Written by Mark Stuart.
First, a couple of translations for non Scots. A ‘stooshie’ is a minor commotion whereas a ‘stramash’ is an uproar or a tumult. The great unknown of the UK General Election fought North of the Border is will we see a minor change in seats (a ‘stooshie’), or will the Scottish Conservatives be able to create a ‘stramash’ by making major gains at the expense of the Scottish National Party (SNP)?
The electoral map of Scotland from 2015 shows the SNP dominant on 56, having made sweeping gains, mainly at the expense of the Labour Party, who paid the ultimate price for siding with the Conservatives in the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the Scottish independence referendum. Since, then, we have seen a polarisation in Scottish politics on the issue of the Constitution, with Scots increasingly divided between those supporting a second independence referendum and those who want to maintain the Union with England.
And it is the Scottish Conservatives who have been the main beneficiaries of this polarisation, replacing the Labour Party as the second largest force in the Scottish parliamentary elections a year ago, both in terms of vote share and in terms of seats. More recently, in the Scottish Council elections in May 2017, the Conservatives won 276 seats, over twice as many as they had done when the elections were last held in 2012.
The Scottish Conservatives, it seems have come a long way from their nadir of 1997, when they were left with no seats in Scotland, following Tony Blair’s landslide victory. The single biggest reason for the decline in Conservative fortunes in Scotland was the unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher. She was seen by most Scots as an English nationalist who closed their factories and introduced the hated poll tax a year earlier than elsewhere. For generations afterwards, it seemed as if it would be impossible, even in polite dinner party conversations in Edinburgh ever to mention that one was a Conservative without provoking a long rant about how awful they were.
However, how everything has changed. The main reason why the Scottish Conservative have engineered a revival is that they have successfully identified themselves as the only political party strongly associated with maintaining the Union with England. In that sense, they have the best of enemies in the SNP, because it allows them to polarise Scottish politics into a battle between supporters of independence and supporters of the Union.
Ironically, a Party long opposed to devolution, has also been aided by increased powers being granted to the Scottish Parliament over taxation. Former Scottish Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, was fond of referring to ‘tax-sensitive areas’, but now that Scots have to raise and spend their own money locally, a sizable chunk of middle class Scottish voters outside the Central Belt have become reluctant to put their hands in their wallets.
Add in the strong leadership of Ruth Davidson, and the Conservatives seem poised for a revival. However, when we actually investigate the SNP majorities in key Tory target seats, they do seem at first sight impregnable, apart from the relatively easy picking of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, which the Nationalists only won by 328 votes in 2015.
Beyond that, the Tories would have to overturn SNP majorities of 6,000 or more to gain any more seats. There is, however, one way of suggesting a glimmer of hope for the Conservatives, mainly in the North-East of Scotland. If we try to extrapolate the local election results in May onto those supposedly invulnerable SNP majorities, we find a different picture.
It is always risky to use such a methodology. For a start, turnout differentials can be radically different between local and general elections. Secondly, there are lots of independent councillors in Scotland, and we simply don’t know which way the people for voted for them will swing come June. However, if we subtract the percentage drop in SNP support in places like Aberdeenshire and Perthshire based on first preference votes at the local elections in May and correspondingly add the hefty percentage increases polled by Conservative council candidates, then some of these supposedly impregnable majorities start to disappear.
Take Moray, another top Tory target seat in the North-East of Scotland. There, SNP Deputy Leader, Angus Robertson currently holds a majority of 9,065, having polled 50% of the vote in 2015. In the council elections, the SNP vote fell by eight points, while the Conservative vote rose by 19 points. Even with the pro-independence Scottish Greens promising not to stand in Robertson’s seat, by these calculations he could lose his seat by 8%.
Similar effects could also be seen in Angus, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and Perth and North Perthshire, while Banff and Buchan – full of Brexit-supporting fishermen from Fraserburgh and Peterhead – would be too close to call.
However, the number of seats where a Conservative breakthrough is possible are limited, unless the Labour vote collapses. In most other constituencies, the Scottish Tories would have to go from third to first place in order to win, making seats like Gordon (held by Alex Salmond), Aberdeen South and Stirling seem out of range.
So, the most likely outcome of the Scottish Westminster elections is that we will see a minor stooshie, with the Tories winning a handful of seats, rather than a full scale stramash in which they return to levels of support not seen since the 1980s.
Mark Stuart is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Screencap/Youtube