Scottish Conservatives: A Story of Decline

By William Knox

Throughout the first half of 20th century, the Conservative Party was the only political party in Scotland to gain more than 50 per cent in a general election, but in the latter half of the 20th century, the Conservatives’ vote was on the slide. In 1997, they failed to get a single Conservative elected.

Some commentators have attributed this decline to the impact of Margaret Thatcher, a British Prime Minister, and her free-market philosophy, which was at odds with the Scots’ emphasis on community and helping each other. Although Thatcher was a factor, you have to go back a little further to find the roots of the Conservatives’ decline north of the border.

The best way of understanding this issue is to ask what the appeal of Conservatism to Scottish voters was prior to their slide after 1955. The appeal of Conservatism was based on three pillars – empire, patriotism, and Protestantism – which allowed them to appeal to a cross-section of Scottish society. The problem: These pillars collapsed in the decades after the end of the Second World War. People stopped going to church in the 1960s, and that started a downward trend that has continued unabated. The Conservatives themselves dismembered the British Empire in the 1960s and moved to reposition the UK in Europe. Finally, patriotism was last tested in the Falklands War, and Scotland was the least responsive part of the UK. There were no victory parades north of the border.

So, what the Conservatives traditionally stood for was failing to engage post-war generations of Scots. On top of this, Labour and, more important, the Scottish National Party were eating into the traditional heartlands of Conservative support. Thatcher didn’t start the slide, but she made things much worse. When she came to office about one-third of Scots voted for her. By the time she was removed, one-quarter did.

What was it about Thatcher that the Scots found so objectionable? For a start, the Scots didn’t like her manner and the finger-pointing rhetoric she used to tell them how ungrateful they were. Her pledge to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ threatened the livelihoods of many Scots who worked in the public services and nationalised industries.

Then there was the deeply unpopular Poll Tax, which was introduced a year earlier in Scotland than in England. This suggested the Scots were being used as guinea pigs for Tory policies – a feeling that was intensified because there were so few Scottish Conservative members of parliament (MPs) that English ones had to be drafted into the Scottish Office. To many Scots, it was as if they were an occupied territory under the dictatorship of an alien government.

The Conservatives belatedly responded by rediscovering their Scottish roots. During the government of John Major, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland and major investment took place in Scottish culture and history. But these gestures failed to turn the tide; the party was wiped out in the 1997 general election and has failed to recover. Recent experience does not bode well for it in the coming years.

The Conservatives do have a presence in the Scottish Parliament, but ironically, it’s the result of proportional representation – a system the Conservatives are opposed to!

For more information about Scottish history, see Scottish History For Dummies Cheat Sheet.