The clue is in the name

Perhaps one of the most interesting results from last week’s cornucopia of elections across the UK was the performance of the Sottish Conservative Party in the Scottish Parliament Election. For the first time since devolution, the Scottish Conservatives will be the second largest party in Holyrood, after a remarkable night in which the party gained 16 seats, to take their total to 31. Sensationally, the result puts them ahead of Labour, an outcome which up until recently would have been unthinkable.

Why did the Tories perform so well? As Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative Party Leader, has previously pointed out, the clue is in the name. For unlike her southern brethren, what is now crucial for Davidson in Scotland is that she is the head of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, with the emphasis very much on the unionist part.

The Conservative’s success further reinforces the fact that what we have been witnessing in Scotland in recent years is what commentators have dubbed the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics. The term, first coined by the journalist Aidan Kerr, points to the breakdown of the traditional left/right spectrum, giving way to a society divided along nationalist/unionist lines.

Davidson, a canny political operator, understood the new reality almost from the moment she entered the Scottish Parliament. In this year’s campaign she recognised that Labour’s failure to position itself as a staunch defender of the union presented an unmissable opportunity to detoxify the Tory brand in Scotland.

In contrast to the party in England, the Scottish Conservatives ran a centrist campaign, arguing, for example, for a more humane approach to welfare and opposing the extension of right to buy to housing associations. At the same time its policies have allowed the party to argue that it is a genuine alternative to the SNP and Labour, which are now indistinguishable in many policy areas.

However, all of this was secondary to the prominence the Scottish Conservative manifesto and Ruth Davidson’s campaign gave to the role for the party as the main opposition to the SNP. Unusually for a political party, the manifesto did not try to pretend that the Conservatives were aiming to win the election (a goal that would have been treated derisorily by the Scottish public). Instead the Conservatives sought to position Davidson as the leader best place to hold the SNP to account.

Central to these efforts was the Conservative's emphasis that they are the party of the union and that only they can provide, in the words of their manifesto, the "strong opposition which will stand up against the SNP's drive for independence". In doing so they have cleverly maneuvered themselves into picking up Labour’s centre/centre-left vote, a demographic which is now prepared to sacrifice any residual concerns about the Conservatives for the greater fear of independence.

Whether Ulsterisation is good for Scottish politics is debatable. The entrenchment of the electorate along pro-union/pro-independence lines points to an increasingly polarized society, in which policy issues take a back seat to the constitution. In Northern Ireland everyone knows where the DUP and Sinn Fein stand on the question of nationalism; on the details around housing policy, to pick an example, perhaps less so.

On the other hand, the Conservative’s success has most likely taken another independence referendum off the table for the life of this parliament. That must now mean a more mature, stable politics in Scotland and greater scrutiny of the SNP’s record, which has fallen short of what the nationalists’ rhetoric suggests.

Time will tell whether Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservative Party, surely one day to be known simply as the Scottish Unionist Party, put Scottish politics on a new course in 2016. 

Peter Headden

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search