Caution the by-word as conservative Scotland shuns radical thought

Post-election analysis by Christopher Silver
When Hugh MacDiarmid contested Alec Douglas-Home’s Kinross and Western Perthshire seat for the Communist Party in 1964, he achieved a tally of 127 votes. In response, legend has it, the poet remarked that he was amazed to find 127 good communists in the heartland of douce old Tory Scotland.
The performance of Scotland’s radical parties at last week’s election called for an equally strong dose of dry humour. It also served as a reminder of how the nation loves its radicals to be performers, poets — wild men and women on the margins. At the ballot box, it has aye been far more conservative than it likes to admit.
Christopher Silver
Christopher Silver

Despite this, a narrative has emerged within Scotland’s commentariat suggesting that the traditional reluctance of Scots to back extremes was somehow inverted last Thursday.

Casting around for comparisons to explain the election, David Torrance, Andrew Nicoll and Stephen Daisley alighted upon the politics of our close neighbour Northern Ireland. Torrance’s invocation of ‘Ulsterisation’ drew the most flak, yet the underlying sentiment was more forcefully expressed by Daisley:

“…the bitterness, the division, the flags, the rancid identity politics which now calls Scotland home bears echoes of Northern Ireland. Scotland is a question of loyalty…”


Two parties, we are told, triumphed based on this new troubling dynamic within Scottish public life. Those mainly befuddled or less committed to their chosen tribe, such as the Lib Dems and Labour, were punished. Even the fledgling Greens just didn’t fly their chosen flag with enough gusto.

Torrance: "Ulsterisation? Really?
Torrance: “Ulsterisation? Really?

There is of course another view, it happens to be less provocative, so may get less of a hearing. Scotland has not entered into some dark new territory of ethnic strife and political extremes. Instead, it has established a politics based on competition between a centre left and a centre right party. This is all perfectly normal.

The nature of Tory gains exemplifies a familiar pattern — older conservative voters are more likely to be found in rural areas than in the urban sprawl — take a map of Denmark, or England, and note how population density aligns with left/right voting. The referendum debate and the squeezing of the soft-unionist parties distracts from the basic fact that Scotland is voting in a manner that would not seem out of place in any modern democracy in northern Europe.

The parties themselves may not feel comfortable within such a picture. Is this because it jars with their commitment to Scotland or Britain? Or is it simply because constitutional labels now seem to offer the firmest anchor for their respective differences?

As is often the case when a contender is proclaiming their virility, the tendency to overstate is so familiar it is easily overlooked. Davidson’s ‘line in the sand’ unionism belies the fact that she has done a great deal to detoxify the Tory brand in Scotland. She has not achieved this by sitting astride a variety of dangerous livestock and machinery, but by quietly staking out a posture that seems autonomous from London. This re-orientation of the party has been explicit for some time. In 2013 Davidson remarked: “We need to prove…beyond all reasonable doubt we do indeed put Scotland first, and that we are single-mindedly determined to do so in the future.”


Some may doubt the sincerity of the party’s commitment to this new Holyrood-centric strategy. But in doing so they have accepted, tacitly, that Scotland and England are now fundamentally different polities. Distinctive Scottish politics is now the only game in town.
Radical? Really? Or no' really?
Radical? Really? Or no’ really?

On the other side of the divide the old Scottish thirst for consensus is just as evident. There can be no doubt about the SNP’s commitment to independence, as both a fundamental rallying point and a clear goal. While there are many within its membership who genuinely believe an indyref2 is just around the corner (premised on a commitment so vague as to be effectively absent from their party’s manifesto), others understand the existential peril that a botched second attempt represents.

Caution on the constitutional question has been learned the hard way. Going back to the party’s prospectus for independence presented in 2014, all of the issues that proved the most debilitating, such as currency, exposed a gradualism so gradual that some branded it as “independence within the UK”. A studied caution on other policies, even when they promote a unionist argument (as on the 50p rate), has become standard.

This is not to downplay the enormous role of independence in sustaining the SNP as an entity, nor is it to suggest that it might ditch the policy for electoral gain. The point is that both SNP and Tory have gone to significant efforts, given their past cultures and histories, to veer towards the middle ground of Scottish public opinion. No mainstream party in Scotland is intent on actually rocking the boat — even if they do have a rhetorical tendency to play on anxieties about the slightest hint of motion.


Scotland’s dominant feature is its social cohesion. In part, Scots fetishise division because they are so afraid of it. The urge to get along in a small country is the overwhelming concern of those who get involved in public life. Those on the extremes, who are intent on really picking a fight, are quickly and effectively marginalised.

For those of a more radical bent, such as the electorally unfortunate RISE, this is a point of frustration. The eviscerating impact of austerity and youth unemployment in southern Europe has no counterpart here, as yet. The conditions for a Scottish Podemos or SYRIZA do not exist in Scotland, and rhetoric cannot summon such conditions into being.

Ruth Davidson: Looking through her end of the telescope, the Tories very nearly...won !
Ruth Davidson: Looking through her end of the telescope, the Tories very nearly…won !

Rather than constitutional politics replacing left and right in Scotland, the two polarities have become so closely intertwined that it’s hard to separate them out.

These different narratives about Scottishness and Britishness are, as I’ve noted before, a kind of ‘culture war’. Such a scenario is brought into being by a limited range of divergent political options, not by the presence of credible extremist politics at the ballot box.

However, Scotland has arrived at this new political reality at a time when the kind of loosely defined social democracy that the SNP favours is on the back foot virtually everywhere. In Norway, Germany, Austria, Spain, Greece and France, the kind of Euro-centric centre-leftism that the SNP has always grounded its political vision in, is in retreat.

 Parties further to the left and on the populist right are snapping at the heels of a tired third-way consensus. With characteristic irony, Scottish politics has arrived at a place not unlike the European norm, at a time when that norm seems poised to collapse.

The great unknown factor in Scottish politics is the enormous drop in turnout, of around 30 per cent, since 2014. What, save another probably distant independence referendum might bring them out to vote again? In the meantime, if the SNP is compelled, like its counterparts in southern Europe, not just to implement the diktat of austerity, but to be seen to be doing so, the now stable parameters of Scottish politics might prove less rigid.

So here’s a strange prediction for the coming parliamentary term. Today, it might seem like the constitutional divide will be definitive. Yet by 2021 it is perfectly credible that economic rather than constitutional turbulence will have thrown the current settlement off balance. At that point, this new dynamic in Scottish politics — between centre left and centre right — will be truly tested.

Christopher Silver is a journalist and author of the book, Demanding Democracy; Word Power Books; £11.99