I’m reading a history of the British Empire which reminds you how long it took for messages to be communicated between the Colonial Office and the colonies before the telegraph. It could be weeks, sometimes months, before crucial information was received. So much so that when the Natal administrators decided to attack Zululand against the government’s commands in 1879 they did so in the belief the war would be over before they were told by London not to proceed. It would be too late. And so it was – except not the way they expected. The Zulus had crushed the British and chased them.
I’m adopting the Empire approach and have been awaiting news arriving of the result of the local elections. I estimate a week is long enough for a coach to thunder north from London with the details. I always think the civil servants in Victorian London had something of an advantage over us today because there was little point in them responding with utmost urgency to a communication.
‘Mhadist forces entering Embassy building. Defences overwhelmed. Send reinforcements. Gordon.’ It could take four or five weeks to arrive in Whitehall from Khartoum.
Knowing this, the staff were obliged to take a longer view and make a strategic appraisal rather than a pressurised instant option. Which is what I’m doing.
I’m over the shock of the Tory insurgency because, after a moment’s thought it’s clear that they are hovering up former Labour voters. It is a direct consequence of the implosion of Labour as a power in our politics and with our debate polarised around a Yes/No on the constitution rather than austerity or Brexit or any domestic issue, it makes sense for the SNP to gather up the Yes support and the most strident No group to take the rest. Partly, too they are appealing to the Orange vote, a factor I’m afraid we are going to confront increasingly as Davidson’s No Surrender-No Policy approach takes over.
What is more interesting is the way the old matrix of affiliation has broken down. As Labour has sunk further into oblivion, their historic resonance has eroded to the point where the seemingly intractable attachment of working class Scots has evaporated. The road signs which said No Entry to Toryism, have gone, channelling those whose emotional impulse is triggered by Union into what may turn out to be a cul-de-sac.
But this is of marginal interest when set beside the latest electoral tour de force of the Nationalists. It seems not to matter which voting system is applied, they still break the bank. Those who have decided the future is independence appear totally committed. The ‘story’ was the Tories simply because it was against the grain and the media really got the emphasis all wrong. But the underlying reality is the overwhelming, consistent, decade-long reign of the SNP. (Gordon’s done for. The Sudan has fallen. But the Empire remains supreme).
As I suggested a few blogs ago, to much teeth-grinding comment, the collapse of Labour and the consequent lift of the Tories is, strategically, no bad thing. We may not want Tory councillors or MPs, but their very presence looms over the debate as a reminder of who the real enemy is. No longer is a vicar’s daughter able to sound distant in her prejudices and outlook, disconnected somehow from familiar Scotland. Those foot-stomping Tory suits cheering on election night are her praetorian guard and they’re here in our communities. They are pro-austerity, cutting public spending back to 1930’s levels. They are deporting people whose papers are not in order. They are brutalising the disabled. They are anti European, killing our businesses and freedom of movement with Brexit. They will take back powers from Holyrood. They ensure the rich are the sole beneficiaries of policy. And, at a time of national crisis over Europe, they will bring back fox hunting…
It is easy to forget what Conservatives represent when they’re in decline, seeming less important. But when, as helpfully blared out by the media, they are coming back, the danger becomes real, the threat present. Nothing will inspire Yes voters in places like Moray more than being told their votes are shifting to the Tories. If there was underlying confidence in Tory circles about ousting Angus Robertson, they’d go quietly about their business. Instead they’re bellowing like football fans how they’ll blooter him. There is no better way to firm up Nationalist support. That’s what happens with a real opponent.
And I repeat: never fear the exposure given to an over-confident adversary. One of the key differences between the modern SNP and the main Unionists, is the talent at their disposal. In my time the Tories had herds of big beasts striding meaningfully across the political landscape and Labour led the UK party with authoritative and authentic individuals. Today the talent has flown, either to the SNP or into obscurity. As the fortunes decline so does the money and the magnet that draws in the able. What we find now is that, under scrutiny, the scarecrow nature of the opposition dances across our TV screens, a barely coherent reminder of how shallow is the gene pool.
This matters. People imbibe impressions of who’s credible and who isn’t. Competence is important. Davidson has done a good job of being decisive when Labour is weak. She projects outspoken opposition. But does she sound like a minister? Does she enunciate policy or is she a rabble-rouser? What lies behind her on the MSP benches? Where is the skilled practitioner, the voice of experience? Is there the merest hint of statesmanship?
This is an opponent we can deal with. But it is real and it is, in campaign terms, effective. All complacency can now be dispelled. They will take seats in the General Election. The Scottish Tories will be lauded by May in her stonking majority victor’s speech confirming a UK Tory hegemony that lasts a generation. If that doesn’t stiffen the sinews and make the Scots face up to their future…then we won’t deserve better than being a province operated remotely by the Colonial Office and awaiting the latest instruction to the natives.by