27 September 2015

"Quod me nutrit, me destruit..."

A Latin motto is written in the top left-hand corner of a portrait which hangs in Corpus Christi College Cambridge, thought to represent the playwright Christopher Marlowe: Quod me nutrit, me destruit. "That which nourishes me, also destroys me." This Elizabethan sentiment was often symbolised by an upturned torch, its flame burning brightly, but consuming its own substance: Quod me alit me extinguit

The motto has served generations of chemically-dependant artists - the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know - perfectly well. And now? Now, the Scottish Conservative Party seem to be taking it as their political mantra. All other unionists are to be put to the torch, even if only to secure a temporary Tory illumination.

Strategy is to be sacrificed on the altar of tactics. Unionism is to be harnessed, to destroy the other parties of the union. If I were a Liberal Democrat, or a Labour supporter, I'd be raging. And as a Nationalist? As a Nationalist, only an evil chortle. To adapt Jacques Danton's phrase, like Saturn, the lack of a revolution on the 18th of September 2014 is now eating its own children. The internecine conflicts which gripped Better Together only presaged the general cannibalism which has followed. And we now have every indication that the Scottish Tories are sharpening their teeth for 2016.

Under Margaret Thatcher, the Tories campaigned under the symbol of a blazing torch, symbolising enlightenment and freedom. In 2006, David Cameron replaced this robust imagery with an unsmoking, altogether woolier oak tree. In the years that have since past, the logo's green sap has slowly turned a truer shade of blue. It was Peter Mandelson and Neil Kinnock who folded up the old red flag in 1986, exchanging the deepest lifeblood of the martyred fallen with "the people's rose in shades of pinks," in Tony Benn's disgruntled phrase.  But Ruth Davidson and her colleagues seem to be in the mood to reclaim the torch. And to lay the fiery brand at the root of their erstwhile allies in the Better Together campaign.

On Twitter on the 19th of September, I wondered: "are the Scottish Tories lining up to run a "second vote for the Union" strategy in 2016?" In the last week, it is quite remarkable how quickly the green shoots of that strategy have broken into unholy growth. And with a tactical hat on, you can see the appeal. Taunted and tempted into the concession by Gordon Brewer, the Tories intend to make Kezia Dugdale pay for the idea that pro-independence sorts are welcome in the Labour Party. "The only party you can really trust with the union," they argue, is the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. And more and more of their politicians are laying on the burning brand with gusto. They intend to leave that pinko rose good and charred:

Given the Conservative Party's divisive general election campaign, constructing the Nats as alien interlopers keen only to smash your Royal Doulton and to micturate on your Victoria sponge, you can understand the dismayed response of Labour politicians to all of this. It is all a bit rich, from a cynical Tory campaign which has shown every sign, since the referendum, across the UK, of subordinating its unionist inclinations to every over political twinge and priority going. "EVEL now." "We stand up for England." "Brexit now." And so on, and so on. But Ruth is determined to set a watchman, and if necessary, to consume the substance of her former allies to secure a little extra light for the fading campaign that is Scottish Conservative and Unionist politics. Quod me nutrit, me destruit. Tactically, this all seems perfectly sound. Strategically, it is mental.

If the Tories represent the only viable unionist future - the union is doomed. But if exploiting the unionist/pro-indy dynamic represents a viable electoral strategy? We should expect Ruth Davidson and her colleagues to mine the seam for all it is worth.  In the referendum aftermath, the #indyref mood swept the SNP to 56 of 59 Westminster seats. Which shouldn't unionists, or at least some unionists, benefit politically from the majority who scorned independence on September the 18th?

Now, all of this sits uneasily - let's be charitable - with the idea that it is the SNP who are obsessed with the constitution, while Ruth Davidson spends her days in the pantry, vexed by the bread and the butter of education, justice, health. But as the 2016 election approaches, we can expect such niceties to be dispensed with. Which campaign will win the Tories the most votes? What rhetorical frame are they trapped in? Can the Tories change the political conversation?

Possibly, with Kezia's help, but with some difficulty. But can the Tories exploit the preoccupations of the political status quo to advance on their pretty dismal recent performances? Mibbes aye. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Tories intend to fight the 2016 election on constitutional terrain -- to the extent that the party leader now seems to be composing personal messages to welcome new ultra unionist to her ranks.

The #SNPout pinwheel of density was doomed in 2015 because there just weren't enough unionist ultras who you could be tempted into tactical-voting to deprive the fifty six SNP MPs of their majorities under first past the post. But Holyrood in 2016 is a different beast entirely. It is worth reminding ourselves just how poorly the Scottish Tories have performed in recent elections. In the 2011 Holyrood campaign, the Tories secured 13.9% of constituency ballots and 12.4% of regional votes, losing three constituencies and falling from seventeen MSPs to fifteen. Their vote, unsurprisingly, was unevenly distributed across the country, from the heights of the Borders to the arid territories of Ruth Davidson's "sewn up" Glaswegian operation.

