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Scottish Tories standing up and reviling their English leader? The gundog snarling and refusing to go fetch the rabbit? Astonishment at this sudden outburst of rage against Boris Johnson is understandable.
At Holyrood and Westminster, Scottish Conservatives have been notorious for dumbly following their party bosses. But now they want Boris out. Douglas Ross, the Scottish leader, demands it. So, her face clenched with fury, does Ruth Davidson, a predecessor. So do almost all the 31 Tory MSPs in Edinburgh and most of the six MPs at Westminster. And – something unheard of – a prime minister has been refused leave to speak at his own party’s Scottish conference.
Rival politicians are sarcastic. “Why now? What kept you?” But that’s unfair. Under the obedient surface, Scottish Tories have been arguing and anxious resentment has been building for years. The latest tide of anti-Tory feeling – Johnson was rated at 80% disapproval even before the current scandal – threatens the party with near-obliteration at the next Scottish parliament elections in 2026.
The party’s reputation has still not recovered from Scotland’s exposure to Margaret Thatcher, more than 30 years ago. Seen as the archetypal bossy Englishwoman, she is blamed, not always fairly, for the collapse of Scotland’s industrial and mining base that gave so many Scots work and meaning. This is why Jacob Rees-Mogg’s sneer at Ross last week – “lightweight” – hit the wrong spot with fatal accuracy. That tone again! That contemptuous arrogance! That particular… well, Englishness! For a crazy split second, thousands of Scots who would never dream of voting for a Tory became Douglas Ross.
The Scottish Conservative and Unionist party has 31 seats in the Scottish parliament, making it the largest opposition group (the governing SNP has 64). This is thanks to Scotland’s proportional voting system that, ironically, the Tories fiercely opposed; if first past the post still operated, they would have only five seats. The party’s performance at Holyrood has been uninspiring, loud in denunciation of SNP governments but pretty barren of new ideas. And yet the Tories, like the other unionist opposition parties, are tormented over their links to London.
Scottish Labour still shudders at the words of Johann Lamont, a previous leader, when she exploded a few years ago against being treated as a “branch office”. Money, senior appointments and policy are decided in London, not Glasgow. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have more autonomy but even less influence on their Westminster party.
For the Scottish Tories, the union has traditionally been sacred. But a string of electoral defeats, as the whole landscape and language of Scottish politics diverged from the “British” model in the late 20th century, shook that confidence. More than 10 years ago, Murdo Fraser, one of the party’s few original minds, suggested that the party should break with central office in London, find a new name and operate as an independent force, while still loyal to the union. At the time, Fraser was squashed by Davidson, who took over the Scottish leadership, apparently comfortable with its “branch office” status. Now things look different. There have been upheavals before, as in the 1970s, when a minority fought in vain to soothe Thatcher’s hostility to any form of political devolution. But to see the party almost unanimous in demanding that a British prime minister be sacked – this is utterly new.
To see the party almost unanimous in demanding that a British prime minister be sacked – this is utterly new
Until 1965, this was the Scottish Unionist party. The “Conservative” label was only tacked on as the Scottish Tories, once dominant, entered steep decline. Now the Johnson crisis challenges them to choose: are they more unionist than Conservative? Or vice versa: could they conceive of themselves as an independent rightwing party in a sovereign or quasi-confederal Scottish state?
The “Unionist” title referred to Ireland and the venerable rows over home rule, not to the 1707 Anglo-Scottish union. In the 20th century, Scotland’s Tories were perceived partly in sectarian terms: thousands of working-class Scots voted Tory to express their Protestant loyalty and keep down the Catholic, mostly Irish, minority.
Supporters were content with a generally patrician leadership, a “colonelocracy” often educated at English public schools and deeply committed to crown, empire and the proud warrior legend of the “Scottish soldier”. Almost all of that is history now. “Unionism” means the United Kingdom, the defence of a new sort of unifying “British” identity that sounds ancient but is in fact quite recent and rather frail. It’s an ideology that is shared by all the “British” parties in Scotland to different degrees, but expressed most forcefully by the Tories. In the last few years, however, unionism has begun to be infiltrated by rightwing extremism, by groups less interested in constitutions than in conspiracy theories (‘“SNP fascism”), anti-vaxx protests and venomous misogyny directed at Nicola Sturgeon.
The demography of Scottish conservatism has changed too. The patricians and great landowners have almost all departed from the leadership, while the religious element is draining out of politics. The party is represented today by more plebeian men and women, educated in Scottish schools. Its most solid support is now regional – mainly the range of rural constituencies along the English border and in the north-east – rather than class based.
The late Teddy Taylor MP, populist and maverick, tried to persuade his party that Glasgow’s large Asian minority could be recruited as naturally bourgeois, but Labour and the SNP got there first. Yet the biggest change of all, the rise of political nationalism and cultural self-confidence, has unfairly landed the Tories with public perception as “the English party”, just as the party’s activists have left southern “poshness” behind them.
Which way will the Scottish Conservatives turn now? The tantalising fact is that Scotland is in many ways a “conservative” – with a small c – society. The SNP’s faith that the Scots are naturally social-democratic is questioned by widespread values that are often repressive rather than liberal. “Who d’ye think you are – the queen of Sheba?” In an independent Scotland, or at least as an independent organisation cut loose from London, a centre-right conservative party could expect a very healthy future.
• Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer