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Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives

Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives: Banal activism, electioneering and the politics of irrelevance

Alexander Thomas T. Smith
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives
    Book Description:

    This highly readable book is a unique, ethnographic study of devolution and Scottish politics as well as Party political activism more generally. It explores how Conservative Party activists who had opposed devolution and the movement for a Scottish Parliament during the 1990s attempted to mobilise politically following their annihilation at the 1997 General Election. It draws on fieldwork conducted in Dumfries and Galloway – a former stronghold for the Scottish Tories – to describe how senior Conservatives worked from the assumption that they had endured their own ‘crisis’ in representation. The material consequences of this crisis included losses of financial and other resources, legitimacy and local knowledge for the Scottish Conservatives. This book ethnographically describes the processes, practices and relationships that Tory Party activists sought to enact during the 2003 Scottish and local Government elections. Its central argument is that, having asserted that the difficulties they faced constituted problems of knowledge, Conservative activists cast to the geographical and institutional margins of Scotland became ‘banal’ activists. Believing themselves to be lacking in the data and information necessary for successful mobilisation during Parliamentary elections, local Tory Party strategists attempted to address their knowledge ‘crisis’ by burying themselves in paperwork and petty bureaucracy. Such practices have often escaped scholarly attention because they appear everyday and mundane and are therefore less noticeable. Bringing them into view analytically has important implications for socio-cultural anthropologists, sociologists and other scholars interested in ‘new’ ethnographic objects, including activism, bureaucracy, democracy, elections and modern knowledge practices.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-479-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Note to international readers
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. 1 Banal activism
    (pp. 1-17)

    On Saturday 9 June 2001, theScotsmannewspaper published a cartoon displaying a country road gridlocked with motorists and caravans. As the procession winds around a bend in the distance, they pass a road sign announcing: ‘Welcome to Dumfries and Galloway – Unique Habitat of Scotland’s Only Tory MP! Amazing Wonders of Nature!’ Published days after the 2001 general election, this cartoon satirised the election of the little-known Scottish Conservative candidate Peter Duncan in the rural southwest of Scotland. Following the ‘wipe out’ of the Scottish Tories at the 1997 general election, this was an unexpected, indeed surprising, achievement. A number...

  6. 2 A Tory-free Scotland
    (pp. 18-36)

    Pierre Bourdieu once described parliamentary democracy as a struggle in which the most important agents – political parties – are engaged ‘in a sublimated form of civil war’ (1991: 181). Taking up this metaphor, I would suggest that when I began my fieldwork in September 2001, Dumfries and Galloway resembled a political battlefield which the Conservative Party could be said to have vacated. What eventually made the Scottish Conservatives of potential ethnographic interest to me was exactly this apparent absence: the fact that the Scottish Tory was, so to speak, ‘lesser spotted’. During the first few months of my fieldwork, it sometimes...

  7. 3 Dispelling Doonhamers: naming and the numbers game
    (pp. 37-51)

    In accordance with the 1998 Scotland Act, one consequence of Scottish devolution saw the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster cut from 72 to 59.1 This reduction was designed to ‘correct’ an imbalance that had grown over a long electoral history in which parliamentary constituencies in Scotland had been made smaller than those in England in order to ‘protect’ Scottish interests at Westminster (cf Bogdanor 1999). With the advent of the Scottish Parliament, the Boundary Commission for Scotland was charged with the task of cutting the number of MPs north of the border during the Fifth Periodic Review of Parliamentary...

  8. 4 Making (a) difference: building the political machine
    (pp. 52-64)

    Following the destruction of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party at the 1997 general election, local Tories were unable to rely on a centralised Party organisation for direction and support in their preparations for the 2003 Scottish Parliament and local council elections. Drawing on a much-diminished base of support, local Party activists were forced to improvise from scarce resources as they organised their campaign. This chapter provides an overview of the local Tory Party’s election planning, exploring how local Conservatives sought to build a ‘political machine’ through the co-ordination of (limited) activist labour, Party bureaucracy and paperwork. This machine was...

  9. 5 The politics of irrelevance
    (pp. 65-85)

    I discussed in the previous chapter how senior Party strategists used theIn Touchleaflet to invoke a set of connections as they sought to embed (local) Tory candidates in a wider network of (local) social relations. Ironically, however, by seeking to render so explicitly the connections between local Tories and a wider community, this leaflet betrayed an anxiety grounded in a very unsettling assumption for Party activists: that local people considered the Scottish Conservatives irrelevant in the aftermath of devolution and were therefore not interested in what they had to say. This chapter explores this apparent ‘crisis’ of irrelevance...

  10. 6 Disaggregating the secret ballot: electioneering and the politics of self-knowledge
    (pp. 86-103)

    In this chapter, I explore a set of documents as technologies available to Conservative activists attempting to forecast the political allegiances of voters in an election by secret ballot. During their campaign for the 2003 local government and Scottish Parliament elections, local Tories faced the challenge of building up a detailed database of potential supporters who could then be ‘targeted’ for mobilisation on Polling Day. I will examine how they sought to address this challenge through their interactions with a range of discursive materials, which senior Conservatives hoped would produce positive electoral effects for Party candidates running in the elections...

  11. 7 Counting on failure: Polling Day and its aftermath
    (pp. 104-124)

    On Friday 29 April 2003, I attended a breakfast meeting at the local McDonald’s, just off the A75 ring road around Dumfries. Those in attendance included the Tory MP Peter Duncan and the young Conservative Party Election Agent for Dumfries, Alan MacLeod. David Mundell MSP, who was also planning to join us, was running late. After ordering bacon and sausage McMuffins with coffee, we discussed the performance of a handful of council candidates who had become ‘difficult’ during the final weeks of the campaign. Mr Duncan drolly attributed their awkward and erratic behaviour to an attack of ‘candidatitis’, a mock...

  12. 8 Return of the lesser-spotted Tory
    (pp. 125-133)

    In this chapter I will briefly sketch some of the incidents that took place in the aftermath of the 2003 elections to ask whether local Conservatives had successfully addressed their crisis of irrelevance. One question with which senior Tories sought to grapple was what, if anything, had changed as a result of their campaign? With much resting on the reading of a letter published in a local newspaper or a few words exchanged in a car on the way to a Party function, the grounds on which Conservative activists assessed their own knowledge of local politics as well as that...

  13. Afterword
    (pp. 134-136)

    A couple of months after this manuscript was completed, a UK general election was called on Thursday 6 May 2010. The outcome of that election was remark able. A hard-fought campaign by all parties produced a hung parliament in which the Conservative Party narrowly fell short of the 326 seats required to achieve an outright majority in the House of Commons, although they nevertheless emerged the ‘winner’ in terms of obtaining the most parliamentary seats (306) and the largest share of the popular vote (36.1%). In the aftermath of the election, some leading members of the outgoing Labour government, which...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 137-149)
  15. Index
    (pp. 150-154)