Ferguslie Park has one claim to fame and one claim to infamy.
The Paisley housing estate inspired the title of Stealers Wheel’s second album; Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, the folk-rock band’s founders, were born and raised in the town. Ferguslie Park is also the poorest place in Scotland. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation consistently ranks the Renfrewshire scheme as the most deprived in the country. Those who call it home enjoy some of the worst health and education outcomes as well as the lowest employment and highest crime rates in Scotland.
Ferguslie Park now has another claim but whether it is to fame or infamy is a matter of political inclination. It has just elected a Conservative councillor for what is believed to be the first time in its history. John McIntyre is the unlikeliest Tory winner of the 2017 local elections, a proxy battle, as is so much of Scotland’s politics, for the independence wars. SNP strategists will pore over results like these and might be tempted to echo the lyrics of Stealers Wheel’s biggest hit, ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’: ‘Trying to make some sense of it all/ But I can see it makes no sense at all.’
It makes perfect sense. The SNP has triumphed in three Holyrood elections by appealing to Middle Scotland but relies on a hardcore nationalist support that will always vote to advance the cause of independence. The Tories have tapped into a hitherto dormant grassroots — the long-suffering, oft-ignored, and newly-angry Scottish unionist, exasperated by the evergreen threat of independence and willing to vote for whoever can put a stop to it.
Scotland is now a country divided as much by identity as by economics. The dimmer stars in the SNP firmament will try to characterise this as a re-emergence of the pre-1960s ‘Orange vote’ that sustained the Unionists, the forerunner to the Scottish Tories. Of course, that Unionist party inherited its name from dissident Liberals who balked at Irish Home Rule but Scottish nationalism has never shown much interest in history after 1707.
People in Baillieston, Shettleston, and the Calton have not voted Tory out of imperial dreams but because of the social and economic nightmare they see around them. These are decent men and women let down by a government indecently obsessed with independence. The SNP should ponder that before reaching for their lightly-thumbed history books.
They should cast their grey matter over something else. After decades of decline and an ideological schism first with working- and then middle-class Scotland, the Tories were wiped out 20 years ago almost to the day. Most of the credit for their rebirth goes to Ruth Davidson, a rare political leader whose achievements truly have been single-handed. But there is another party chief due kudos for her labours to restore the Tory brand north of the Border, one who wouldn’t be seen dead wearing a blue rosette. With her Poll Tax, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the demise of Tory Scotland; with her Indyref 2, Nicola Sturgeon has overseen its revival.
There are observers who will score these results a win for the SNP, not simply in overall seat tally but in the very Tory surge that would appear to confound the Nationalists. These analysts will advance three contentions. First, that the SNP now has a handy map of Tory gains and can direct money and footsoldiers to Westminster constituencies that look under threat in June. This is the Whac-A-Mole strategy and it could work.
Second, that soft Nationalist and soft Left voters who stayed at home on Thursday will be spooked and flock to the polls next month to stop the wicked Tories in their tracks. True enough but there is a mirror effect too: Floating voters, scunnered with the SNP but apprehensive about voting Tory, will see the momentum is with Miss Davidson.
Third, and this is the big one, that a politics of SNP versus Tory makes independence all but inevitable. The theory runs thus: Working-class voters who stuck with the Union in 2014, when Labour governments were still plausible and not yet a matter only for historians, will embrace nationalism as their only escape route. The answer to this we cannot know but the General Election will offer up some threads to tug on.
The Conservatives are not going to deliver an upset in Motherwell — despite 23-year-old Nathan Wilson winning Ravenscraig (Ravenscraig!) on Thursday — but they will be looking to drive up their vote share across the country. A Tory resurgence in seats, and a landslide for Theresa May across the UK, might convince some Scots that the time has come for independence.
However, a sizeable increase in vote share, even in seats comfortably defended by the Nationalists, could mark a change moment in Scottish politics, an indication that the Conservatives are no longer the monsters under the bed of Labour lore and SNP scare tactics. That would pose a perception problem for nationalism, a cause dependant on optics in the absence of facts. Tories cannot be your oppressors at Westminster when they are also your neighbours in Wishaw. Independence has lost the economic argument and could be losing the political one too. What does it have left?
Only a fool would take these new Tory voters for granted and Ruth Davidson is no fool. She understands that people abandoned by Labour and now the SNP are all out of good will for politicians. They want their hopes and struggles alike to take top priority — where they should have been all along. Their votes on Thursday will have been for naught if they have simply replaced one phalanx of constitutional obsessives with another. The Scottish Tories need a fresh policy platform detailing how they will give everyone in Scotland, from Baillieston to Bruntsfield, a chance at a better life.
There is one month to go until Scotland returns to the polls. Towering majorities mean the SNP will win the most seats on June 8 but Miss Davidson faces a generational opportunity to establish her Tories as the new centre ground of Scottish politics, the party that puts fairness and prosperity ahead of arid nationalism.
The electorate is flanked on either side by an SNP that wants to take Scotland back to 2014 and a Labour Party that wants to take the UK back to the 1970s. As Stealers Wheel didn’t quite sing, Scotland’s moderate majority are stuck in the middle with Ruth.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.