UK Politics

The challenge for the 'effing Tories' in Scotland

David Cameron Image copyright Reuters

"If you're fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick."

At first glance, it is not the kind of sentence you might expect to hear from a sitting Conservative prime minister.

But that is a sentence uttered by David Cameron, campaigning for a No vote in Edinburgh this week.

So why did he say it?

Let me be fair, and put it in context.

The prime minister was attempting to acknowledge the elephant in the room, the less than rosy impression of the vast majority in Scotland when asked about the Conservatives.

No soapbox

Talking about the referendum, he said: "People can feel it's a bit like a general election, that you make a decision and five years later you can make a decision and five years later you can make a different decision.

"If you're fed up with the effing Tories give them a kick and maybe we'll think again. This is totally different from a general election. This is not a decision about the next five years but about the next century."

Image caption Lady Thatcher addresses the Scottish Tory conference in 1976

It is an insight into a dynamic playing out in the referendum campaign in Scotland, which takes in nationalism, Margaret Thatcher, the poll tax and, ultimately, the Conservative brand.

As Mr Cameron was speaking 400 miles away in the Scottish capital, those political reporters who hadn't been sent to Scotland were questioning the prime minister's official spokesman.

Why was the elected leader of the UK unwilling to campaign out and about on the streets of Scotland?

Repeatedly, his spokesman said that this visit to Scotland was his ninth of the year so far, and he would be back next week.

"That's more than once a month," we were told.

So would he be deploying his soapbox and taking questions from passers by in the street?

"What he'll be deploying today will be the arguments," came the answer.

Or, in other words, no.

Proud heritage

Conservatives - or members of what long standing Tories will remind you is the Conservative and Unionist Party - have long acknowledged they are not best placed to make the case for the very thing that is so important to them that it is part of how they are known.

Why? The figures speak for themselves.

At the last election there were 59 Scottish seats in the Commons there to be won.

The Tories managed to win just one, which borders England - Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

Image caption Scottish anger at the poll tax spilled out on to the streets

This from a party with a longstanding and proud Scottish heritage.

As the Scottish political commentator Iain Macwhirter has pointed out, in the general election of 1955, they won a majority of votes and a majority of seats - the only party in Scotland ever to have achieved that double.

The question "Whatever happened to Tory Scotland?" was even the title of a book, edited by David Torrance.

But by 1997, they had been wiped out and were left with no Scottish MPs whatsoever.

'Tartan Tories'

Close observers of Scottish politics will point to quite a checklist of reasons including Margaret Thatcher introducing the Poll Tax in Scotland before the rest of the UK and the Conservatives' initial rejection of devolution.

The writer Alex Massie adds another: "It is hard to think of a successful right-of-centre party in Europe that is not in some way identified as the patriotic party. The Scottish Tories have lost the ability to make that claim or be identified with the national interest."

To give you a sense of the scale of the Tartan Tory collapse, in 2011 Murdo Fraser, a candidate to lead the Scottish Conservatives, proposed ditching the name 'Conservative' altogether in order to "detoxify" the party's brand.

He didn't win, but not everyone laughed off his idea as totally crackpot.

That is why the Prime Minister used that word "effing" in public.

And why he knows, and Conservatives know, they have to make their arguments for a No vote carefully, so they don't play straight into their opponents' hands.