The North East of England is the place that feels most similar to Scotland. It is post-industrial like the Central Belt. The accent and dialect are similar as is the culture. If by an accident of history, the North East of England were part of Scotland no one would notice the border. After all Berwick Rangers plays in the Scottish football league and “South” Berwick was once as much a part of Scotland as North Berwick. But while voters in both Hamilton and Hartlepool have deserted Labour it remains unimaginable that Hamilton would vote Tory.
Both Hamilton and Hartlepool suffered during the 1980s as the British economy moved away from heavy industries that were no longer economic, but while this left a legacy of hatred of Tories in Scotland, the Northern parts of England have moved on. While going on about Margaret Thatcher and the Miners strike no longer wins votes for Labour in the Red Wall, in Scotland these events are treated as if they were current affairs, which is not surprising given that we are still refighting the Battle of Bannockburn.
Conservatives are able to win in Hartlepool because voters there don’t much care about the 1980s and no longer vote tribally according to how their parents voted. But Scotland still votes tribally it’s just the tribe’s colours have moved from Red to Yellow. The SNP took over the Labour bloc vote in Scotland en masse and took on the same grievance that used to make Scotland vote Labour and we nurse that grievance to keep it warm.
Everyone else in Britain has forgotten about the poll tax. You have to be in your fifties to have been asked to pay it. Thatcher is fading into history like Wilson, Heath or Callaghan. But in Scotland somehow it was much worse that we had to pay the poll tax a year earlier than the rest of the UK and it matters more that our pits had to close than those in England and Wales. The reason perhaps is the Scottish Parliament.
The root of the Scottish nationalism that makes Hamilton vote SNP while Hartlepool votes Tory is the long years of Thatcher’s reign when Scotland voted Labour but got a Tory Government in Westminster. It was this grievance that motivated the Scottish establishment, but not the SNP, to establish the Scottish Parliament that would continue to receive English subsidy, but would forever be a coalition between the Lib Dems and Labour. It was these parties too that organised tactical voting with the SNP in order to keep the Conservatives out of Scotland. It was this above all that fuelled the nationalist idea that it was unfair if Scotland did not get what it voted for, but instead was outvoted by the English.
It is of course a feature of democracy that you can be outvoted by others. Scottish nationalists would not consider it unfair if Aberdeenshire was outvoted by the Central Belt. The only reason it is considered unfair is if you already view Scotland as separate, indeed as an independent country. It is after all not unfair if South Carolina votes for Trump, but gets Biden.
The establishment of the Scottish Parliament to address the grievance of Scotland voting differently to the UK fuelled Scottish nationalism and ultimately destroyed Labour’s hold on Scotland. It left with it a hatred of Tories that is the primary motivation of SNP voters. Nicola Sturgeon speaks about Tories in a way that would be disgraceful if she was talking about a nationality or a race, but of course she is because Tory has become synonymous with posh people from England who go to Eton and that has been used to disguise the similarity of the people of Hamilton and Hartlepool. Scottish nationalism has made a distinction where there is no difference.
Scotland has no genuine grievance. There are parts of the UK much worse off than we are. Tories are no longer posh. Many are working class people who used to vote Labour just like we did. The only difference is that voters in Hartlepool were not told that it was unfair that they voted Labour, but got a Tory Government. For this reason, there is no nationalism in Hartlepool. Hartlepool doesn’t want England to be independent nor Britain to break up.
While the Conservative Party can smash through the Red Wall in England, it cannot spread northwards beyond Berwick and Carlisle, until the nationalism that was stoked in the 1980s by Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems and the whole Scottish Establishment with them is put out. Never play the nationalist card. It is the most powerful one in politics and it will destroy you if you are not careful. It can make people vote to be poorer. It can make people vote to put a hard border between Hartlepool and Hamilton.
If there is hope for Scottish Conservatism it lies in being more like Boris Johnson. There is something in Johnson’s message that appeals to former Labour voters in Hartlepool and it could equally appeal to former Labour voters in Hamilton. Scottish Conservatives should be the party of business arguing for policies that would bring Scotland prosperity rather than dependence on the UK Treasury. They should cease nursing their grievance about Brexit, which helps the SNP argument, and instead embrace its opportunities. Rather than trying to be as different as possible to Johnson Scottish Conservatives should emphasise continually the similarity between Hartlepool and Hamilton. They should stand up to the media narrative that views Scotland as separate and which still uses Tory as if it were a swear word. The last acceptable prejudice in Scotland is hatred of Tories. Perhaps then Conservatives might have a chance of defeating the SNP not merely in Hamilton, but also in those parts of Scotland were historically Conservative.
The only difference between Hartlepool and Hamilton is nationalism. If you defeat nationalism, you defeat the SNP.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2021/05/the-only-difference-between-hartlepool.html