Save the Tartan Tory! Last seen in dire straits

The Conservatives are on the verge of becoming a fringe party in Scotland, says Paul Routledge
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Indy Politics
Moby, the confused whale, is a metaphor for Scottish Conservatives. Sea life experts hope the 40-foot mammal that last week got lost in the Firth of Forth has now found clear blue water. "But there is no way of knowing," sighed a deep-sea diver.

Indeed not. Moby, the sperm whale whose plight captured Scottish hearts, may be beached on some forlorn strand - like the expectations of the Tory party north of the border. He was the victim of "strong spring tides and a hopeless sense of direction", say the oceanologists.

Much the same may be said of the Conservatives, languishing at third place in the opinion polls on 17 per cent, way behind Labour and shadowing a resurgent Scottish Nationalist Party. John Major's troops go into battle to defend only 10 seats out of 72 in Scotland, and many believe they could be reduced to half that number. Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, looks doomed and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, is seriously at risk. It could even be goodbye to Bill Walker, the Scottish backbench Malvolio. Their quest for survival will not have been helped by the resignation yesterday of the Scottish Conservative Party chairman, Sir Michael Hirst.

The decline has been uneven, but steady. In 1955, the Tories became the only party to capture more than 50 per cent of the popular vote in Scotland, a feat unequalled since. Historically, Labour was lucky to get a toe-hold in Edinburgh, the capital city dominated by the law, the professions, banking and public administration. Its only seat, the run-down Central district, was represented by Tom Oswald, a former corporation tram driver and reputedly the most taciturn man in parliament.

Tony Blair now has four of the six constituencies, and is bidding to complete his hand by ousting Rifkind in Edinburgh Pentlands, where the Foreign Secretary has a majority of 4,148, and Lord James Douglas-Hamilton in Edinburgh West where Labour seeks to overturn a Tory majority of 4,291. Lord James, a junior minister, is an aristocrat of the old school. When the government car service gave him a chauffeuse, he was forever leaping to open the door for his driver.

This is the country which gave the world Adam Smith, whose 18th-century The Wealth of Nations transformed political philosophy in favour of laissez- faire economics. Yet since the mid-Fifties, the Tories have lost almost one percentage point of the popular vote every year. Even the most sanguine Conservative strategist privately predicts a performance no better than the "mid-20s" on 1 May. An SNP insider goes even further: "They might find themselves on the margins of Scottish politics, squeezed out of the picture."

There are some understandable reasons. For one thing, voting patterns in Scotland have drawn away from religious influence. The old Catholic- Protestant divide is no longer so important, though Labour has largely been the beneficiary, picking up much of the old working-class "Orange" vote. That trend may be due to a growing perception that the Conservative and Unionist Party (as it still calls itself north of the border) has become a London-dominated political force: not so much a union of equals, as a master-servant relationship. The SNP has profited hugely from a powerful reaction to this "Scottish cringe". Roseanna Cunningham, MP for Perth and Kinross, looks likely to be the first Nationalist to hold on to a constituency won in a by-election. The Nationalists are in second place, but their support also registered a sharp fall last week, down six points in the polls to 20 per cent, the lowest for six years. Alex Salmond, SNP leader, dismissed System Three's findings in the Herald as "a rogue poll", prompted largely by the Sun's defection to Tony Blair. Labour, up six and riding high at 52 per cent, thought it was no more than a restoration of its true place after a blip caused by Gordon Brown's commitment to Conservative spending plans for 1997-99. Liberal Democrats, on nine per cent, are in danger of losing three seats: Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, where Sir David Steel is retiring, a redrawn Gordon in the northeast which could actually be a Tory gain; and Inverness, where Sir Russell Johnston has quit. It is now the scene of a head to head contest between Labour and the SNP.

But it is the Tories whose future is most critical and most enigmatic. It is a grim scenario. Rifkind and Lord James might just hang on, but Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, is generally reckoned to be on a loser at Stirling. And if Ian Lang, under pressure from the SNP at Galloway and Upper Nithsdale was "ashen-faced" in 1992, what colour will he be now the Nationalists are ahead? At Ayr, the Scottish Office Minister Phil Gallie actually needs a swing against Labour to defend his new boundaries successfully. In the unlikely event of John Major winning, the Conservatives could probably not staff the Scottish Office with ministers. Even in the last parliament, a Scots Tory MP only had to be able to count to 10, or ride a bike (not both at the same time) to get his hands on the coveted red boxes.

The Tories argue that things are not as bad as they appear in the opinion polls and that they have been here before. They were written off last time yet managed to snatch two seats, one each from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Their answer to the party's long-term decline is "tartanisation". They have dropped the Central Office torch logo from their advertising hoardings, in favour of a Scots lion grappling with a broad, red stripe. The lion has blotches and lines running through it, "as though it's been electrocuted" smirked passers-by. The party has also gone heavily into the vernacular with slogans like "New Labour, nae jobs". "They're taking off Wee Willy and the Broons [a popular comic strip]," observed an SNP supporter. "It will nae work."

The return of the Stone of Destiny was part of this tartanisation process, the brainchild of Michael Forsyth, but Mike Russell, chief executive of the SNP, is unimpressed: "This is just tartan frills and frippery. It doesn't convince anybody. The vast majority of Scots view the Tories as an English-based party. It doesn't add much to their impact."

Not now, perhaps. Not this time. A senior Conservative source admits: "This will be more of a holding operation." Then, extraordinarily, he adds: "2002 may be a holding operation. But certainly, over the longer term we see positive signs. Now we have corrected the public sector dependency culture in Scotland, there will be a re-emergence of the Conservatives."

Alongside this populist "tartanisation" Scottish Conservatives are also staking out an intellectual case for the Union. In a new pamphlet, Professor J Ross Harper, former president of the International Bar Association, says that Labour's plans for a tax-raising Scottish assembly are "dangerous and inept".

He argues: "A Scottish parliament would be able, I am sure, to find an excuse for debating all matters and setting itself at odds with the Westminster government - even where the parties in control are the same ... we are right to resist."

Moby, the disoriented whale, defied the best efforts of ocean-going tugs, divers and sirens to drive him back into the North Sea last week. If he survived, it was because he found his own way. By repositioning themselves as a Scottish party, but one tied irrevocably to the Union, Scots Tories believe that they too have found a formula for survival. The voters will soon answer the embarrassing question: "Can this creature swim?"