The Scottish Conservatives are smiling and with good reason. The party’s share of the vote rose by 8.1% to 22% across Scotland’s 73 constituencies and by 10.6% to 22.9% across its regions. Over half a million voters turned out to make the Tories Scotland’s second party at Holyrood. A comparison with the SNP’s performance in 2003, the election before it took power at Holyrood is instructive. At first sight, the Tories look to be stronger after the 2016 election than the SNP after2003.
The Scottish Tories post-election euphoria today contrasts with the SNP’s despair in 2003. The position of the two party leaders could not have been more different. John Swinney would be out of office the following year while Ruth Davidson is talked off as a future leader of her party at Westminster, even Prime Minister.
Davidson fought a vigorous campaign and kept rigidly on-message. By the end of the campaign, her three key messages had been hammered home relentlessly in the deluge of leaflets that came through Scottish letter boxes and at every other opportunity. She opposed a second independence referendum. Labour was hopeless and hapless. Only Ruth Davidson would provide strong opposition.
The campaign was tight and disciplined. She refused to be drawn onto difficult ground even if it meant some bad publicity. Criticism for not taking part in an election debate on disability was weighed against having to defend Tory policies.
It was only in the closing days of the campaign that her opponents woke up to what was happening by which time it was too late. Her photo-opportunities were a source of amusement by opponents and a welcome source of colour for the media in a drab campaign. Her policy-lite platform was protected by unremitting focus on becoming the main opposition party. She did not need to offer an alternative to the SNP’s programme for government outlined in its manifesto as her ambitions were limited to opposing whatever the SNP proposed.
The Tory campaign was designed to remove risks. Voters need not fear a Conservative Government in Holyrood. The Tories were not aiming to win power. A Tory vote was, in this sense, risk free.
The Conservative brand was – and remains – toxic in Scotland. In the Scottish Tory leadership contest in 2011, her rival had proposed winding up the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and creating a new centre-right party. Ruth Davidson opposed this just as she drew a ‘line in the sand’ on more powers for Holyrood. She embraced more powers shortly after her election and all but dropped the party name in her general election campaign. Conservative was a party that dared not speak its name. It had become the Ruth Davidson Party. And it paid off.
The Tories can only go so far on the popularity of a party leader especially when that popularity is limited. While Ruth Davidson streaked ahead of Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, she remains far behind Nicola Sturgeon. The ‘mandate’ she sought was to become the main opposition party. She won it with the support of just over one in five voters. She did not seek a mandate to govern Scotland, a much more demanding goal.
But where next? Can the Scottish Tories overtake the SNP to become Scotland’s largest party and form a Government at Holyrood? Even if the answer is negative, the fact that such a question might be posed shows how far the Tories have travelled in a short period of time. But there are dangers and difficulties ahead for the Ruth Davidson Party.
The most immediate danger is hubris. In the immediate aftermath of the election, the Tories can be excused a period of celebration. But it does not help when this elation gives the impression that the Tories think they won the election. It may simply have regained the support of its natural constituency, undoubtedly a significant breakthrough, but it has not increased that support. The SNP won more than twice as many votes as the Tories.
The SNP constituency vote went up and the small fall in its regional vote may not suggest unpopularity so much as an inability to tackle the wasted/tactical vote message. Even a party that advances as much as the Tories but remains significantly behind the governing party has to be more careful in what it ‘demands’. Advance is not the same as victory and making that mistake can lead to credibility over-stretch.
And the Tories are not yet secure as the main opposition party. Having fought off the LibDems for third place in the early years of devolution, they have still to convincingly replace Labour as Scotland’s second party. Labour won more constituency votes than the Tories and are in second place in 38 constituencies while the Tories are second in 17.
If the SNP vote falls at the next election then the most likely winner is Labour. The Tory revival remains on the fringe of where the main action in Scottish politics has been for more than a generation. The Tories are important in this but in a wholly negative way. The SNP and Labour will continue to fight for the mantle of the most effective opponent of the Tories. It is not difficult to envisage the SNP harnessing even more anti-Tory votes to take seats from the Tories. In a some Tory seats, the SNP might convince those who voted Labour at this election that the only way to defeat the Tories is to vote SNP. ON the other hand, the Tories will appeal to the Labour unionists, as they did in this election, but might find that they have won as many as they ever can. The Tories became the preferred vehicle for anti-SNP voters in many places but have done nothing to address the deeply ingrained anti-Tory outlook that exists in so much of Scotland.
Ruth Davidson’s campaign confirmed the continuing problem of the Tory brand in Scotland. The Conservative brand was the embarrassment kept locked in the attic. And it was not just the Tory brand that was locked in the attic. Davidson was wise to keep senior Tories in London from coming to Scotland during the election.
A bold move would be to go the whole hog and embrace Murdo Fraser’s idea and wind up the party and create a new centre-right party but the results make it an unlikely course of action despite evidence from this election that there may be merit in this idea. Her record suggests she would unhesitatingly make the change if she is convinced it would boost her support. But this might play into the impression that Tories under Davidson will say or do anything to win votes. A name change alone might backfire and certainly would not be enough.
The Scottish Tories are currently policy lite and Davidson is at her weakest when called upon to defend Tory positions. Like so many politicians who have emerged from the world of media, she is stronger on presentation than substance. When it comes to detail, she is lost. It is clear what the Tories oppose but not what they support and the Tories will come under more scrutiny now. There will be demands for an alternative set of policies, not just opposition.
And what does it mean to be a strong opposition? The line between opposing the Scottish Government and disrupting the work of government is one that needs to be treaded carefully. It is not the memory of Tory opposition to devolution that holds the Tories back, but the myth of Tory opposition to devolution. Past behaviour contributed and it will take little to fuel the myth. Strong opposition might be easily be portrayed as undermining devolution.
There are paradoxes at the heart of Davidson’s Scottish Conservative Party. It is stridently unionist while seeking to cut itself loose from the party in London. Murdo Fraser’s challenge to his party remains important. Ruth Davidson’s campaign confirmed this. The Tories need a strong SNP and the prospect of independence in order to sustain its support and the Tories helped ensure that independence remains high on the agenda. By replacing Labour, they have polarized the debate and may force many remaining Labour voters to make a choice that is unlikely to be one that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party would wish.
Director of Academy of Government, Edinburgh University.
Rob John and James Mitchell explain the extraordinary rise of the SNP in Takeover, their new book due out on 31 May: https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/takeover