The Three Characteristics of the Scottish Conservative Revival

The revival of the Conservative party in Scotland during the last two years has been regarded by many as remarkable. This, perhaps, is hardly surprising. After all, in the nine UK and Scottish Parliamentary elections held between 1997 and 2015, the party had consistently flatlined at around 16-17%  – and indeed in 2011 and 2015 it had even fallen slightly below that.  It seemed as though the party was doomed to be a perpetual also-ran in the Scottish political firmament.

But then, in the autumn and winter of 2015/2016, the polls begin to pick up the first signs of an improvement in the party’s fortunes, both in voting intentions for Westminster and for Holyrood. By the time the Scottish Parliament election came around the following May, the Conservatives were able to secure as much as 22-23% of the vote, a tally that proved sufficient for the party to overtake a struggling Labour party as the second largest grouping at Holyrood. Then in the UK general election in June of this year, the party advanced further, winning as much as 29% of the vote, the party’s highest tally in Scotland since 1979.

Much of this progress is undoubtedly a testament to the campaigning skills of the party’s leader, Ruth Davidson, whose personal popularity nowadays far outstrips that of her party. Seemingly ever willing to argue what she believes are the merits of Scotland’s continued membership of the United Kingdom, Ms Davidson has made No to a second independence referendum the leitmotiv of her campaigning, while her erstwhile Labour counterpart occasionally hit a less certain note. But what is the character of the vote that Ms Davidson and her party have now attracted? And, in particular, what role has Brexit – a step strongly opposed by Ms Davidson during the referendum campaign – played in the party’s revival? Data collected during the last two years by the British Election Study via regular online interviewing of a very large Britain-wide panel of voters  provides us with some important evidence on this question.

The weakness of the Conservative party north of the border has long been cited as evidence that Scotland is a more left-wing (or, at least, more social democratic) country than its English neighbour. But, in truth, it has long been evident that the party’s problem was not that there are too few right-wing voters north of the border to whom the party could appeal (they are somewhat less numerous than in England but only ‘somewhat’ so). Rather its problem was that it was relatively ineffective at winning the support of those who, on the basis of their answers to a series of questions designed to tap attitudes towards inequality and what the government should do about it, could be regarded as being on the right. One analysis, for example, showed that while 57% of right-wing voters in England voted for the Conservatives in the 2010 UK election, only 37% of those with similar views in Scotland did so.

The first characteristic of the Conservative revival is that the party has begun to appeal much more successfully to those in Scotland whose views are (and in most cases always have been) on the right. In 2015 only 38% of the one-third or so of the most right-wing voters in Scotland backed the party. By 2017 that figure had increased by twenty points to no less than 58%. That is still less than the equivalent figure for right-wing voters across Britain as a whole (68%), but the gap is now much narrower. The party has simply become more successful at winning the support of those who might always have been expected to vote Conservative in the first place.

True, not all of the gains have come from among those on the right. The party also saw its vote increase since 2015 by 12 points (to 22%) amongst those in the centre, and even by five points (to 9%) amongst those on the left. But the party’s progress has decidedly been strongest amongst voters on the right of Scottish politics, a change that perhaps is even more remarkable given that across Britain as a whole there is not any evidence that the party was particularly successful in increasing its support between 2015 and 2017 amongst more right-wing voters.

But, of course, politics in Scotland is not just about what the role of government should be in dealing with inequality. What looms even larger is the constitutional question, an issue on which, as we have already noted, Ms Davidson has taken a clear and uncompromising stand. It thus hardly comes as much of a surprise that the second distinctive characteristic of the Conservative revival has been that it has occurred predominantly amongst those who voted No in September 2014. The party won as much as 44% of the vote amongst this group in 2017, up 17 points on 2015, and enough to put it well ahead of Labour on 36%.  In contrast, the party won only eight per cent (up five points) amongst those who voted Yes. This was simply the case of a unionist party expanding its support amongst those who already support staying in the Union.

Still, you might be surprised that anyone who voted Yes in 2014 would, less than three years later, have opted to vote for the Conservatives. To understand why the party did at least make some progress amongst this group, we need to identify the third key characteristic of the Conservative revival – that it has occurred primarily amongst those who voted to Leave the EU. Only 18% of those in Scotland who voted to Remain in the EU voted for the Scottish Conservatives, representing an increase of just six points since 2015. In contrast, no less than 46% of Leave voters did so, up as much as 22 points on two years ago.

One of the key features of the EU referendum in Scotland was that many a Yes voter – and thus many a SNP supporter – voted to Leave the EU, despite the fact that the SNP’s vision of independence has for nearly 30 years been one of ‘Independence in Europe’.  It is amongst this group of Yes voters that the Conservatives have managed to make some progress. Just over one in five (21%) of those who voted Yes and Leave backed the Tories in 2017; in contrast, virtually nobody who voted Yes and Remain did so. It is this pattern that explains why nearly one in ten (8%) of those who voted SNP in 2015 switched to the Conservatives in 2017 – no less than 82% of this group of SNP to Conservative switchers voted to Leave the EU.

Unlike the other two features that we have identified this is not a characteristic that one would necessarily have expected the Conservative revival to have had. Scotland was, after all, the one and only part of the UK with a strong Remain vote where the Conservatives registered a substantial advance in 2017, suggesting that the party must have performed well despite rather than because of Brexit. Ruth Davidson was one of the most high profile and ardent campaigners for a Remain vote. Meanwhile, since the referendum she has argued for the softest of Brexits and even suggested that the party’s enlarged – and arithmetically crucial – phalanx of MPs might be used to put pressure on the UK government to move in that direction.  Yet it appears that in practice the party’s revival has been dependent in part on the support of voters who are very much at odds with Ms Davidson on Brexit.

Just how important Brexit has been as a recruiting sergeant for the Conservatives becomes even clearer if we look separately at the evolution of the Conservative vote between, first, 2015 and the Scottish Parliament election in May 2016, and, second, between May 2016 and the UK general election in June this year. As the table below shows, in the first of these periods Conservative support increased by ten points amongst those who voted No in the independence referendum, while it rose by just a single point amongst those who voted Yes. In contrast, support rose amongst those who voted Leave in the EU referendum by just as much as it did amongst those who voted Remain, that is, by five points. In short, this suggests that the initial Conservative revival was primarily motivated by the party’s stance on the Union, and not by the outcome of a referendum in which voters had yet to vote.

However, the picture between May 2016 and May 2017 is very different. At seven points, the increase in Conservative support amongst those who voted No in 2014 is little different from the five-point increase amongst those who voted Yes. In contrast, while the party’s support amongst Leave voters increased by as much as 17 points, it barely rose amongst Remain supporters at all.  The second phase of the Conservative revival north of the border has evidently had a different character from the initial phase, motivated more by people’s attitudes towards Brexit than by the question of Scotland’s continued membership of the UK.

How do we explain this pattern given the pro-Remain position of Ms Davidson (and indeed many of her Scottish parliamentary colleagues)? In part, of course, it may simply be the case that voters in Scotland were responding to the cues from the UK-wide political debate, and that Leave voters north of the border were inclined to swing to the Conservatives in much the same way as their counterparts did in England and Wales. But perhaps we should also bear in mind that Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum following the divergent outcome of the EU referendum on the two sides of the border ensured that Scotland’s constitutional question and the debate about Brexit became heavily intertwined. As a result, saying No to a second independence referendum could be said to represent a willingness at least to acquiesce in the UK’s decision to leave the EU – and thus a position that appealed to Leave voters. Ms Davidson’s anti-indyref2 campaign may well have helped reap a rather different harvest for her party than the one that she intended or will now find comfortable.


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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.