Salvation lies in becoming a Scottish Gaullist party Why Ian Lang will exhort the Tartan Tories not to panic

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A LITTLE over 40 years ago, a youthful George Younger gracefully stepped aside at an impending by-election in the then constituency of Kinross and West Perthshire to allow Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who had just disclaimed the earldom of Home and become prime minister, to return to the House of Commons.

The horrid thought must have struck some of the surviving Tories in Perth and Kinross this week that even Sir Alec might not have held the seat for them on Thursday. So low have the Tories sunk in this most natural of Tory seats.

Instead, one of the most prosperous parts of Scotland, a constituency boasting more than 70 per cent owner-occupiers - far above the Scottish average - has elected as its MP a woman, Roseanna Cunningham, who is a nationalist, a socialist and a republican.

It doesn't, on the face of it, make sense. Not in Perthshire.

There is no precise equivalent of Perthshire in England. It is a bit like Gloucestershire and a bit like Hampshire, while the city of Perth itself might be compared to Salisbury. The first reaction is to suggest that if the Tories can't hold Perth and Kinross, they can't be confident of holding a single seat in Scotland.

But it is not quite so simple. For one thing this was, of course, a by- election, and if there is one thing that seems certain in British politics today, it is that the electorate happily uses by-elections, and local elections, to embarrass and humiliate the government of the day.

There is, moreover, a ghost hovering round to disturb Ms Cunningham's hour of triumph. It is the ghost of Nichol Stephen, the young Liberal Democrat who inflicted a like humiliation on the Tories in the Kincardine and Deeside by-election in December 1991.

His victory provoked forecasts of a Tory-free Scotland and a mood of extraordinary political excitement; there was even an opinion poll suggesting that 50 per cent of the Scottish electorate were in favour of independence for Scotland.

But the general election came round a few months later, and enough of the Tory faithful returned for them to be able to claim a triumph. It was only a triumph when viewed in the context of the annihilation predicted for them, but it was still enough of a triumph to wipe the smile off the faces of the opposition parties and to leave them considerably discombobulated. And as for young Mr Stephen, he returned to that part of the political wilderness reserved for the winners of sensational by-elections.

So this, doubtless, is the message that the unflappable Ian Lang will deliver to his troops: "Remember Kincardine and Deeside, and don't panic."

He has other reasons to take the same line. First, in comparison with other by-elections, this was only a small earthquake. After all, the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn's majority was only 2,000 in 1992, and the loss of the seat had been discounted ever since Sir Nicholas went to join his maker. (His own contemptuous dismissal of the chosen Tory, John Godfrey, hardly helped the poor man's chances, though his performance did much to justify Sir Nicholas's strictures.)

Then, Mr Lang will no doubt point out, though the Tory vote slumped, the SNP one dropped also. That hardly looks like a nationalist bandwagon rolling.

The only party to increase its vote was Labour, but even they can't take much heart from the result. They had a very good candidate - as did the unfortunate Liberal Democrats, who suffered from the fixed rule of Scottish politics: that the Liberal Democrats and the nationalists can never both do well in the same seat. Labour, moreover, put enormous effort into the campaign. Tony Blair visited the constituency twice, and expressed his view that it could be won. After all this, Labour finished 7,000 votes behind the Nationalists.

The main result of Labour's performance may be to raise the spirits of Tory MPs in the south-west of England whose main challengers are the Liberal Democrats; it may lead them to believe that New Labour may do just well enough to take some Liberal Democrat votes and allow the Tories to squeeze through.

Finally, since this by-election is sure to raise expectations of a new nationalist surge (despite the drop in the SNP vote), Mr Lang will doubtless say that we have heard all this before and that the opinion polls suggested that the constitutional issue still ranks low among voters' priorities. So he will urge his followers to keep their nerve and all will come right on the night.

He may well be wise in this, and certainly no one should be surprised if Ms Cunningham is dislodged in the general election as Perth and Kinross returns to the Tory fold. The faithful stayed at home; they were not converted, Mr Lang will say; all we need to do is get them out when it matters.

All that makes sense, and yet one cannot dismiss the thought that this result marks a further step in Scotland's rejection of the Conservative and Unionist Party in its present guise. It has had 16 years in which to regain the trust of the Scottish electorate and it has failed to do so.

This has come about because, with the rise of nationalist sentiment and the concomitant weakening of the sense of British identity in Scotland, the Tories have found themselves forced into the most uncomfortable of all positions for a right-wing party; of being perceived as unpatriotic. Their loyalty to the idea of Scotland within the United Kingdom has been interpreted as loyalty to the United Kingdom first, and Scotland a long way second. They have failed to identify themselves as Scottish Gaullists and they are paying the price.

Now there is very little they can do to remedy this before the next election. To abandon the Major-Lang line on the union now would look absurd, or at least as unconvincing as most death-bed conversions. It would also offend that sizeable minority (about 25 per cent) of Scots who remain loyal to the status quo. The Tories would risk losing their friends without winning over any of their enemies.

Their chance to tack with the wind and take up a new position will come only when a Labour government enacts its plans for devolution. Then the Tories can gracefully accept this as something which can no longer be credibly opposed - as in the past Tories have accepted parliamentary reform and the Attlee welfare state.

They can reconstitute themselves as a distinctively Scottish party and, in doing so, seek to attract to them that body of the SNP support which is formed of the upwardly mobile types who in England have been the keenest supporters, and beneficiaries, of Thatcherism.

A final oddity of Scottish politics is this: while the SNP calls itself a social democratic party, it finds its most eager support among the tartan equivalents of Essex Man. If the Scottish Tory party was assertively Scottish, the Tartan Thatcherites would find it their natural home.