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The new Tartan Tories

Back in the 1970s, Labour used to dismiss the Scottish National Party as the “tartan Tories”. It never made a great deal of sense, since the SNP has generally been significantly to the left of Labour. Moreover, the SNP and the Conservatives have been bitter enemies because of the defining issue of the Union.

Until now – for something very strange has happened in Holyrood: The two parties which were at each other’s throats only six weeks ago, have suddenly discovered that they really get on rather well. Before the election Alex Salmond said that the only people he would refuse to do business with was the Tory party. Yet since he became First Minister he has been doing little else. The tartan Tories are back.

The rapprochement is most striking at First Minister’s Question Time, which has turned into the Eck and Bella show. The Conservative leader, Annabel Goldie, has been performing the role of straight-lady to Alex Salmond, feeding him knowing lines like “When will the First Minister next be meeting the Prime Minister, and what will they discuss..” Ho ho.

But Labour aren’t laughing. If it hadn’t been for the Tory refusal to join in Jack McConnell’s ‘pan unionist anti-SNP coalition’ after May 3rd, Alex Salmond wouldn’t be taking First Ministers questions at all. In a very real sense, the Tories gave Salmond his chance to seize power – and they have kept supporting him. After the emergency statement over the Libyan memorandum, Annabel was almost more indignant than Alex Salmond.

It’s not the Green party that has been keeping this nationalist government alive, but the blue party. The Tories have saved the nationalist administration from defeat on two crucial occasions – both times on the vexed issue of Edinburgh’s trams. The Tories support the light rail project, but you’d be hard put to tell, because in the two knife-edge votes they have backed Salmond against Labour and the Lib Dems.

This has infuriated the Liberal Democrats, who simply cannot believe that the Tories – the great defenders of the Union – should be giving aid and comfort to the Nationalists. Last week, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, Tavish Scott, dissolved into rage during the trams debate, accusing the Conservatives of “fraudulent opportunism”.

Indeed, the Tory and SNP elections manifestos disagreed on everything from local income tax to the referendum on independence. But that hasn’t stopped the Tories and the SNP doing deals on policy behind the scenes. This is most striking on law and order. Last week, the SNP Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, adopted the Conservative hard line on sex criminals, agreeing to satellite tracking and even lie detector tests to stop registered sex offenders from going to ground. He is also looking at DNA retention, bail and sentencing policy.

In the coming weeks, the Tories will also support the SNP on issues like cutting business rates, school discipline and hiring 1,000 police. They are hoping to come to an agreement too on cutting council tax. It really is quite remarkable, but if Salmond survives his first hundred days, he will have Annabel to thank.

Now, you might say that it is a pretty high risk strategy for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party to be supporting the separatists in power. Shouldn’t Annabel be doing more to defend the United Kingdom she loves? After all, the longer Salmond is allowed to remain in office, the greater surely will be his ability to foment discord between Holyrood and London.

But the Tories were in such dire straights before the last election, flat lining in the opinion polls and failing to benefit in any obvious way from the coming of David Cameron, that something simply had to be done. Tory was a tainted brand, a four letter word, and a generation of Scots had grown up to regard the Tories as “the English Party”. The Tories had to do something to make them relevant again, to get back in the race, and show they were truly Scottish.

Sensing that the future was minority government, they made a declaration before the election that they would not enter any coalition with anyone, but would work on an issue by issue basis. This insulates them, to some extent, from the charge of opportunism. They can defend their actions by saying they have simply been following the logic of consensus politics and trying to get conservative policies implemented.

The Tories have also been influenced the analysis of the historian and former Tory candidate, Michael Fry, who has argued that nationalism is the future of the Right. Beneath the thin crust of collectivism, according to Fry, lies a true Presbyterian Scotland, with a culture of thrift, hard work and self-reliance. The SNP leadership has always been liberal left, but there is no reason to suppose that its voters are. Most SNP seats in the past have tended to come from former Tory areas like the North East. The SNP is a single issue party, with no firm ideological roots in the left or the right – you can be a socialist nationalist or a conservative nationalist, but you are still a nationalist.

Annabel’s gamble is that they can exploit this fluid situation of weak nationalist government to shift the centre of gravity of Scottish politics markedly to the right, and show that Tories can make a difference. At least until the next general election – for one suspects that, if there is achange of government, and David Cameron takes over in Downing Street, that the Tories may lose their enthusiasm for dabbling in Scottish nationalism.

In the meantime, Conservatism is back in business, for the first time in twenty years. They have become the true tartan Tories.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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