How ‘conservative’ Unionism lost its footing in Scotland?

Graham Walker’s been reading beyond the reported remarks of Reg Empey in the Lords recently:

Indeed, the part of his comments given less attention concerned the need for Unionists to get the ‘tone’ of their contributions right, and to avoid appearing to ‘bully’ or ‘hector’ the Scots. Amen to that.

And, yes, people in Northern Ireland should certainly concern themselves with the Scottish issue and its broader effects on the UK as a whole.

It behoves pro-Union political players in all parts of the UK to not only ensure the success of devolution in making a positive difference to those parts of the UK that possess it; but also to work at preserving and strengthening the benefits to all of UK citizenship.

He then points out the history of the washing out of unionist politics from Scotland:

It was only the split in the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule that allowed the Tories to score some successes in Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century. They had made significant strides to popularise their appeal – primarily on the basis of religion and Empire patriotism – although they could not shake off the stigma of being viewed as the party of privilege and of the landed interest.

In 1912, in response to the controversy over the Ulster crisis, the Conservatives formally merged with the ‘Liberal Unionists’ to form the Scottish Unionist Party.

From then until 1965 this party was known as ‘The Unionists’ and it remains to this day the only one to have won over half the Scottish vote at a general election, in 1955.

The ‘Unionists’ changed their name to Conservatives in 1965 and many political observers have pointed to this as a contributory factor in the party’s demise in Scotland. There were other deeper reasons for the Conservative slump: religious affiliation was in sharp decline, the Empire had gone, the old culture of deference was in retreat, and more and more Scots were questioning the benefits of Union.

The party was led nationally by Margaret Thatcher from 1975. Her style and manner grated with Scottish voters and she clearly had little time for Scottish sensitivities around national institutions and a separate identity. Her decimation of traditional heavy industry added to the alienation of the Scottish electorate. The decisive referendum result in favour of a Scottish Parliament in 1997 was in large part a measure of the determination of the Scots to never again leave themselves at the mercy of an ideologically driven Tory Prime Minister.

Last year during the Scottish Conservative Party leadership election, the Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) Murdo Fraser proposed to wind up the party and re-launch it as a modern right-of-centre political force without the name ‘Conservative’.

He was defeated by his colleague Ruth Davidson, whose stance was ultra traditionalist. Arguably Fraser was right and the last hope for the Conservative-minded in Scotland has now gone.


  • Presby

    Interesting post. It must be remembered that Margaret Thatcher was popular in Scotland in her early days as premier. Even in 1983 as cuts were impacting old state owned industries, the Tories still commanded significant support.

    As the article suggests, it was a combination of several factors, including the break up of post war social democratic society.

    Arguably the Tories lost their nerve, torn between loyalty to the Thatcherite agenda (led by Micheal Forsyth) whilst coping with the deleterious impact of local election results.

    Murdo Fraser did indeed show nerve and vision in striking for a more independent position, which clearly some in the party did not have an appreciation of.

    Much of this ground is covered in a very informative book by Scots journalist David Torrance entitled “We in Scotland” published by Birlinn.

  • lover not a fighter

    Scotland appears lost indefinitely to the Tories.

    Does this mean that it will loosen and then free its ties to the UK.

    If nothing else it is interesting times in Scottish politics.

  • andnowwhat


    There’s a couple of header articles over on you might want to check out (in fairness, I plug Slugger a lot over there) about social media Vs the press.

  • MrPMartin

    It’s a poor political system that has no room for a centre-right party which has a chance of power on its own. Ireland suffered and still suffers this to this day, albeit from the opposite pole i.e. never having a strong enough leftwing party that would hold power on its own or be the major partner of one.

    Where all parties of power, be they SNP, Lab or LibDem are just variations of a socio-economic theme, Scotland will end up mired in clientelism.

    The election of Ruth Davidson instead of Murdo Fraser was an example, as Orwell would put it and if I be bold to paraphrase, an example of the Scottish Tory party doing precisely the wrong thing in unison like the Garadene swine and jumping of the cliff marked ‘oblivion’.

    Mr Fraser was right ; the party needs rebranding. Davidson et al, seem to think that the ship is more important than the journey and refuse to replace the sails because they always were there, ignoring the obvious ragged state of them.

  • Master McGrath

    Don’t forget that Ruth Davidson, a young Lesbian politician in a very traditional grouping, actually won the election, almost against all the expectations.
    The separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK would not really hurt the Tories but rather more castrate the Labour Party which still depends increasingly grudgingly on the Scottish MP’s to remain the force it is in Westminster.
    Many in Scotland would say that you do not need a new right of centre political grouping since you have the Labour party in all its separate forms holding that role.
    The ‘Red Voice’ of Scottish Labour has long since ceased to be a force listened to in Scotland , especially in Labour Party circles.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Erm, what foothold?