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Toryism is dead in Scotland

My proudest political moment remains, aged five, starting a chant against the Tories. Along with 50,000 Scots, my family – then living in Falkirk – had taken to the streets of Glasgow in the spring of 1990 to march against the poll tax. Brandishing a small flyer, I precociously yelled the slogan “Kick the Tories out!” Not that I really knew who the Tories were (other than that they were “very bad people”) but the surrounding crowd certainly did – and they repeated the slogan with passion, rage and defiance.

The Scottish people rejected Thatcherism at the polls time and time again, but suffered the imposition of the detested so-called “community charge” a year before the rest of the country. It triggered the most successful campaign of civil disobedience in British history. Millions – including my parents – refused to pay a tax that hit the poor far harder than the rich. Even when the British electorate unexpectedly failed to “kick the Tories out” in 1992, three out of four Scots voted to do exactly that.

Recalling those passionate scenes in 1990, the plans of Murdo Fraser – the frontrunner for Scottish Tory leadership – to relaunch his party under a new name aren’t surprising. For most, it is difficult to imagine the Conservatives being anything other than a toxic political brand in Scotland. This is, after all, the country of Red Clydeside; of Willie Gallacher, the former Communist MP for West Fife; and of the hard-left Scottish Socialist party, which until four years ago had six members in the Scottish parliament.

But – despite the country’s radical traditions – the strange death of Tory Scotland is more recent than many Scots would like to remember. Nearly half the British electorate voted Tory in 1955; but in Scotland, over half voted for the Unionist party – the then-sister party of the Conservatives. The Tories have the remarkable claim of being the only party to have ever won a majority of the Scottish vote. And yet at the last general election, the near-fringe party status of the Tories was confirmed when less than 17% of Scots voted for them.

It is certainly true that the crisis of Scottish Toryism began before Margaret Thatcher demolished the post-war consensus. In 1965, the national party took direct control of the Scottish Unionists, who were rebranded the “Scottish Conservative and Unionist party”. This was a big mistake in a country with such a proud national identity. And as was once the case in Liverpool, working-class Toryism was inextricably linked with Protestantism and anti-Catholic sentiments. Indeed, when Scottish Toryism triumphed in 1955, record numbers of Scots were flocking to the Church of Scotland. But as active Protestantism and the sectarian Orange Order waned in strength after the 1950s, the base of Scottish Toryism was chipped away.

Even so, the death spiral of Scottish Toryism did not begin until Thatcher came to power in 1979. Her governments certainly found ways to affront Scottish national pride. North Sea oil was discovered a few years before the Conservatives came to power, but as Scotland was particularly battered by recession and de-industrialisation in the 1980s, there was growing resentment at the billions of pounds of revenue flowing straight to the Treasury in London – no less than £300bn in the past 30 years.

But much of Scotland’s passionate – and relatively recent – hatred of Toryism isn’t as unique as some might think. It is shared with much of northern England, all of which repeatedly voted against the Tories but suffered from the worst excesses of their rule. Outside Tory England, it was like living under a foreign occupation: my Stockport primary school teachers dressed in black when John Major was returned to Downing Street in 1992.

The destruction of British industry – particularly in the early 1980s – had much to do with this shared resentment. In 1991, the number of manufacturing jobs in Glasgow was just a third of the level two decades earlier. Two years after Thatcher’s election victory, Glasgow was 208th down the list of local authorities for economic inactivity; a decade later, it had risen to 10th place.

Northern industrial areas were similarly hammered in the two recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s. The trauma of mass unemployment under Conservative governments has made anti-Toryism a kind of folk hatred passed from generation to generation in parts of Britain. No wonder, then, that the north-east of England rejected the Conservatives almost as decisively as Scotland at the last election: less than 24% voted Tory, while Labour – facing its second worst result since 1918 on a national level – won nearly 44%. The legacy of Thatcherism has left the Tories with a glass ceiling of support – which partly explains why the party failed to win the last election despite a woefully unpopular Labour government and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

What is unique about Scottish anti-Toryism is that it has fused with a powerful sense of national pride. Because New Labour accepted many of the key pillars of Thatcherism, it was unable to capitalise on this antagonism effectively. The SNP, on the other hand, reinvented itself as a social democratic nationalist party that drew on a renewed, anti-Tory patriotism. With a hardline Thatcherite government back in office in London, the SNP can present itself as the protector of Scotland in a repeat of the 1980s.

The bottom line is that Murdo Fraser can call the Scottish Tories what he likes. The Scottish electorate, however, are neither stupid nor forgetful. Toryism is dead as a mass political force in Scotland, and it is unlikely to ever come back.

This piece was originally published in The Guardian

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