Can Essex Man be tempted north of the border?

Tory support in Scotland reaches record low
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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK John Major opened up a new front in his campaign against devolution for Scotland. Not only would devolution do "great damage to Scotland and the United Kingdom", it could also cost every Scot an extra £6 a week in tax.

"One hundred and forty members of a Scottish parliament would not come cheap," he warned, in an appeal to the pocket that would have warmed the heart of that old Thatcherite stereotype, Essex Man.

The question is: how will it play when aimed at a new stereotypical character known as Bearsden Man, who has recently appeared in the Scottish press?

Bearsden (pronounced in polite circles with the stress on the last syllable) is a prosperous and placid suburb of Victorian villas just to the north of Glasgow.

Bearsden Man, in the words of James Mitchell, a senior lecturer in politics at Strathclyde University, who minted the phrase, is "a prosperous, confident and secure Scot, with parents who may have bought their council home". In England he would be a natural Tory; in Scotland "he was just as likely to vote Labour as Conservative".

Bearsden men (and Bearsden women) are part of the reason, according to Dr Mitchell, that Tory support has collapsed north of the border. Last week a poll for the (Glasgow) Herald had it at a record low of just 11 per cent.

Even with the Government's national unpopularity, the figure is staggering. As Dr Mitchell points out, hundreds of thousands of Scots have taken advantage of the right to buy their own homes and the proportion of middle-class people in Scotland is no smaller than in the rest of the country.

Bearsden is the ultimate example of this Conservative failure to find support among the old and new bourgeoisie. Eighty-nine per cent of the electors in the Strathkelvin and Bearsden constituency own their own homes, making it the second most middle-class constituency in Scotland.

There has been no collapse in house prices, say local estate agents. The great stone mansions still sell for £250,000 as they did in the late 1980s and the modern bungalows have if anything risen in price since the recession began, and now sell for between £60,000 and £80,000.

And yet in 1987 and again in 1992, Bearsden men (and women) elected Sam Galbraith, the Labour candidate, by small majorities.

Dr Mitchell is a little taken aback by the success of his creation. "I wish I'd never come up with the bloody expression," he said after a busy week of interviews. "It was just a caricature to illustrate how affluent Scots still associate with working-class culture and have been alienated by the Conservatives' frankly stupid inability to understand the Scottish dimension to British politics."

Caricature he may be, but Bearsden Man exists. William Laidlaw was drinking in a wine bar in the centre of old Bearsden last week. He was in a state of absolute fury about the news that Rolls-Royce was to close its East Kilbride plant. To him, and the S c ottish press, the loss of 600 research and design jobs was not an unfortunate consequence of market forces but a "national disaster".

Mr Laidlaw is 42, smart and a partner in a champagne importing business that he started from scratch.

His eyes do not blink when he mentions his profession. When I finally make the obvious joke about champagne socialism, it takes a few seconds to register.

"Oh yeah," he says, "I get you. But there is nothing unusual about people like me thinking like that here. Many of my friends from university are successful lawyers, but they all vote Labour."

John Major's arguments left him unmoved. "All he wants is for us to sit up here saying: `Yeah, yeah, yeah, you do what you want, John, you keep all the power to yourself.' But I don't believe his promises on taxes and don't mind paying more if it gives other people a fair crack."

Sam Galbraith does not find such thoughts surprising. As a brain surgeon who gave up a lucrative medical career for the back benches, he is something of a Bearsden Man himself. He says his middle-class constituents are motivated by a sense of community and a sense of Scottishness which is offended by the "greed and me, me, me culture of English Tories". Even when he is canvassing in the richest parts parts of Bearsden, he still finds Labour supporters "in about one in five of the really big houses".

Sense of community? Giving the poor a fair crack? Are the Scottish middle classes really so different from the English?

For a dose of scepticism it is necessary to turn to the Kirk.

The Rev Alastair Symington, minister at New Kilpatrick Church of Scotland, said that the vast majority of his congregation were Conservatives. They were certainly different from the brash nouveaux riches of Essex, but perhaps not that different.

"There's a lot of old wealth here and people don't tend to flaunt it. Money is a subject no one ever talks about. You never hear people mention their stocks and shares or how they closed a deal . . . that would be vulgar. It may be that they are less worried about taxes, but that's only a maybe. I think people like low taxes whether they've got old money or new money."

But the minister's congregation may not be typical. Scottish political scientists point out that the decline in church attendance has broken the old link between Protestantism, Unionism and supporting the Conservatives - which in the 1955 general election helped make the Tories the only party this century to win more than 50 per cent of the Scottish vote.

That working-class Unionist vote has largely disappeared. But while Labour and the Scottish Nationalists have benefited from more secular politics, the Conservatives have not. The growing Catholic middle class still regard them with hostility.

Other traditional bases of Conservatism are disappearing. In the 1960s large sections of the Scottish press were pro-Tory. Today the best the Conservatives can hope for is neutrality.

Harry Reid, deputy editor of the Herald, which stopped supporting the Conservatives in the late 1970s, said: "We certainly have not lost professional and business readers because we don't back the Government - quite the contrary, in fact."

Even the staunchly Conservatve Daily Mail, which launched a Scottish edition on Thursday by giving away 600,000 free copies, promised that in Scotland it "will not be identified with one particular party [and] will have an independent position on most subjects".

In an interview in the Scottish Daily Mail's first issue, Mr Major promised unspecified measures to address "the frustration of Scottish opinion" while ruling out devolution.

Dr Mitchell thinks that anything short of constitutional change simply will not wash.

"The problem is that the Conservatives have stopped being a Unionist party which could recognise that Britain was made up of different countries," he said. "They have become the party of a unitary state, which imposes its policies without even trying to understand the nature of Scottish society. The best thing that could happen to Scottish Conservatives would be for the Government to lose power so that they could regroup and think about ways of rebuilding support."

To members of the Conservative Association in Bearsden, that scenario is unthinkable.

Bill Thomson, the association's former chairman, said he was getting rather fed up with people telling him that Bearsden would be a rock-solid Tory seat if it were in England.

He blames the party's failure to win over Bearsden Man on the large number of well-paid public-sector managers in the constituency and on "Scottish awkwardness".

Awkward may the best word. Scotland is that part of Britain where the Sun supports Scottish nationalism and even the Daily Mail cannot be relied upon. Essex it is not.

Bearsden men and women have yet to perceive self-interest in quite the same way as their counterparts in Chelmsford, and no evidence suggests that they are about to change their mind.

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