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Give Us Peace: On the Scottish Conservatives

by | June 23, 2017

They make a desert and call it peace

In 1968, a few months after Winnie Ewing’s shock victory for the SNP in a by-election to the hitherto safe Labour seat of Hamilton, Tom Nairn sought to get to grips with Scottish nationalism in the pages of the New Left Review. The Scottish National Party did not come off well. They were, he wrote, ‘lumpen-provincials whose parochialism finds its adequate expression in the asinine idea that a bourgeois parliament and an army will rescue the country from provincialism; as if half of Europe did not testify to the contrary.’ Nairn’s main target was clearly Scotland as a whole: the SNP was just the latest sad fetish of a country hobbled by ‘a history without truth, a sterility where dream is unrelated to character, and both bear little relationship to what happens.’ As for the question of a devolved Assembly, soon to dominate not just Scottish but British politics, Nairn feared what it would become in the hands of a bleakly Calvinist Scottish bourgeoisie, whose ‘rough-hewn sadism – as foreign to the English as anything in New Guinea – will surely be present in whatever junta of corporal-punishers and Kirk-going cheese-parers Mrs. Ewing might preside over one day in Edinburgh.’

Yet fifty years on, the popular history of Scottish devolution – told not just in public meetings and parliamentary speeches, but also textbooks and best-selling novels – is one of hope, radicalism, democracy and a liberated national spirit, reaching its peak in the so-called ‘festival of democracy’ that accompanied the vote on Scottish independence three years ago. Since 1968, when the poet Edwin Morgan wrote that Scotland was ‘too cold for flower people,’ Scotland has supposedly loosened up, let its hair down, and come to terms with its place in the world.

The Scottish Parliament, which came into being in 1999, is at the centre of this. Gerry Hassan has recently argued that Scotland’s ‘swinging sixties’ happened four decades late, with the debate over the repeal of Section 28 in 1999–2000. Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act banned the discussion of homosexuality in schools, and when a fresh-faced Scottish democracy sought to repeal it, Hassan writes,:

It brought a dark, repressive Scotland out of the shadows led by millionaire bus tycoon Brian Souter and PR hatchet man Jack Irvine who even organised an unofficial national referendum against it. Somehow the forces for change won – and the nasty, nervous and homophobic parts of the country, eventually went away. Attitudes changed and the country worried about more important things.

It is fitting, then, that the belated emergence of that vicious junta prophesied by Nairn should occur under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, one of Scotland’s four openly LGBT+ party leaders and a woman widely credited in the media with having detoxified Toryism in Scotland. Nairn was perhaps too engrossed in the culture wars of les années ’68 to foresee the assimilation of cultural and sexual revolution into a programme of worldwide economic reaction, but he understood something that has been forgotten: Scotland is a country as ripe for right-wing insurgency as any other, regardless of what we tell ourselves.

The Conservative and Unionist Party is the second largest in the Scottish Parliament. Their thirteen Scottish MPs seem set to prop up a Tory-DUP alliance of the far right at Westminster having won 29 per cent of the Scottish vote. After successive gains in Scottish Parliament, local government and Westminster elections, their momentum is still building. The Scottish National Party, despite the reputation for exotic tartan radicalism that so excites English leftists, are so ensconced in spin-driven Blairite managerialism that they cannot bring themselves to spend a penny of their once-vast political capital on raising taxes to stop the ‘Tory austerity’ on which they blame almost every policy failure. Nicola Sturgeon’s recent sharp decline in popularity is partly down to a firming-up of anti-independence sentiment; but it’s also about her failure, particularly when compared to Corbyn, to live up to the anti-austerity image she cultivated for herself in her first major campaign as leader in 2015. Her deliberate shift from populist social democrat to the last defender of elite technocratic liberalism could not have been more poorly timed. The Scottish Labour Party leadership nevertheless remains stubbornly resistant to Corbynism despite the crashing failure of its set-piece campaign to get Blair McDougall, who ran the ‘Better Together’ campaign against independence, elected on an aggressively unionist platform in East Renfrewshire. He came third. This is not the ‘Radical Scotland’ that 1980s devolutionists and 2014’s Yes campaigners asked for. While the rest of Britain rediscovers its radicalism at last, the Scots – once famed for our militancy – are going in the opposite direction.

