Politics on the Borderline
With a general election to be held on 8 June 2017, the media spotlight will fall on the south of Scotland in search of a Conservative revival.
In 1997, the Tories lost every single one of their Scottish seats. In 2001 they managed to claw one back, when Peter Duncan regained Galloway and Upper Nithsdale with a majority of 74 over his SNP opponent. After a change of boundaries, Duncan lost the new seat of Dumfries and Galloway to Labour in 2005, but the SNP regained ground in 2015 when Richard Arkless became MP.
The 2005 boundary changes created another new seat- Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. This was won by David Mundell for the Conservatives. In 2015, Mundell held his seat to become Scotland’s only Conservative MP and his constituency stuck out as a solitary blue blob in a sea of SNP yellow.
In the Scottish Borders region to the east, yet another new seat was created in 2005 – Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. This included most of the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles constituency which had been Conservative until David Steel won it for the Liberals in 1965. Michael Moore won the new seat for the Liberal Democrats in 2005, but in 2015 it was gained by the SNP.
In the May 2017 local council elections, across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders; the Conservatives got 31 councillors, the SNP 20, Labour 11 and the Liberal Democrats 3. 11 Independent councillors were also elected. None of the Labour councillors were elected in the Scottish Borders.
The Tories are spinning these results, suggesting that they are now going to hold on to Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (DCT) and win back Dumfries and Galloway. The Tories also hope to win Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk from the SNP and Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. As large, mainly rural, constituencies this would created a solid swathe of blue across the south of Scotland from the North Channel to the North Sea.
The full claim is that the Tories could win 15 Scottish seats in June, including several in the SNP‘s north-east heartlands. These are also mainly rural seats.
With less than a month until the general election, it will be interesting to see if the Conservatives believe their own spin. If so, they are likely to focus on the highly symbolic impact of defeating the SNP in their traditional heartlands rather than focusing on the potentially more fertile Tory territory of the rural south.
Thinking about the upcoming election, I have re-read ‘Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives’ by Alexander Smith (Manchester University press, 2011). It is based on fieldwork Smith undertook in 2001-3 in Dumfries and Galloway, looking at how Conservatives in Dumfries and Galloway recovered from their wipe-out in 1997 and mobilised to fight the 2003 local council election and Scottish Parliament election.
This was achieved by what Smith calls ‘banal activism’, focusing not on big national issues but on re-enthusing party members/ supporters in the then 47 council wards which made up the region. Rather like the Liberals/ Liberal Democrats, ultra-local issues- the threat of a school closure, the replacement of a roundabout by traffic lights for example – were picked up on (pp.74-77)
The many local newspapers which cover the sprawling (2400 square mile) region were closely read, including the letters pages, to monitor responses to these micro-campaigns. At the same time, to ensure the image of a new and improved ’listening’ Tory party was maintained, some of the more traditional Tories were sidelined.
Lt Col John Charteris was the unsuccessful Tory candidate for Dumfriesshire in the 2001general election. Charteris was pro-hunting, pro-Iraq war and strongly anti-trade unionist. As Smith reveals (pp70-74), worried that Charteris’ old-fashioned Conservatism would detract from their ultra-local agenda, the modernisers -David Mundell MSP and Peter Duncan MP – did their best to keep him quiet. ’Exasperated, one key Party strategist asked an influential member of the County set to ‘rein in’ the retired lieutenant colonel (p.73).
Effectively then, what Smith’s book reveals is the processes by which the Conservatives in Dumfries and Galloway re-invented themselves after the Year Zero of 1997. This process included the difficult task of persuading their supporters to forget the Party’s previous opposition to devolution and the Scottish Parliament (see p.115). This was necessary if the Party was to present itself as defending/representing the interests of a ‘forgotten’ rural region in a Scotland dominated by the urbanised and industrialised central belt where most Scots live (p.11). Suspicions over David Mundell’s years as Social Democratic party councillor in the 1980s had to be overcome as well.
Significantly, in Smith’s book there are very few references to the Conservative party at Scottish or UK level. The meltdown of 1997 meant that the local Tories were left pretty much on their own and had to rely on local resources during the reinvention/ revival process.
This enforced autonomy probably helped them, allowing them to establish a more distinct regional identity. As the results of the May 2017 council elections showed, this still gives the Tories an advantage. However, the strength of regionalised Conservatism as a ‘brand’ could be damaged by the very English Conservatism of Theresa May in a general election. May’s Conservatism harks back to that of Margaret Thatcher. Yet it was the need to distance themselves from what was then seen as a failed model of Conservatism in Scotland which forced the Dumfries and Galloway Tories to reinvent themselves as a local/regional party after 1997.
