Leading article

Uniting the kingdom

29 April 2017

9:00 AM

29 April 2017

9:00 AM

When launching the Scottish National Party’s election campaign, Nicola Sturgeon said the word ‘Tory’ 20 times in 20 minutes. For much of her political lifetime, it has been used by the SNP as the dirtiest word in Scottish politics. Nationalists have long liked to portray the Conservatives as the successors to Edward Longshanks: an occupying army with little affinity for the people they were trying to govern.

But things are changing fast in Scotland. Amid the other political dramas of the past few months, the revival of Tory support north of the border has gone relatively unnoticed. They had only one MP after the last election, but a poll this week puts them on 33 per cent in Scotland — enough to win 12 seats. There is a similar story in Wales, where one poll suggests that the Tories might take a majority of the seats in the principality for the first time since the 1850s. The idea that the Conservatives would become an England-only party, reviled in the Celtic fringe, is now out of date.

The truth is that this narrative was always false. It suits the Welsh and Scottish nationalists to pretend that their countrymen’s values are different, even inimical, to those of the English. But the people of these islands are united not only by a common culture, language, even a second language (Polish) but also by a worldview.

The British Social Attitudes survey, the gold standard for measuring public opinion, shows that what gaps there are in regional approaches to politics are small, and narrowing. For example, when asked ‘are most people on the dole fiddling?’ the fewest people answer ‘yes’ in London and the south-east, and the most in Wales, with Scotland in the middle. It is party-political disputes that explain the difference in policies between England and Scotland. There is far greater variance in opinion between the south-west and south-east of England than there is between England and Scotland.

The Conservatives have performed badly in Scotland over the past generation for the same reason as the Liberals have performed poorly all over Britain since 1945: there is not a lot of room in a two-party system for a third party. As nationalism grew stronger, voting habits tended to polarise between the SNP and Labour. This was always a little unsustainable because it meant that Scottish politics was dominated by two left-of-centre parties. But since 2014, Labour’s weakness has led to the Conservatives emerging as the leading unionist party.

Now Scots who want to defend the United Kingdom have the option of voting tactically to increase their chances of sending the Nationalists home to think again. Nicola Sturgeon knows that a poor general election performance will damage her call for a second independence referendum, hence her belated attempt to decouple the two questions.

Last week, Gina Miller, the pro-EU campaigner, produced a spreadsheet to advise diehard Remainers on how they should vote to kick pro-Brexit MPs out of parliament. Tactical voting certainly has its place in general elections, and this week The Spectator publishes the results of a similar exercise advising those north of the border how they should vote in order to elect MPs opposed to the break-up of the UK. In most cases, such as Aberdeen North, it will mean voting Labour; in some, such as Aberdeen South, it will mean voting Conservative. There are others, too, such as the late Charles Kennedy’s seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, where the Liberal Democrats have the best chance.

Many will feel an innate resistance to tactical voting. There is a respectable argument that people should always vote for their favoured candidate on the basis that even if they don’t succeed this time around, a strong performance by a losing candidate can help build a base for victory in a subsequent election. But in Scotland there are special circumstances. The SNP is certain to try to use this election campaign as a mandate to inflict another referendum campaign on a country still recovering from the last one.

Equally, it is hard to argue that in this election the result will be so close that the election of a few Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs will change the composition of the UK government. But ending the SNP’s near monopoly on Scottish representation at Westminster will make it much harder for them to claim to be speaking for all of Scotland every time they rise from their benches in the Commons.

There was much talk that the Brexit vote would lead to a surge in demand for Scottish independence. Instead, polls suggest more people are going off the idea. This is why Ms Sturgeon seeks a new referendum: she senses the momentum slipping away from her. So far, the general election campaign has seen a country coming together rather than apart and a Tory party that is — now more than any time for a generation — speaking to the whole of the UK. Mrs May could well return with a stronger majority, but to return with a stronger union would be a far greater prize.

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