In a way, Ruth Davidson and those pundits who regurgitate her defining message are right: the Scottish Tories are different. But this doesn’t make them better, only better equipped to win power here than their English colleagues, a quality which gives them significant influence in a party narrowly clinging to power. They belong to a proudly indigenous tradition of Scottish Toryism, one that has been almost entirely written out of mainstream accounts of Scottish political identity. Gramsci argued that to write the history of a party is also to write the history of a country, but Scottish Conservatism defines recent Scottish history largely in terms of its noisy absence: so much of Scotland’s modern identity has been defined by a deeply self-conscious rejection of ‘Tory rule’.

The idea of a Tory-free Scotland, supposedly made manifest in 1997 when all eleven Scottish Tory MPs lost their seats, is also what underpinned arguments for devolution. During the long ebb and flow of various campaigns for a Scottish Assembly or Parliament from the 1960s onwards, everyone from the Communist Party to the Blairites seemed to believe that a Scottish parliament would be congenitally more radical than the rest of the UK. A similar assumption came to dominate the ‘Yes’ campaign for independence, and prompted a widely misinterpreted televised outburst from an infuriated then-leader of the Scottish Labour Party who said that ‘we’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions.’ Johann Lamont, who meant of course that Scots will not necessarily always vote against the Tories, is surely being proven right.

But the re-emergence of Scottish Toryism has not happened through sheer bad luck. On the contrary, the party’s success is in large part rooted in exactly those anti-Tory assumptions and political strategies on which devolution, and later the Yes campaign, was based. It has burst through the progressive curtain that generations of academics, commentators and politicians have drawn over Scotland’s real history and character, as if the country’s past itself is taking revenge against those who – in their complacency and opportunism – have distorted it beyond use.

Of course, any ideological distortion relies on a degree of recognition as well as misrecognition. For some time, Scotland has been more left-wing than the rest of UK in electoral terms. Since the 1959 General Election, Scottish voting behaviour has diverged from the rest of United Kingdom when a swing of 1.4 per cent from Labour to Tory in England was inverted in Scotland. Harold MacMillan’s ‘never had it so good’ optimism was poorly received in a Scottish economy that stagnated while England boomed. From the abolition of rent controls in the Rent Act of 1957, Tory housing policy has hit with particular force in a Scottish market dominated by the public sector, and the emerging postwar middle class of the self-employed, mid-level managers and small business owners that has been so crucial to Tory politics down south never carried the same electoral weight north of the border. Where this class did exist, its sympathies often lay with a sizeable public sector; and where it didn’t, Scottish industrial workers were amongst the most militant and left-wing in Britain.

Through the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in and the National Union of Miners (Scottish Area), all of which were heavily influenced by the Communist Party, Scottish workers played a key part in industrial struggles which eventually brought down the Heath Government in 1974. Under pressure from internationalisation of capital and the broader decline of British industry, indigenous Scottish capital declined throughout the postwar era, but until the 1980s Scottish Toryism remained a powerful, distinctive force, arguably outperforming what Scottish demographics should have allowed. Tory Secretaries of State for Scotland and MPs rooted their politics in an indigenous tradition of elite paternalism, protestant ‘unionist [Scottish] nationalism’ and local patronage.

In their previous incarnation as the Unionist Party, Scottish Tories are one of only two parties to win a majority of the vote in Scotland after World War Two, amassing 50.1 per cent in 1955 – matched only by the SNP’s 49.97 per cent in 2015. Their grip on much of the protestant working class was loosened in part through the impact of Tory economic and housing policy, but also thanks to the growing secularisation of Scottish society – something which did not affect the traditionally Labour catholic vote to the same extent. In this context, the fact that Ruth Davidson’s Unionists are now using their prospective DUP allies as the flint on which to sharpen their ‘progressive’ blade is one of many bizarre ironies of the current situation. The Scottish Tories have been forced to secularise, putting aside anti-Catholic, anti-Irish bigotry (as the SNP have also done) and rhetorically embracing the politics of shifting identities – shifting so rapidly, in fact, that even the stubbornly left-leaning Scots can suddenly imagine themselves voting Tory.