Alongside this fault line within the Conservative party is another. While Dumfries and Galloway voted 66% to 34% against Scottish independence in 2014, the region voted 53% to 47% to Remain in the EU in 2016. David Mundell was one of the Remain supporting Tories.
At UK level, the general election has been framed by Theresa May as an essential part of the Brexit process. If this UK level argument is imposed on Dumfries and Galloway Tories, this will run counter to regional support for remaining in the EU. Conservative supporters in the region who voted Remain in June 2016 will have to contradict themselves in June 2017.
To be more certain of success, the Tories will have to fight a different campaign in Scotland, ignoring the Brexit angle and concentrating on the question of Scottish independence. However, since this election is being driven by Brexit, this may prove difficult to achieve.
In an ‘Afterword’, Alexander Smith notes the results of the 2010 general election and that ‘banal activism… served to ensure that the Scottish Conservatives did not disappear entirely from the political landscape of Scotland’ but that ’the Scottish Tories have exhausted the possibilities with which banal activism presented them’ (p.135). Rather than gain the eleven seats targeted in 2010, David Mundell remained as Scotland’s sole Tory MP. As Smith observed, this was in marked contrast to the success of the English Tory party in the 2010 election.
Then in 2015 came the Scottish earthquake. The SNP gained 40 seats from Labour and 10 from the Liberal Democrats, but David Mundell survived in DCT.
The Scottish Labour party machine, which had seemed so strong to the local Conservatives in 2003, is now broken. Can the Labour party here pull off the same trick as the Tories managed and re-invent themselves? Possibly not- between 2012 and 2017, Labour lost 10% of its vote share in D and G council elections and the Tories gained 12%. However over the 14 years between 2003 and 2017, the Labour % vote has only dropped by 5%, the Tories have increased theirs by 9% and the SNP their share by 8%.
Important note: the Dumfriesshire part of David Mundell’s DCT seat takes in most of Dumfriesshire. Alexander Smith devotes Chapter 3 of his book to the Labour v Tory struggle with the Boundary Commission when DCT, originally to be called Peebles, Clydesdale and Annandale, was proposed. The Tories were happy to see the traditional links between Dumfries (with its Labour voters) and Dumfriesshire (with its Tory voters) severed. It was Labour who argued for history, tradition and community in this case…
Labour percentage vote in D and G Council elections.
In 2003 it was 24%
In 2007 it was 28%
In 2012 it was 29%
In 2017 it was 19%
Tory percentage vote in D and G Council elections
In 2003 it was 30%
In 2007 it was 32%
In 2012 it was 27%
In 2017 it was 39%
SNP percentage vote in D and G Council elections
In 2003 it was 14%
In 2007 it was 19%
In 2012 it was 20%
In 2017 it was 22%
Between 2003 and 2017, the Liberal Democrat share of the vote fell from 10% to 4%. The Independents share of fell from 21% to 17%.
It should be noted that not all Independents are closet Conservatives. In Stranraer, when standing for Labour Willie Scobie topped the poll with 1007 votes. In 2012, standing as an independent, Scobie increased his vote to 2057. In 2017 his personal vote was 1925.
In 2003, key Tory party strategists hit upon a n ploy to clip the wings of Lt Col Charteris (Ret’d). Th lieutenant colonel was selected to stand as Conservative candidate for Lochar ward. This would give his Election Agent the power ‘to vet all of his campaign material and election comment, including letters to the editor (Smith, 2001, p.73). Much to the relief of the modernisers like Peter Duncan and David Mundell, Charteris was defeated by Independent candidate Beth Gordon. He was elected for Lochar ward in 2007, but not in 2012. In May, the lieutenant colonel once more became a councillor.
Possibly age has mellowed the doughty class warrior. On the other hand, the rightward movement of the Tory party in pursuit of UKIP votes in England and the Scottish ’Unionist’ vote means that his views are once more part of the mainstream of Conservatism. Now it is former Social Democratic party member and Remain supporter David Mundell who is on the margins of Theresa May’s jingoistic Tory party.
But even if David Mundell is no longer the very model of a modern Tory MP, he is at least a weel kent face for voters in DCT. Voters in the Dumfries and Galloway constituency (which should really be called Galloway and Dumfries Burgh) will be faced with a mystery man- Alister Jack.
A Scotsman article from 2007 reveals something of his background as a businessman who made his £20 million fortune through ‘self-storage’.
In 1997 Jack was the unsuccessful Tory candidate in Tweeddale , Ettrick and Lauderdale. In the William Hague years (1997-2001) he was vice-chair of the Scottish Conservatives so would have known David Mundell, Alex Fergusson and Peter Duncan of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Tories. In 1998, Jack was the Scottish Conservative economic affairs/ industry spokesman
The paucity of more recent news stories about Mr Jack’s political activities suggests he had little to say on either the Scottish or EU referendums. He is hardly likely to have been a Yes voter in 2014 but could, like David Mundell, have been a Remainer in 2016.
