On one account Ed Miliband decided to tell David Cameron on Monday he would not be at prime minister's questions on Wednesday because he wanted to campaign in Scotland, and somehow, either in the meeting or shortly afterwards, it emerged the Tory leader would also skip PMQs for Scotland.
Some Labour MPs were squirming at the sight of Miliband appearing to arrive as part of a Westminster establishment, and specifically at the same time as the Tory party leader, one of the most despised political forces in Scotland.
Cameron admitted his party's pariah status in Scotland when he urged Scots not to vote yes simply "to kick the effing Tories". The unpopularity of the Conservatives is of course one of the most powerful factors driving the yes vote.
Yet it is extraordinary to recall that as recently as October 1964 the Tories deemed it a disaster when the "Scottish Unionists" won only 24 seats, a loss of six, and secured only 41% of the vote across Scotland. By May 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections the party fell to an all-time low, winning 12% of its vote, down 2.7% on its 2007 constituency performance. This was in contrast to its performance in Wales, where it came second in the assembly for the first time.
Most, including David Cameron, attribute this decline to Lady Thatcher's insensitivity to Scottish nationalism in the 1980s. Cameron himself admitted in 2006 soon after he became leader: "A series of blunders were committed in the 1980s and 1990s of which the imposition of the poll tax was the most egregious decision. To treat Scotland as a laboratory for experimentation in new methods of local government finance was clumsy and unjust."
The decision, firmed up by Thatcher in the late 1970s, "to oppose devolution for so long was another bad idea", he added. "We fought on against the idea of a Scottish parliament long after it became clear it was the settled will of the people," he conceded.
Scotland's divorce from Conservatism was probably sealed four weeks before the June 1987 election when the Abolition of the Domestic Rates (Scotland Act) received royal assent. The poll tax was a disaster. In the subsequent election the Tories lost 11 of their 21 seats, a result from which they would never recover.
One of the ironies is that Thatcher appointed two ideological wets, George Younger and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to be Scottish secretaries through the 1980s, and yet they were both supporters of the poll tax. Rifkind subsequently complained she never understood the Tories were a minority in Scotland. "She just assumed it was my job to represent the cabinet in Scotland. I saw it as the other way round. The problem Margaret had was that she was an English woman and a bossy English woman."
By the end of the 1980s Rifkind was posed as the defender of Scotland, fighting Thatcher and Lord Forsyth the right-wing Scottish Tory party chairmen appointed by Thatcher to impose her writ in Scotland. The Tory nadir appear to have reached in 1997 – the year of the first Blair landslide – when the Tories were wiped out in terms of seats, falling behind the SNP and securing fewer than 500,000 votes across the country. Yet the more gentle decline continued in 2001, and therafter.
But the fall in support for the Conservatives in Scotland long predates the effect of Thatcherism. Nick Pearce from the IPPR thinktank points out the Scottish Unionists "began to lose its vote share in Scotland in the early 1960s. Some of this decline is due to a general fall in vote shares going to the two main political parties, but the drop is faster in Scotland (particularly in the 1960s and 1980s), and there is no steady recovery seen during the New Labour years, as there is in England and Wales."
The deeper source of decline was when the Tory party role as a Protestant party of the Union and Empire waned in the early 1960s. It steadily lost the skilled Protestant working class, as Britishness and sectarianism lost their appeal, while its Clydeside industrial class leaders were replaced by anglicised lairds and aristocrats. As the Scottish middle classes abandoned the cities, Labour consolidated its hold on urban Scotland while retaining the loyalty of the Catholic working class.
It was then that SNP profited from the Conservative decline, while the failure of devolution ambitions in the 1970s set the stage for the experience of Thatcherism, and the current determination in Scotland … to kick the effing Tories.
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