That Scottish Toryism is still based on unionism goes without saying. But that unionism is not the shallow tactical variety implied by some commentators, skipping easily between Labour and Tory depending on the constituency, and free from deeper right-wing sentiment. Tory unionism is motivated by a more complex set of political desires, masquerading as anti-politics, encapsulated in Ruth Davidson’s demand in the final Scottish leaders’ debate of the general election campaign: ‘give us peace’. Few slogans can better express the basis of elite legitimacy in Scotland, for this is a country whose rulers thrive on a promise to manage and contain social conflict, whose propaganda asks us to leave the tricky business of governing to them and get on with our lives, and who dress this up as radicalism by assimilating critique and externalising it onto the ‘Westminster elite’. Such an attitude has deep historical roots.

One crucial aspect of the old Tory vote was its basis in dense networks of local middle-class patronage that spurned the supposedly ‘political’ management of local government, manifested through anti-Labour coalitions with names like ‘Progressive’ and ‘Moderate’. This apolitical stratum of local middle class administrators was a version of ‘civic Scotland’ long before the term itself became popular, now loosely referring to the coalition of institutional and political elites which led the campaign for devolution in the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet while the newer civic Scotland was driven and coordinated at first not by local businessmen but by the trade unions, during the 1980s its characteristics soon came to resemble its predecessor: though the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly forged close links with trade unions and the socialist journal Radical Scotland, the increasingly defensive nationalism of the Scottish radical left and labour movement during that decade allowed for its quick incorporation into a more moderate coalition, the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989.

The convention was an elite stitch-up, its strategy based on high-political backroom manoeuvres rather than popular struggle. Its politics were defined by the defensive fear felt by Scottish elites as Thatcherism eroded the autonomy and flexibility they had enjoyed within the union for much of the twentieth century. For decades, Scots had been able to ‘play the Scottish card’ in British policymaking, gaining extra resources and autonomy in exchange for delivering Scottish votes down south.

But with Conservative governments increasingly minded to forget about Scottish votes and Labour far from power in England, there was less and less leverage for Scotland’s establishment to use against Westminster short of threatening independence. The latter was certainly not what they wanted, the SNP having stormed out of the Constitutional Convention at an early stage in protest at unionist dominance. It was this tension – between Tory neglect and SNP nationalism – that produced the ideology of ‘civic nationalism’ which has dominated Scottish politics to the present day.

The trouble with civic nationalism is that, as nationalisms go, it is extraordinarily boring. By defining the nation in terms of the ossified values and institutions of Scottish civil society it hands immense popular legitimacy to those already in power, who get to define those values through the institutions they control. With this as its guiding ideology, the results of the devolutionary project were predictable. Just a few years into the Scottish Parliament’s existence, satisfaction with its politicians was depressingly low and the academics who had been so involved in its foundation were forced to find increasingly cynical explanations for its failure to set the heather alight. Suddenly, Scots were by turns ‘utopian’, ‘miserablist’, ‘overwhelmingly middle-class’, increasingly prone to voting for strange anti-establishment parties like the Scottish Socialists or the Scottish Greens. In danger of collapse, civic nationalism was only rescued by the emergence of its erstwhile enemy as a serious contender for power: the SNP’s shock victory in 2007 was the result of over a decade of ‘modernisation’, as the party gradually cast aside its radical impulses, centralised party control in the hands of the leadership, and began branding itself as just another competent party of government.

The SNP benefited from an image of youthful vitality, too, one which they had cultivated for decades since their popularity amongst young Scots in the 1960s. This reached its zenith in the independence referendum campaign of 2012–14, when young, happy faces dominated pictures from independence rallies and ‘Yestivals’, and the social media war was convincingly won by a digitally savvy Yes movement. This movement, however, rejected much of the quiet, consensual politics of the Scottish elite and opted instead for bolshy exuberance. The popular excitement it generated grew far beyond the SNP’s grasp. But if ‘Yes’ began to look and feel like an out-of-control house party, then ‘No’ were the police that turned up to shut it down.