If he was not a Remainer but was a Leaver, he was not a very vocal one. He is therefore unlikely to be ideologically driven in the way that the majority of anti-EU Tories are. And if he is not politically driven, if elected, will he promptly go fishing in Argentina again?
“YOU have just sold two self-storage businesses, one in the UK and one in France, for a combined total of about £54 million, what do you do next? If you are Armadillo boss Alister Jack you take a fortnight’s holiday in pursuit of the sea trout of Argentina – “very exciting, the biggest in the world”. From 2007 Scotsman article.
From a video recently posted on his Facebook page, Jack’s pitch to voters in Dumfries and Galloway is distinctly minimalist “If you are a Unionist, lend me your vote”.
What is so ironic about this pitch is that any short term gains achieved by attracting former Labour and LibDem (or even former Social Democrat?) voters by the encouragement it will provide to ‘hard’ Brexiteers.
In England, rather than standing for election, one of Jack’s fellow millionaire Tory businessman Jeremy Hoskings is investing his cash in an attempt to ensure the hardest possible Brexit.
A leading donor behind the Brexit victory has pledged to fund a campaign to oust almost 140 pro-remain MPs in an attempt to ensure there is “no backsliding on Brexit” after the election.
The bulk of the campaign will be aimed at helping the Tories secure seats in the Midlands and northern England that have regularly returned a Labour MP. Hosking said that “traditional Labour voters should on this occasion hold their nose and vote Tory” to help deliver Brexit.
The campaign has potential implications for the internal make-up of the parliamentary Conservative party after the election.
Some Brexiters believe that a new cohort of Conservative MPs who owe their victory to May’s determination to leave the EU, exit the single market and impose immigration controls will be crucial in stopping the government shift towards a “soft Brexit” after the election. Hosking said that new Tory MPs from traditionally Labour-held seats would help safeguard a “full, national Brexit”, rather than a “City of London Brexit”.
Note the difference between Alister Jack and Jeremy Hoskings.
Jack is asking ‘traditional Labour voters’ to hold their noses and vote Tory- but not to ensure a hard Brexit. Instead, Jack is asking traditional Labour supporters to vote Tory to save the Union of 1707.
But if ‘Unionist’ Labour (and LibDem) manage to elect a handful of Tories in Scotland in a UK general election, they will take their seats alongside a set of Tory MPs elected by ‘Leave’ Labour voters in England.
The end result, as the Guardian article above highlights, will be to embolden the most extreme faction of the Tory party. When Dumfries and Galloway along with rest of Scotland voted remain in June 2016, this is not what they were asking for.
In the long run, an extreme Brexit is likely to increase support for Scottish independence since it will cause intense economic disruption. Rather than fearing independence, voters will fear for their future if Scotland remains in the UK Union.
But as economist John Maynard Keynes concisely put it “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”
In the shorter term then, if Labour Unionists do loan Mr Jack their votes on 8 June and find themselves living once more in a Tory hell, it will be too late to cry ” O, Lord, we didna ken, we didna ken” because the Good Lord “wi his infinite mercie an compassion” can but reply : “Weel, ye ken noo”
For anyone with a fraction of foresight, which might even include more thoughtful Tory supporters in Dumfries and Galloway, the sensible option is to vote for Richard Arkless here or Mairi McAllan in DCT.
Perhaps if any of the local Conservatives were to read and reflect on Richard Smith’s ‘Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives’, they might find it contains a very useful insight. This insight is that in order to recover from their 1997 Year Zero, the Scottish Conservatives had to accept and adjust to a reality they had passionately and vigorously opposed- a Scottish Parliament.
In so doing, they were able to put clear tartan water between themselves and Thatcherite Conservatism and become a regionally focused party of small ‘c’ rural conservatism. In an independent Scotland their supporters are not going to vanish in a puff of smoke. The need to defend/promote the interests of the fragile communities and marginal economy of the rural south of Scotland will still exist.
Rather than going down with the bad ship Brexit, regional and Scottish conservatives (note small c) should take a deep breath and accept that accepting Scottish independence is the their best hope for survival.
Understanding their own history might help as well. The Unionist party which merged with the Tories in Scotland in 1965 began as the Liberal Unionist party which split from William Gladstone’s Liberal party over the Irish question in 1886. In England the Liberal Unionists merged with the Conservatives in 1912, but in Scotland they set themselves up as the Scottish Unionist party.
But rather than get diverted into a discussion of the complex history of Whigs, Tories, Liberals, Conservatives and Unionists in Dumfries and Galloway, I will write about that in a future post.