – as an idea, as a force.
After all, the Conservative Party in Scotland was never a Conservative Party at all – at least, not in its glory years and never strictly speaking. It was a Unionist Party, born out of the divisions within the Liberal Party over Ireland and empire. 1955 was the its golden year, at least in a general election: it won 36 of Scotland’s 71 seats and over half the vote. During the late fifties and the 1960s, its vote fell and victories lessened. Amalgamation with the English-led Conservatives followed.
Debate over the future of the Party in Scotland followed. One view, as the SNP began its rise, was that revival would only come if Scotland gained devolution. This was pressed by such Tories as Malcolm Rifkind and Alick Buchanan-Smith, both of whom resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s front bench over the issue during the 1970s. The other was that devolution would damage the Party and play into the SNP’s hands. Teddy Taylor and Michael (now Lord) Forsyth were among its adherents.
Perhaps radical localism across the UK – the devolution of real power to local authorities – would have headed off the SNP had it come early enough. Or maybe Blair-style devolution would have succeeded under the Conservatives where it failed under Labour (to quell Alex Salmond’s party, at any rate). We will never know. But it must be unlikely that either of these would have seen off voter demand for a Scottish Parliament. The return of the Stone of Scone was long in the making.
At any rate, Margaret Thatcher set her face against devolution, and Scottish Tory representation at Westminster did not decline – at first, anyway. The results in 1979 and 1983 were broadly comparable with those of the 1960s and 70s, at least in terms of seats won, though even in those years the Party’s vote share was falling. Its representation in Scotland halved in 1987, a sign of what was to come. In 1997 it vanished altogether.
Whatever one’s view of the causes, the Conservatives in Scotland had lost their grip on the public imagination north of the border – the sense that, like Buchan’s Hannay or Buchan himself, they were Scottish patriots who cared deeply about the people they represented. But every Western nation has a conservative streak, just as Buchan’s fisherman does. So there must be surely something in Scotland’s own conservatism for the Conservatives.
This brings us to the third leg of the stool – or the third panel of the triptych, if you like: economic liberalism. Scotland is sometimes caricatured south of the border as a welfare nation. This is nonsense. As our columnist Brian Montieth has reminded readers, it is actually the third most economically successful region in the entire country. Certainly, Greater Glasgow and some other areas are wracked by social problems. But an enterprise culture is alive and well in Scotland.
Why haven’t the Conservatives recovered, then? Why is there not a Scottish Tory revival? Part of the answer is: there has been, up to a point. Proportional representation is Scotland means that although the Conservatives haven’t gained real power north of the border, they haven’t been driven out of office either. There are Tories in the Scottish Parliament and Tory councillors are spread across Scotland. The No Campaign has given Ruth Davidson the opportunity to campaign and recruit.
None the less, there is a limit to the amount of progress that the Party can make: an iron ceiling, so to speak. Economic liberalism is the element in Scottish politics that has the potential get the country’s Conservatives back in game. However, it cannot work properly while the relationship between tax and spending in Scotland is broken. Blair and Gordon Brown willed an end: devolution, New Labour-style. None the less, they did not will the means to make it deliver – namely, financial autonomy.
Instead of giving the Scots the freedom to raise or cut taxes and spending – and match the two – Blair and Brown set England and Scotland against each other. The English say that the Barnett Formula sends their taxes north, the Scots counter that Scottish oil is sent south, the enterprise culture is held back, accountability is muddled and representation is unbalanced. New Labour had no answer to the West Lothian question. Its answer to every and any complaint was simply to blame the Tories.
The polls show us to what pass that reflex has brought Scottish Labour. After years of blaming the Conservatives for Scotland’s problems, is it any wonder that more Scots want to be rid of Tory rule from London? Why should it surprise if they snatch at the SNP’s offer to do exactly that – by voting for independence? Labour is swinging on a gallows of its own making. And, very late in the day, David Cameron is travelling north to dangle an answer to West Lothian than Blair failed to offer.
In simple terms, the Conservatives now want to offer to Scotland a more direct relationship between what Scotland taxes and what it spends – and a basis, therefore, for a real Party revival there. This site isn’t complaining about the plan: after all, our manifesto supports devo-max for all parts of the United Kingdom. This Unionist site hopes that it hasn’t come too late (see Bernard Jenkin’s piece on this site today) – and that the Prime Minister won’t back off it if Scotland votes No.