There was a really interesting by-election last week. No not that one (although I'll come back to that). The by-election I'm referring to was in Tweeddale West on the Scottish Borders Council.
But first an anecdote. In 1995, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, the Tory MP for Perth and Kinross died, triggering a by-election in that seat. This was the absolute high watermark of new Labour. We were polling well ahead of even the result that brought us a landslide two years later and the most recent by-election in a Tory seat, Dudley West, had seen one of the largest ever recorded swings between the major Parties.
So our comrades in the South initially looked forward with some optimism to Perth and Kinross. They were soon disillusioned by the Scottish end of the operation. Somewhere like Perth and Kinross would never vote Labour we assured them. These people were posh and rural. The likes of them did not vote for the likes of us. Ever. And so indeed it proved.
But the high water mark of New Labour popularity was also the absolute nadir of the fortunes of the Tories. So those unwilling to vote Tory but horrified at the prospect of voting even for bright happy smiley new improved Labour had to go somewhere. And that somewhere was the SNP. Where they have more or less remained.
The 2011 landslide for the SNP was built on three pillars. The first was the true believers. People who genuinely believe in an independent Scotland and who finally had a credible vehicle through which to express that support. Polling on the referendum puts that at about a half of those who voted SNP in 2011. The second pillar was "Labour Despairers": those who would have liked to have voted Labour but who despaired of the Party for reasons ranging from the Iraq War to the intellectual bankruptcy of our 2011 campaign, But the third pillar was the "Anybody but Labourers", people who would never ever vote Labour, perceiving us as statist, congenitally inclined to higher taxes and (not unimportantly in Scotland) really only interested in the central belt. These people are natural Tories. By voting No in large numbers, they were key to the indecisive vote in the 79 Referendum but somewhat bizarrely by 2011 had found themselves voting SNP on, the principle that now there was to be a Scottish Parliament, the last thing they wanted was it to be a Labour run Scottish Parliament.
Of the five mainland Westminster Parliamentary seats held by the SNP, an area not, I think, unreasonably to describe as their heartlands, only one (Dundee East and on different boundaries) has ever been held by the Labour Party. Or ever will be I suspect. And the Nationalists in power in Holyrood have looked after these people pretty well. Not just by the Council Tax freeze and the often overlooked small business rates exemption (on any view overtly right wing policies) but by other initiatives that carefully cloak middle class perks as egalitarianism, such as universal free prescriptions and, most obviously of all, "free" higher education at the expense of slashed college budgets and maintenance grants for poorer students.
But, nonetheless, two separate developments are slowly persuading these people that perhaps they should return to their original loyalties.
The "problem" for the SNP is the Independence Referendum. Firstly, it is demonstrating, in spades, that in addition to looking after the comfortable middle class under a devolved settlement, the SNP also actually do stand for Independence for Scotland. And that's not what the rural shires signed up for at all. But, secondly, the nature of the campaign being waged in support of a Yes outcome, in pursuit of the left wing voters seen by some at least as key to victory has suddenly put the sober suited, patently centrist, Church going, John Swinneys and Angus Robertsons of this world in some pretty strange company indeed. Suddenly the prospectus is not just a Scotland "running itself" but a Scotland inevitably then running itself in a much more left wing direction, with Scandinavian levels of public spending, and, more frighteningly, personal taxation; a willingness to indulge the long term unemployed (from Glasgow!) with a wholly unreformed benefit system and an open door to every waif and stray from around the world who might want to settle here. And not only that, a nod and a wink to the likely long term future of the Queen and the Pound Sterling.
Most worryingly of all, a Scotland, once freedom is achieved, anticipated to be run by a more left wing version of the current Labour Party!
Now this might play well at the SSP Conference, or even Calton Hill, but somehow I doubt if it represents the on the street opinion in Forfar, or Elgin, or Perth.
But you don't need to take my word for that. Last Thursday, there was a by-election in Tweeddale West for the Scottish Borders Council. And there was an eighteen percent (you are not misreading) eighteen per cent increase in the Tory vote. A full half of it at the expense of the SNP. And on the same night, amidst my own Party's euphoria in Govan, the Tory vote resolutely refused to be squeezed in a Nationalist direction as would have been routine in an SNP/Labour marginal until very recently. Indeed, in percentage terms, the Tory vote actually increased there as well.
Now, this is of course completely counter-intuitive to those who maintain that Scotland is a "naturally" more left wing country than England. How can Scotland be the only part of the UK where the "universally hated evil English Tories" currently appear to be making progress in the polls? Best just look the other way.
In Dunfermline, the SNP are desperately trying to cling on to this vote, with entire election literature highlighting the Council Tax freeze, Labour's threat to other middle class Holyrood perks and, that old faithful of the Right everywhere, the alleged profligacy of the Labour controlled Council. And, tellingly, not mentioning Independence at all. Let alone the "Common Weal".
Let's see how well they get on.