I have a confession to make – I’m conservative. For a long time now I’ve known I was different, but it’s taken me years to finally admit it to myself. As yet I haven’t plucked up the courage to tell my family, but I fear they’ve already got their suspicions. I once let it slip that a strong and vibrant commercial sector would do more to eliminate poverty than hand-outs. They’ve overheard me suggest that smaller, nimbler government is more efficient than monolithic state institutions. And I think I might have once put in on my Facebook page that individual responsibility is preferable to state paternalism. Yet despite voting in a dozen or more elections since I turned eighteen, I have never once ticked the Tory box – and have no plans ever to do so. My family may have reason to hope for me yet.
Students who share my Scottish background (and most of those who don’t) will probably know that Conservatives are a rare breed here. The popular joke goes that Scotland has more giant pandas than it has Conservative MPs. Nor are things likely to change any time soon; in the general election of 2010, the Scottish Conservatives managed only fourth place with 16.7% of popular vote, hardly any improvement on the 15.8% of 2005. Compare that with the 39.6% of the English electorate who voted for David Cameron in 2010, or even the 24.2% who voted for Nick Clegg.
So why have the Scots rejected the Conservatives so comprehensively? On paper Scotland should be a stalwart of conservative opinion. Scots on the whole live in smaller and more rural communities than the English and we have more people who run their own business than is the case in England. Our largest private industries are oil and banking (not sectors renowned for their leftist tendencies) and until very recently we had a higher rate of religious observance. Even the popular imagination has it that we are more thrifty, frugal, dare I say mean, than our southern cousins.
Thatcher didn’t help; she was despised with a passionate popular hatred the depth and extent of which it is hard to imagine today. I still remember a crisp November morning in 1990 when our primary six teacher broke the news to us after morning break that ‘Maggie’ had resigned – and thirty 10 year old (yes, ten year old!) Glaswegian school pupils instantly and loudly cheered the news.
The Scots hated Thatcher for her attack on industrial Scotland. Industrial Scotland was a source of national pride and common patriotism, even among the generation of my parents who had escaped the coal mines, steel works and shipyards which had employed their fathers. There was a sense of apolitical social solidarity which transcended class. Everyone agreed that it was good the working class had jobs; everyone was glad those jobs were here, rather than abroad.
But that was a long time ago. As a mature student of thirty-four, I think I must be one of only a tiny minority of Glasgow students who even remembers the Conservative government of John Major, never mind his demonised predecessor. The less well-told story is that in many ways Scotland embraced many of Thatcher’s reforms: the Scots bought a higher percentage of their council houses than did anyone else in the UK, and invested most in the shares of the privatised industries.
Having thought about it long and hard, I think I know why I can’t bring myself to vote Conservative. The Scottish Conservative party is married to and takes its lead from the London-based Conservative party. That’s true for Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib-Dems too, but the difference is that English Conservatism is an exceptional brand of conservatism which simply doesn’t travel well. It is completely unlike any other mainstream centre-right European party – and that doesn’t wash in Scotland.
For example, centre-right parties tend to be the parties of the aspirational working and middle classes. They are about taking responsibility, exploiting opportunity and getting on in life – both for the benefit of the individual and of wider society. However the UK Conservative party thinks it’s a great idea to charge these very same people £9,000 to go to university. Conservatives are supposed to be in favour of low taxes, but in a feat of unrivalled political hari-kari they have imposed a £27,000 tax on middle-class educational achievement. This is not the politics of the right, it’s the politics of ladder-kicking wanton selfishness, utterly disregardful of the national interest.
Every centre-right party in Europe is also patriotic and promotes the national interest, except in Scotland. The Scottish Tories are patriotic to be sure – but to the wrong country. The unimaginative insistence on unionism at all costs is obstinacy of Canutian proportions. The 2011 census revealed that 62% of Scots see themselves as “Scottish only”, 18% said “Scottish and British” and only 8% “British only”. Scottish national identity has changed since 1950.
A year from now, I’ll be voting “Yes” in the referendum – but I’m not voting “Yes” despite being conservative, I’m voting “Yes” because I’m conservative. Centre-right politics is about government being close to the people, recognising local communities, responding to local concerns, building polities around societies rather than vice-versa. In an independent state government will be more responsive to industry, more European in its outlook and more committed to Scottish economic growth. There is absolutely no reason why conservatism and unionism have to go together and every reason why they should be divorced.
A shift in focus is necessary to save the centre-right in Scotland. Until then, Scottish conservatism will be woefully ignored. The Scottish Tories, as they are now, are unlikely to ever retrieve the backing they had mere decades ago – but the chance at revival is within reach.