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This St Andrew’s Day, Scottish Tories should count their blessings

30 November 2016

3:47 PM

30 November 2016

3:47 PM

As is traditional, St Andrew’s Day will be marked in the proper style by expatriate Scots gathering to bless what they’ve left behind. For most of the rest of us it’s just another dreich November day. There is something cheering about this and at least we have spared ourselves the tomfoolery that’s made St Patrick’s day such a toe-curling embarrassment.

Still, that’s not to say the day passes without interest. For instance, the Times today publishes a YouGov poll indicating that support for independence is, broadly speaking, back where it was in September 2014. Just (sic) 44 percent of Scots would vote for independence if given the chance tomorrow. 

It must be allowed, I think, that the Brexit-bounce the SNP expected has not materialised. At least not yet. I expected it to be greater; but then I did not expect the SNP to play its post-Brexit hand quite so poorly. Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers have spent the last five months demanding that Scotland’s voice be heard. There should, they insist, be a ‘deal’ that allows Scotland to maintain some stronger relationship with the EU than that which the rest of the UK may yet enjoy. Now it is possible to be cynical about this and suppose Ms Sturgeon is setting up a series of tests she knows cannot be passed, at which point, once the smoke clears, there will be a renewed appetite for independence. 

And this too may yet prove the case, even if I continue to hold to the line that it would be folly to press for another referendum called in response to Brexit before the terms and conditions of Brexit have even been determined. Loss aversion is a powerful instinct and responding to one constitutional upheaval by demanding another constitutional upheaval does not strike me as a sensible or winning plan. Which is why, if I were Nicola Sturgeon, I would wish to wait until 2022 at the earliest. 

The difficulty, of course, is that time gnaws away at every government’s credibility. Next year, the SNP will mark the tenth anniversary of its ascent to power. The party remains popular and talk of a crisis at the upper echelons of the SNP is easily exaggerated by those who dearly wish to have their preferences for such a crisis confirmed. Nevertheless, there is still a sense the SNP needs new tunes. Blaming everything on Westminster, on the Tories, on austerity, is beginning to wear a little thin. 

Sturgeon’s approval ratings remain good but it is striking that they are better (+16) amongst ABC1 voters than they are amongst C2DE voters (+6). The First Minister is no longer the most highly-esteemed politician in Scotland, however. That bauble, for whatever it is worth, has been passed to Ruth Davidson though this should be treated gingerly given that while only ten percent of voters don’t know enough to make a judgement on Sturgeon, 27 percent are incapable of saying whether the Tory leader is doing well or not. 

Even so, the Tories are up to 25 percent in the polls and this, given whence they have come, is further evidence that the Conservative revival in Scotland is a real thing. That owes much to Davidson, of course, but then the SNP’s appeal once owed a lot to Alex Salmond too. Better, in any case, to be a one man (or woman) band than a no-man band. 

Some of this Tory advance owes something to Labour’s weakness. But not all of it and no amount of Labour weakness can satisfactorily explain an opinion poll in which the Tories win the support of 26 percent of C2DE voters and Labour just 14 percent. The possibility the Labour party is kaput cannot be entirely discounted. 

Admittedly, I suspect some of this Labour weakness can be ascribed to Jeremy Corbyn’s hopelessness just as much as it is a verdict on poor Kezia Dugdale. Even so, 47 percent of Labour’s 2015 vote has deserted the party. 27 percent of the people who say they voted Labour in 2015 now say they would vote Conservative. 

Which is to say that the post-referendum realignment of Scottish politics is not yet complete. In fact it has come in two waves. The first was a tsunami of Labour Yes voters switching allegiance to the SNP; the second has been a more gradual affair but, each time the tide comes in, a few more Labour voters are left on the Tory beaches. The Conservatives are the party of opposition but also the party of Union. This is confirmed by the fact 41 percent of the (admittedly small) Liberal Democrat vote in 2015 has crossed to the Tories. 

This process is not yet finished but completing it is key to the future of Tory fortunes in Scotland. That means, in time, distancing the party from the excesses of Brexit-Toryism south of the border and becoming, once again, the party of nationalist-Unionism. This is less oxymoronic than it sounds; it was John Buchan who once allowed that ‘every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist’ though that didn’t require him, or anyone else, to favour Scottish independence. 

For both sides, the vital demographic consists of the 25 percent of 2015 SNP voters who say they would vote against independence if such a referendum were held tomorrow. This segment of the electorate has received less attention than Labour-minded Yes voters but the fact remains there are more SNP-No voters than there are Labour-Yes people. And they are the people likely to determine Scotland’s future and with it the future of the United Kingdom too. 

You might not be able to out-Nat a Nat but you can offer an alternative. That means an opposition that offers answers as well as criticisms and an opposition that convinces voters you can ‘stand up for Scotland’ without voting SNP. That opposition will certainly have to be Unionist but it will have to be a liberal Unionism that plants its flags in the centre of Scottish politics, not on the right. If that means the Scottish Tories must quietly and gently distance themselves from Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s party then so be it. Eventually, their future lies in being the Scottish Unionist Party much more than it does in being the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. 

It remains a hard task but it is less impossible than it seemed just 18 months ago. Even so, Unionists pleased by today’s opinion poll should bear two things in mind. First, it is only one poll and, second, if its results were repeated at a Holyrood election the electorate would return a parliament in which 75 MSPs backed independence (64 SNP and 11 Green) and just 54 endorsed the Union. This remains a long, long, game you know. 

Happy St Andrew’s Day.

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