The Scottish Tories succeeded in their project of turning the Scottish council elections into a kind of referendum on a second independence referendum, and reaped the electoral reward. The result was a triumph for the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, with the Tories gaining more than 164 seats across Scotland, pushing Labour into third place.
Mind you, the SNP will say that, if this truly was a referendum, then the independence party still won it by a mile. The SNP returned by far the largest number of seats: 431 to the Tories 276. Even though it lost overall control of Dundee, the SNP is now the largest party in that city as well as in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the majority of Scottish councils. This was an advance on 2012. Yet, so great are the expectations placed on the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon that this convincing victory inevitably looked to some like a moral defeat.
The Tory revival produced a raft of eye-catching results, such as Conservative councillors being elected in some of the most impoverished parts of west-central Scotland, including Ferguslie Park in Paisley and Shettleston and Calton in Glasgow. In the Highlands, the Conservatives returned their first councillors in 20 years, including their first ever in the Western Isles. While some working class voters were turning Tory in the west, well-heeled voters in rural areas such as Perthshire were returning to the Tory fold en masse.
The shock of the Tory advance drew some of the sting from Scottish Labour’s defeat, which SNP supporters insist is still the real story of these elections. Labour lost 133 seats, all of its councils including, most painful of all, Glasgow. After 40 years of Labour dominance, Scotland’s largest city could be run under an SNP/Green arrangement, in a continuation of the trend seen at Holyrood. The Greens are pleased with their modest advance in Edinburgh and Glasgow and believe that they’re well placed to keep the SNP “honest” over issues like the environment and social justice in those cities as well as at Holyrood. The Liberal Democrat recovery did not happen except in a few areas like Edinburgh West. Many will regret the further decline in the numbers of non-party, independent councillors.
While everyone agrees that the dominant issue in these elections was Scottish independence, it is reasonable to suppose there was also a Brexit dimension. One million Scots voted to leave the EU and some of those new Tory voters probably had Theresa May’s call to arms against the “saboteurs” at Westminster and “enemies” in Brussels ringing in their ears. Scotland is still part of Britain and there was a UK-wide Tory/Brexit swing that saw Ukip virtually eliminated as a political force. Many of those ex-Ukip voters were former Labour supporters who switched to Mrs May because they resent Labour’s equivocations on Europe and think Jeremy Corbyn isn’t capable of conducting what might be called a strong and stable Brexit.
Labour had a disastrous night south of the Border and votes had scarcely been counted before the row reopened over the party leadership. The former front bencher, Stephen Kinnock, told the BBC’s results programme that the Corbyn factor “kept coming up on the doorsteps” and that Labour was seen as too “hard Left”. This leadership division in the UK party compounded Labour’s problems in Scotland, though Kezia Dugdale’s leadership must now be in doubt also. A house divided is a house defeated.
The SNP is far from divided and there have been few recriminations over this electoral setback, if such it is. But questions will inevitably be asked about the wisdom of Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum. It clearly ignited an angry Unionist reaction across Scotland, which was deftly exploited by Ruth Davidson. In Borders the turnout was 52 per cent, up 10 per cent on 2012 as angry voters rose up against a second referendum.
The SNP tends to regard the Tories as an irritation rather than a serious political challenge and it has suited its narrative to see the them, rather than Labour, leading Unionism in Scotland. However, as Alex Salmond has admitted, the revival of the Tories, especially in the north east, will have to be “dealt with” before the General Election. He has in mind the risk to seats like Moray, Deputy Leader Angus Robertson’s, where the Conservatives made big council gains.
Under her leadership, the Tories may perhaps have gone back to the future, by reinventing themselves as a party with a slightly different culture from that of the UK Conservatives. Historians point out that it was not the Tories who dominated Scotland in the middle of the last century, but the Scottish Unionist Party, a descendant of the old Scottish Liberals. They only became the Tories in 1965.
However, Ms Davidson has a long way to go before the Tories can be seen as a party of government in Scotland. It’s too early to tell what the implications will be for the General Election next month but clearly the Tories are on a roll and could be in line to win 10 or 12 seats; not a tsunami, perhaps, but certainly a turn of the tide.