Central Scotland: 6.4%
Glasgow: 6.1%
Highlands and Islands 11.6%
Lothian 11.7%
Mid Scotland and Fife 14.1%
North East 14.1%
South Scotland 19.5%
West Scotland 12.7%

Hearing any kind of obvious regional vote strategy from the Scottish Tories would be a novelty. "Second vote Green" is now a well-established mantra, recognising the party's weakness in constituency battles, but appealling to voters to take them seriously for a regional list preference. And remember "Alex Salmond for First Minister" in 2011? In the Holyrood election of that year, the SNP ferociously framed the regional paper as a choice between the - but this time, stricken - Iain Gray shadow cabinet and the incumbent government. 

It is sometimes forgotten that a key demographic appealled to by this message were those who regarded Scottish Labour as their principal political opponent. The subtext of "Alex Salmond for First Minister" was "vote SNP to keep Labour out." And this framing of the election proved remarkably effective. "But all means, support your local Conservative candidate in the constituency race, but remember, if you want to keep Labour on the opposition benches - only an SNP government will get the job done." Such was the allure of this prospect that even the Spectator's Alex Massie was ensnared. Though Alex doesn't often care, amid his recent thunderings against the Scottish Government, to recall this fact.

Some of the psephology from the campaign is fascinating. Take Ayr. In 2011, the constituency was a straight up fight between the Tories and the SNP.  On the night, the Conservatives snaffled the seat with 12,997 votes, to the SNP's 11,884 - 1,113 votes ahead. But when the Ayr regional ballots were opened? A different story. The Scottish Conservatives secured only 8,539 second votes to 14,377 for the Nationalists. How to explain the discrepancy? Perhaps John Scott, the Tory incumbent was a solid and workmanlike local performer. Perhaps his competitor, Chic Brodie, did not come off tremendously well. But as regional vote strategy goes, since 1998, the Tories have been nowhere. But inverting that torch - plunging the Tory flare into the already bruised flesh of the Labour Party? That's a temptation which will be difficult - perhaps impossible - to resist.

In 2016, the Scottish Conservatives may burn a little more brightly but -- but it is difficult to see how an ever closer alignment between unionism and the Conservative Party does anything to extend the union's longevity.  It is bleakly ironic. With the flitting of its pro-independence membership, the Scottish Labour Party must be more unionistic now than it has been in decades. But to scratch a few percentage points' advantage from the polls - to ride the pro-union surge - Ruth Davidson seems prepared to thrust the Tory torch into the dry kindling of the Labour Party, and to cackle as it burns. Quod me nutrit, me destruit. 


  1. "The #SNPout pinwheel of density was doomed in 2015 because there just weren't enough unionist ultras who you could be tempted into tactical-voting to deprive the fifty six SNP MPs of their majorities under first past the post."

    Not to mention that 35 of the 56 seats gave overall majorities to the SNP, so even if every other party combined their vote, it still wouldn't have been enough to stop the SNP.

  2. Perhaps the Unionist parties in Scotland should all be considering.
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

  3. I thought this Victoria sponge tasted strange...

  4. This is something to bear in mind for any SNP supporters thinking of playing silly buggers with their list vote. If it were indeed possible for indy supporters to organise mass tactical voting to get Greens and socialists elected, then it's equally possible for unionists to do the same. And not just in the list - in seats where the SNP hold a plurality rather than a majority, a successful rerun of #SNPout would see us lose a bunch of constituencies, and then not have the list votes as back-up.

    Anyway, it really would be quite extraordinary to see the Tories returned as the main opposition party and Labour relegated to third place. You could argue that would do more to boost the independence case than electing a handful of MSPs from non-SNP pro-indy parties...

    1. TBH it would be a healthier, cleaner election with the SNP fighting at the centre, the Tories on the right, and this new RISE party on the Left. It's an election in which Labour doesn't seem to have been assigned a role.

      I'm not sure that Labour would agree to stand down and go away for several years to think about what it stands for. But at the moment, this seems to be what it's doing anyway.

    2. I can't see RISE doing anything at all tychy. Looked at Tommy Ball's site a wee while back, and from what I read there, RISE seems to have eaten the SSP from within, though I doubt anything will come from that except indigestion.

      Just had a look at the Solidarity page (god in heaven) to see if there is any greetin' about Sturgeon flicking the vicky at Sherry and nothing at all.

      SNP voters will i guess do a straight SNP down the line - I would were I that way inclined.

      As for Labour well that's my marks this time round but wot a mess.

      The Ayr scene is interesting. The SNP kept a council seat there the other week despite the Tories geting most 1st prefs - they took it thanks to the weight of 2nd prefs but the swing to them was down (from Scotsman) -

      'Large swings of between 13 per cent and 25 per cent from Labour to the SNP have been seen in most Scottish council by-elections since Labour was reduced to just one MP north of the border in the general election.

      But last week’s polls saw reduced swings of 6 per cent and 8 per cent, while Labour also had a success in taking a council seat from the Greens in Edinburgh.'

      Read more: http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/snp-holds-south-ayrshire-council-seat-in-by-election-1-3891420#ixzz3n2RsdqkC'

      Aye weel.

    3. I dare say I've probably fallen for all of RISE's propaganda. But I can understand the frustrations behind the setting up of the movement.

  5. As the Panthers used to rap , Burn baby Burn.