Written by Henry Greenwell, as part of our general election series.
Underneath the dull trudge of this election lies one very interesting fact best whispered, ‘the sheen has worn off the SNP’. How this election is playing out in Scotland is worlds away from the monotony we are forced to endure down south. Indeed, two different election campaigns are underway.
In England, small numbers of activist dutifully pace the streets talking to a mass of disengaged voters who are no real fans of May’s, but when confronted with the alternative, who are at best incompetent and at worst abhorrent, they stiffen behind the ‘only real option’. While in Scotland, a country which is now a political hotbed, people see this as a chance to register a vote against the Scottish Government. Anger was on full display in last weekend’s Scottish leaders’ debate as the SNPs record of bad government was put to them first by two teachers and then cuttingly by Clare Austin, a nurse who relies on food banks to survive. The vile reaction against her, including by Joanna Cherry, a QC and MP, shows how out of touch the SNP have become. The SNP have been in government too long, and their record of failure is catching up with them.
Enter the Scottish Conservatives and the remarkable Ruth Davidson. Here is a leader who has reshaped what it means to be a Tory north of the border. Gone are the tweed-clad Laird’s and in is the working class, kickboxing lesbian. However, more remarkable still is what now constitutes the Conservative Party in both members, and activists North of the border is even more impressive. Scores of young students and young adults are hitting the streets knocking on doors, and everywhere the tide seems to be flowing in their favour. The main reasons are simple a rock solid, uncompromising stance on the Union, which has undoubtedly breathed life into the party, and the need to send a message to Sturgeon, whose only focus in life appears to be independence at any cost. This threat for a return to the divisive past is putting off swathes of fair-minded Scots. Who see their vote in last year’s referendum vote hijacked and the possibility of a return to the bitterly divisive 2014 as something to be avoided. These votes are coming from all parties, and the readiness to be tactical against Sturgeon is paramount.
As some activists of all ages said to me, ‘we’ve had many false dawns before and we can’t take anything for granted.’ Here was the most impressive line, while in England the refrain of ‘we’ll get over the line here but it will be down to the PM’ is a constant. In Scotland the number of activists the energy and thirst for a victory of any sorts is high. Alongside this, we must also remember that for many people who joined the party following the implosion of Labour in 2015, and Ruth’s persistent uncompromising defence of the Union, they have only known victory at last year’s breakthrough Holyrood election and this year’s astounding local elections. However, this must be tempered with the fact that collectively, merely putting the SNP back by ten seats, and for the Conservatives to get anything over six, would be a huge victory. If the Conservatives do well in this election, it will set back Indyref2. While it would be more distant though, the threat will certainly not be dead.
Take a stroll around Edinburgh or a second look while driving down a Scottish motorway and the reasons become clear, the great glues that held the Union together are in retreat. Pax Britannica, won at Waterloo and augmented by the Victorians, is gone. So too is the culture of Scotland’s and Britain’s great military endeavour. Finally, this is underpinned by the decline of two former givens in Scotland, industry and Presbyterianism. Suddenly you are left with a much more fragile concept of what it is to be British in Scotland. Nevertheless, all is not lost. Look at the youth, the vigour and the war on complacency displayed by the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. This will, I hope, see them win bigger than they anticipate and in the long run, create the bedrock to once again reignite the world’s most successful partnership of nations, our Union.