‘End Tory rule forever’ was reportedly one of the most frequently heard pro-independence shout-outs during the Scottish referendum campaign. It seemed to make sense, didn’t it? The Conservative Party, as the Guardian put it, is ‘one of the most despised political forces in Scotland’. And the referendum was the chance to stop an English-supported Tory government from ever again lording it over the virulently anti-Tory Scots.
This story of Scotland’s loathing for all things Conservative has played an important role in the arguments over the Union. It suggests Scotland is a political exception to all things British, a territory marked by a distinct moral and political culture utterly inhospitable to the Tories. As one commentator writes, ‘Scotland has been rejecting the Conservatives for almost all of the party’s history, yet has often been governed by them’. According to this narrative, it almost makes sense that the Scots would seek their own independent polity, a polity free of this supposedly foreign entity that is Conservatism.
Or it would make sense if this tale were true. But it isn’t. In fact, from the turn of the twentieth century up until the 1970s, the Unionist Party, which became the Scottish Conservative Party in 1965, was a major political force, taking turns with its only real competitor, the Labour Party, to be the dominant force. So throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Unionist Party regularly commanded between 40 and 50 per cent of the Scottish vote, a trend which continued after the Second World War. At the 1951 General Election, for instance, the Unionists, in alliance with the National Liberals and the Conservative Party, won the support of 1,349,298 Scots, amounting to 48 per cent of votes cast. The Labour Party polled slightly fewer on 47 per cent of the vote, winning the support of 1,330,244. Incredibly, this actually bucked the national trend, given that Winston Churchill’s triumphant Tories had actually won a slightly smaller share of the popular vote than Labour, despite it winning more seats.
And again at the 1955 election, Scotland showed its Unionist, Tory-approving colours, with 50.1 per cent of Scots voting Unionist/Tory, compared to 46.7 per cent voting Labour. Although, the Tories’ support in Scotland fell during the 1960s, this is hardly a mark of Scotland’s unique, red-tinged political culture. Labour, under Harold Wilson, was more popular across Britain, not just in Scotland. Still, at the 1964 General Election, the Conservatives still garnered 1,069,695 votes in Scotland, which amounted to 40.6 per cent of the vote. Conservatism in Scotland, far from being anathema, was woven into the political fabric. Which shouldn’t be a surprise: in this regard, Scotland’s political make-up, with the Conservatives and Labour drawing on large social constituencies, was the same as the rest of Britain’s.
Ah, say those who insist on Scotland having a distinctly anti-Tory political culture, that was then. That was a period when the Unionists and then the Tories could draw on the vast popular reserves of working-class Protestantism, a period when sectarian divisions were strong, when a commitment to the Union, enshrined in key institutions from the Church of Scotland to the Boys’ Brigade, provided the Tories with large swathes of support. And that, they continue, was a period which, by the 1960s, was drawing to a close, as religion’s social role declined and sectarian divisions lost their heat.