The rise of nationalism has divided Scottish society and embittered its politics.
Conservatives have of course defended the UK staunchly. But if we are to move beyond the entrenched division of the current debate the party needs to reach out to moderate voters who have ticked the nationalist box in one guise or another in recent elections.
That offers the hope of renewed social cohesion and also greater prosperity. Investment and growth have both suffered as a result of the uncertainty brought about by the prospect of independence.
How could Conservatives develop a distinctly patriotic agenda as an alternative to nationalism that can inspire Scotland?
The first thing to recognise is that nationalism is a betrayal of Scottishness because it seeks to airbrush out many of the elements that make up the complex and rich amalgam of Scotland’s identity.
Nationalist strategy has been to co-opt the symbols of Scottishness and promote a form of identity politics that excludes both British and local elements while implying that opponents of the SNP are somehow un-Scottish as well.
There are many examples of this: the SNP’s use and abuse of the saltire (changing even its colour), the centralisation of local government, the police and other institutions, the attempts to undermine British-wide institutions as such as the BBC, the armed forces and so on. I recall not long ago a nationalist activist (and now elected politician) being expelled from a Highland games for complaining vociferously at the lack of saltires on display next to the clan banners.
But it is not enough to react negatively to the SNP’s attempts to co-opt Scottish-ness.
Scottish Conservatives must present a cultural alternative to nationalism as well as economic and social ones. The aim should be not just to cement the party’s Scottish credentials, but also to provide a patriotic narrative that can unite sensible nationalists and unionists and so heal the country’s divisions.
In practice this means upholding Scottish institutions and characteristics for their own sake, rather than with some political objective in mind. That way Scottishness can once again be a unifying force rather than a point of contention.
You could call this approach Walter Scott Conservatism. Scott was fascinated by Scotland’s cultural traditions and promoted their revival through his writing and other media. This was firmly within a British context. There is no doubt that Walter Scott favoured the Union. He saw no contradiction between pride in Scottishness within the context of shared sovereignty with England. In fact the Union of 1707 in some respects allowed Scots to rediscover their past, elements of which (regionalism, highland culture etc) had been ignored or even vilified for their perceived role in threatening the integrity of the country before and immediately after the Union.
‘Walter Scott Conservatism’ therefore has modern relevance. It can be a unifying theme for all Scots who are proud of the unique characteristics of their country while being content that some of them are shared with others.
How does this translate into policy? Here are three areas that would benefit from a new Conservative focus, but there are more and these examples need not be the only focus, and indeed the party could chose others.
First, localism. Nationalists have sought to downplay local allegiances as a diversion from a purist interpretation of Scottishness. One example is the Scottish government’s plan to merge local authorities into amorphous regional bodies. Another is the merger of Scotland’s local police forces into the nationwide ‘Police Scotland’.
Conservatives should instead encourage and promote local identity. There is evidence that autonomy at the micro level improves governance and economic success. Meanwhile the celebration of local culture encourages economic growth as businesses and young people are encouraged to stay or return. Passing more powers to local communities in areas such as development planning, local infrastructure and finance can encourage innovation and civic pride.
The Borderlands initiative – which seeks economic development projects based on common interests in a region that straddles the Anglo-Scottish border and so has no nationalistic overtones – is a good start, as are city regions more generally since they emphasise local civic endeavour rather than purely national policy.
But there is much further to go. Scotland should learn from countries such as Norway, the Faroe Islands and even France which all encourage much more local decision making at the island or local town or even village level. A local, bottom up approach to civic and economic renewal.
Related to this agenda could be a new Conservative focus on the Gaelic language. Some Tories subscribe to an old school of thought (prevalent not least in the Highlands itself) that is suspicious of efforts to promote Gaelic as tokenistic and fostering of artificial cultural difference that have little real relevance to local people in the Highlands and Islands.
And indeed the SNP approach to Gaelic seems to fit this stereotype. The language is used to brand Scottish institutions and Scotland generally with little regard for history or regional relevance. Gaelic on police cars, railway stations and road signs in the South grate with people who have no links to the language and such measures are hardly going to save it from extinction.
However many Scots are deeply fond of the unique culture of the Highlands, just as Walter Scott was. They are concerned about the continued decline of Gaelic in its homelands. A ‘Walter Scott Conservative’ approach would entail more radical policies to encourage the use of Gaelic in Island and West Coast Highland areas where it is still spoken – for example by aiming for universal Gaelic Medium education in local schools – while stripping away the nationalistic Scotland wide-tokenism of the SNP’s approach.
A third area of focus could be sport, and football in particular. Conservatives could promote the national game not just as a bulwark of Scottish culture but as part of a new approach on social issues in general.
Along with other popular sport and leisure activities, the new Scottish establishment – including much of the political left (SNP, Labour, Greens and Lib-Dems) and the bureaucratic and civic elite – has an ambivalent attitude to football. While notionally applauding Scottish teams on patriotic grounds, the elite is suspicious and censorious of football’s maleness, its raucous and non-PC singing, its booziness and its tribalism.
None of the fits with the left’s increasing obsession with the protocols of ultra-liberal social politics with its emphasis on identifying and then protecting minorities and other special interest groups by interfering with social liberty.
Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP is as guilty of this as anyone. The left is in danger of losing its bonds with ordinary voters. Far too much attention is paid to fringe obsessions on subjects such as gender, lifestyle or race that leave mainstream opinion bemused.
Scotland is crying out for common sense public figures to lead the debate away from this pinhead dancing. Ruth Davidson – with her impeccably liberal lifestyle but non-nonsense approach to daily life – is ideally suited to do so.
It is not that Conservatives reject liberalism. Historically the party has in fact lead the way on tolerance. But Conservatives believe that society should, as far as possible, be governed by convention rather than compulsion. This means trusting people to make the right decisions for themselves, thus strengthening self-governance and self-reliance. It involves more risk, to be sure. But in giving people licence to misbehave, you increase the propensity of individuals, and their friends, family and neighbours, to insist on decency.
On a lighter note, a jollier and less censorious approach to lifestyle issues sits well with the popular ‘cavalier’ tradition of Toryism that Davidson is well attuned to.
In the case of football, a brave campaign has recently overturned legislation to ban certain types of chanting at grounds – a rare success for social freedom in the face of establishment (and SNP) disapproval. Conservatives should go further than this, lifting the ban on alcohol sales at matches (which is frankly discriminatory given than it is not banned at other sports grounds).
Policy should build on this with active programmes to support and promote the game. For example, Scotland should not just bid to host major tournaments as a branding exercise for the country, but as a way of attracting investment to make the domestic game more competitive and compelling by increasing attendances and improving the economic base and depth of Scottish clubs.
Football is a particularly high profile area where ‘Walter Scott Tories’ can demonstrate their commitment both to Scottishness and social freedom while exploring new political ground. But there are other areas for investigation too. The party should think radically about how to invigorate a whole range of popular social institutions that form the backbone of Scottish society but have at one time or another come under the baleful glare of the new establishment and need help: pubs, the kirk, rugby, social clubs, country sports, local festivals, academic institutions and more.
Walter Scott Conservatism offers a new path between nationalism and unionism – a patriotic one that reinvigorates the essence of the original deal of 1707 – shared effort in the international arena but distinctive Scottish domestic institutions.
It also fits with the popular zeitgeist of an electorate increasingly tired of the liberal elite and its hostile social and political nostrums. The SNP has become part of the elite in Scotland. It’s time for the Tories to back the people.
A version of this article appeared on the ThinkScotland web site on 4th March