‘Give us peace’, as good a definition as any of modern Scottish Tory ideology, has to be understood in this context. It reflects, in part, the desire of the house party’s quiet, scowling neighbours for a restraining order on the hosts. So much of the furious opposition even to a second referendum, never mind independence, is rooted in a miserly disdain for precisely the joy and excitement that the last referendum provoked. It is political nimbyism: another referendum on independence threatens to bring the raw, febrile activity of popular politics right back into the pristine gardens of socially conservative voters, and they just won’t stand for it. This is as much a part of Scotland’s cultural heritage as anti-Toryism. In 1968 Nairn wrote that the ‘odious, grudging tyranny of the older generations over youth which distinguishes Calvinism from civilization will naturally be reinforced after independence,’ but simply asking the question seems to have done the trick. The liberation of Scottish culture since the 1960s may not be as permanent or secure as once thought.

The Tories’ ability to benefit from this backlash goes somewhat deeper than their enthusiastic unionism. How is it that an electorate which was already deeply hostile to Toryism has managed to go through almost a decade of Tory governments far worse than Thatcher and ended up more likely to vote for them? The answer to this lies in the most miserable paradox of all: it is precisely the defensive ramparts of devolution, designed to protect Scots from Tory governments, that have insulated Scotland’s new Tory voters from the experiences that have turned people against the government down south. While austerity undoubtedly exists up here too, Scots are simply not subjected to the same unyielding barrage of reaction as the English. The SNP, still Scotland’s most credible party, flatters and reassures a wide spectrum of Scottish society when it portrays the country as a safe haven from English Tory cruelty. It should be no surprise that people who associate this comfort with Scotland’s place in the union decide to vote Tory to protect that. Devolution has also allowed the Scottish Tories to reaffirm their distinctive identity, using the Holyrood pulpit to preach their own fiscally conservative, socially liberal variant of civic nationalism that promises to ‘stand up for Scotland’ through their direct line to the British government while fighting for bland administrative competence in devolved institutions that avoid conflict at every turn. It is this total vacuity of devolved politics, self-consciously free from conflict and danger, that allows the spectre of Scottish Toryism to haunt us so brazenly. They can happily adopt the rhetoric of the centre-left parties that have predominated in Scottish politics, articulating a politically empty ‘Scottish’ interest that means whatever the voters want it to. To make matters worse, the party of capital will find far more support in the media and amongst those with deep pockets than Labour or the SNP ever could. And finally, they can tap into deep wells of frustration with a seemingly left-leaning Scottish establishment which has done little of note with the parliament it built for itself. The Tory route to power at Holyrood is now clearer than ever.

Scottish politics, then, finds itself in a strange position. At Westminster, the British ruling class is gripped by a profound crisis forced upon it by the organisation and energy of the Labour left. Britain seems closer than ever to ‘the sunshine of socialism,’ as Corbyn called it in a recent speech to the STUC. But things, as we’ve been told for decades, are different in Scotland. In the Scottish Parliament, the sun, when it comes, bursts enthusiastically through windows set high in the debating chamber; once inside, its thick pillars of light find little to illuminate but the dust that floats there in flat, bureaucratic air, particles of dead skin drifting aimlessly upwards from the assembled shuffling bodies of our representatives. Shuffling where? Why? Nothing grows in the grey, concrete halls of Holyrood, no new ideas or battles erupt; the great upsurge of the independence referendum happened outside, on the streets and in town halls, and the immense political capital it granted to the SNP was frittered away on posturing and pandering to everybody and nobody. They are a party that seizes on their supporters’ radicalism only in order to crush it. But they can’t take all the blame: the Scottish Parliament has the political culture of a desert. It is not a place where politics lives. If Ruth Davidson’s voters want peace, they’ll find it there.