The claim that Scotland is a permanent fiefdom of the political Left, whether unionist or nationalist in outlook, may soon no longer hold. Overnight the Scottish Conservatives have made spectacular gains in the elections for the autonomous Scottish parliament. They increased their tally from 15 to 31 seats and the hitherto unstoppable Scottish National Party has lost its governing majority.
The Nationalists wrongly assumed that grandstanding on independence would be a recipe for almost eternal rule. But most Scots are not in a hurry to see another independence referendum. They wish the SNP to put aside years of shrill campaigning and tackle chronic problems in health, education, policing and other key policy areas.
The SNP’s membership swelled during the referendum which David Cameron carelessly gifted to Alex Salmond when he was First Minister, on terms that suited the SNP. Militant activists from post-industrial west-central Scotland now dominate the party. The new party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, sought to appease them by talking up the chances of another vote on Scotland’s constitutional future in an otherwise lacklustre campaign.
The Scottish Tories have got a capable team who often sound authentic because many can relate to the farmers, housewives, small business people, owner occupiers and aspirational young people overlooked by the SNP in favour of urban activist groups.
Months on the stump under a massively popular young leader, Ruth Davidson, have persuaded a lot of Scots to take a fresh look at the Tories and not dismiss them as class-ridden, out-of-touch and anti-Scottish.
Like Labour before it, a mediocre SNP has ramped up the anti-Tory rhetoric to make up for its glaring deficiencies during 9 years in office. But outside some Clydeside areas, this opportunistic tactic has obtained diminishing returns. Six Tories have been elected for single constituencies instead of relying on salvation by getting a place on the list system which makes voting in Scotland roughly proportional. They include Davidson herself in Edinburgh, Adam Tomkins in Glasgow, an academic who played a formidable role in the 2014 referendum, and a swathe of new MSPs right across southern Scotland.
The SNP may have alienated too many individuals and communities by letting them down in policy terms and especially by micro-managing their lives with intrusive policies. The Named Person act under which the State elbows aside the parent and gives a guardian more powers over each and every Scottish child is only the most notorious of a series of laws curbing individual rights.
Sturgeon has promised a law to curb the autonomy of Scottish universities and one to put transsexuals on par with men and women.
The SNP is dominated by lawyers and managerial types who along with mobilised minorities have sought to turn Scotland into a laboratory for ever more radical forms of equality laws, which are a screen for heavy state control of society by ‘experts’ and overseers.
It is well-known that Ruth Davidson is a lesbian, less well-known that she is a practising Christian who has boosted the appeal of her party by offering common sense answers to problems rather than ideological prescriptions. She is committed to making government more transparent and less centralised and arbitrary. With this approach she struck a chord with numerous Scots throrougly fed up with SNP autocracy.
The Scottish Tories are stronger in terms of brains, experience and broad appeal than any of their competitors. This is quite a turn around for a political force written off by academics and media commentators as moribund or from another age. They will make their presence felt in the committee system of parliament where the SNP has been able to ram through civil service blueprints for turning Scotland into a thoroughly state-controlled entity.
Scots at last will have a capable opposition after 9 years of noisy and stultifying SNP rule, which have left the country ill-governed and profoundly divided. Ruth Davidson is a unifier and her colleagues are able to articulate a quiet consensual patriotism that sounds more authentic than the chippy assertiveness of the SNP.
It will not be easy to dislodge the SNP from office. But Scotland has shown that it is not in thrall to a confrontational party and that many Scots yearn for a form of politics that deal with real problems rather than pursuing imaginary crusades.
Tom Gallagher’s book Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in January.