Scotland’s Quiet Conservatives

Scotland’s Quiet Conservatives

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By Ellen Halliday

On any given day of the year, it’s likely to be blowing a gale on top of Blackford Hill. Situated in the heart of the Edinburgh South constituency, its exposed summit is a favourite for locals because it offers one of the most magnificent views of Scotland’s capital. Just to the north, the castle sits: squat and dark above the city’s sandstone streets. Then further, over the Firth of Forth from where Edinburgh’s wicked wind is whipped up, Fife disappears into the highlands. It’s not hard to let your memory or imagination carry you onwards to Aberfeldy, Aviemore or the far-flung wild of Achiltiebuie. On a good day, when the clouds and the haar off the sea are scattered by Scotland’s whistling skies, a walker on Blackford Hill will find their eye drawn south to the glistening guano cap of the Bass Rock, and along the coast where trains whisk Scots and sassenachs alike back and forth from London. And when day turns to dusk, the walker will turn again, to watch the sun fall down in the western sky, and the light speed on towards Glasgow, the isles, and beyond.

Scottish politics could be at a turning point. The Conservatives are polling higher in Scotland than they have for decades, and Scottish Labour is struggling to catch the SNP lead. But that too may have peaked. In the past, the SNP have run extremely effective campaigns, but the short-notice on this election, combined with the uncertainty over Brexit and the still recent vote against independence may have taken their toll.

In the upcoming General Election, Edinburgh South has been touted as a bellwether for the rest of the UK. It is one of the most marginal seats in the country and, crucially, it’s Labour’s last stand in Scotland. With Labour doing well in the UK-wide polls, you might think that incumbent MP Ian Murray would feel relatively safe in his seat. But the seat could go three ways: stay with Labour, or switch to the SNP or the Conservatives. Currently, the MP is hanging on by a majority of just 5.4%. He may take comfort that Labour’s Daniel Johnson pushed out Jim Eadie of the SNP in the corresponding Holyrood seat in 2016, but the margin for the Scottish Parliament seat was only 2.9%.

Murray can’t count on a Labour surge to win him back the seat. In fact, it may hurt his chances. For Murray’s politics is not Corbyn’s politics – he appeals to a very different electorate. During his stint in office, the constituency has allegedly seen high levels of tactical voting as more conservative voters abandoned the Tories and Liberal Democrats to support a Labour opposition to the SNP. So if the SNP has peaked, then so might Murray. He rode the wave of anti-nationalism well, but as that wanes, so does his USP for the unionist, pro-EU Edinburgh South electorate.

Once upon a time, the Liberal Democrats found support strong in this part of the city. Besides being home to Sir Menzies Campbell, a former UK Liberal Democrat leader and staunch European, the Lib Dem candidate in Edinburgh South came second to Labour in the 2001, 2005 and 2010 UK General Elections. Even if Liberal Democrat votes have disappeared in recent years, in the leafy streets of Edinburgh South, sympathy remains.

Yet Murray has most to fear from a Conservative revival. Murray’s no-nonsense approach endeared him to his constituents, but the down-to-earth manner of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has also done much to rehabilitate the Tory reputation in Scotland. And although the Tories haven’t had a chance in Scotland’s Westminster constituencies for years, Edinburgh South was once a Conservative battleground. In its previous form, Edinburgh South was represented by Conservatives until 1983. Before the constituency lines were re-drawn, part of Murray’s turf was even represented by Tory cabinet minister Malcolm Rifkind, as part of Edinburgh Pentlands.

Rather than being a bellwether for the rest of Scotland or the UK, Edinburgh South may see a paradoxical result. If Labour looks likely to gain seats from the SNP elsewhere, tactical voters in Edinburgh South may lose motivation to vote for Labour where it runs against their convictions. In this way, Ian Murray might just fall through the cracks.

Yet as election day approaches, Murray has as good a chance as any to hang onto the most gambled over seat in Scotland. His slim majority may well be based on unionist pragmatism rather than faith in the Labour party north of the border, but he is liked well enough. And if recent election results in this area show anything, it’s that the residents of Morningside and the Grange are wary of change. As the established candidate, Murray seems the safer bet for those who, above all, want to avoid a nationalist victory.

So long as the SNP stand a chance to win, talk of a Tory revival may be little more than bluster in this quietly conservative part of Scotland. The pro-unionist, pro-EU politics of Edinburgh South is buffeted by Westminster and by nationalist convictions in much of the rest of Scotland. Yet so far, it has held onto the characteristics which separately defined Scotland’s 55% in 2014 and the UK’s 48% last June. The electorate here is pushed and pulled between north and south, Yes and No, Leave and Remain. When voters go to the polls on Thursday, perhaps they will throw caution to the wind, and place their cross next to an untried candidate. But in uncertain times, north and south of the border, I wouldn’t bet on it. In Edinburgh South, they like what they know.

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