Scotland’s Stirling caught between unionist Brexiteers and pro-independence Europhiles
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Scotland’s first capital Stirling voted to stay in both the UK and the EU in recent referendums, leaving many of its constituents with a dilemma ahead of Thursday’s elections as they face a two-horse race between the unionist, Brexiteer Tories and the pro-independence, Europhile SNP.
There is no more apt place for an electoral battle between the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party (SNP) than Stirling. The medieval city has long been described as “the brooch that clasps the Highlands and Lowlands together” – and its strategic location gave rise to the axiom that “who controls Stirling, controls Scotland”.
It was here that medieval Scotland won its two famous military victories against the English. William Wallace’s forces defeated the southern invaders at Stirling Bridge in 1297. Then King Robert the Bruce smashed Edward II’s army and ensured Scottish independence at neighbouring Bannockburn in 1314 – the victory celebrated in the nation’s unofficial anthem, Flower of Scotland, which sings of the soldiers who “stood against him / proud Edward’s army / and sent him homewards / tae think again!”
The memory of those victories is alive and well in Stirling – as witnessed by the statue of Robert the Bruce looking out from the castle grounds, and the vast Wallace Monument that towers above the city from a rugged hilltop.
‘Toxic anti-Scottish rhetoric’
Just as the most visible monuments in Stirling are those celebrating Scotland’s victories as an independent nation, the SNP was by far the most visible electoral force in the city on the last cold, windswept Saturday of the campaign, with a large stall at the end of Stirling’s main thoroughfare.
By contrast, the Conservative campaign seemed more low key, focusing on suburban areas. The Tories are “aware that their electoral hub is in very middle-class residential areas” in Stirling, observed Emily St Denny, a professor of politics at the city’s university.
The SNP has a clear message as it campaigns to overturn Conservative MP Stephen Kerr’s trifling majority of 148, in a seat that voted to stay in the EU by 68 percent in the 2016 referendum. “What we’ve seen is a broken system at Westminster, where there’s been an obsession with Brexit, which any right-thinking individual can see is going to be an economic disaster,” said Scott Farmer, an SNP councillor in the area.
“As an independent nation, we would be looking to engage with our European friends, and it is for our economic benefit and our collective security that we would have those positive relations,” he continued. The Scottish National Party proposes holding second referendums on both Scottish independence and Brexit.
Since the SNP emerged as Scotland’s dominant political force in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, the Conservatives have made electoral hay in England by playing on fears of an SNP tail wagging a Labour dog in any coalition enabled by the lack of a Tory majority. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s frequently repeated line about a “coalition of chaos” is just the latest iteration of this approach, first used by David Cameron in 2015.
This Tory campaign tactic is the kind of thing that works for them in England, but backfires among prospective Conservative voters in Scotland, suggested Morag Fulton, an SNP campaigner in Stirling: “Over the past five or ten years there has been a lot of toxic anti-Scottish, anti-self-determination language, and when we stand up and talk against it, the numbers don’t match up with what’s represented from the ‘Little England’ mindset.”
‘An end to referendums’
But while the most attention-grabbing historical sites in Stirling memoralise an independent Scotland’s defiance against English invaders, other monuments point to a more British identity. In the stately New Town, down the hill from the medieval citadel, the 19-century architecture combines Scottish stone with unmistakably English designs. The Scot whose statue looks over this central quarter of Stirling is Henry Campbell-Bannerman – an Edwardian prime minister whose renowned radicalism stretched to advocating a national parliament for Ireland but not for Scotland.
Indeed, there are plenty of voters in Stirling who identify as British as well as Scottish – demonstrated by the constituency’s 60 percent vote to stay in the UK in 2014, compared to 55 percent in Scotland as a whole.
“It will probably have to be Tory because I tended to vote for them in the past and I don’t like what the SNP are doing,” said one local, who declined to give her name, when asked how she intended to cast her ballot. “Scotland voted in the way it did and so did the UK, so you can’t just keep on having referendums,” she continued.
This idea is at the heart of the Tory campaign in both Stirling and Scotland as a whole.
“Our message is very much focused on avoiding a second independence referendum in Scotland; we want to attract people who think the same as us on this issue, who might not have voted for us before. For people who think that, we say we’re the only people who can beat the SNP in seats like Stirling,” said a spokesperson for Stirling Conservatives.
“Extracting ourselves from a 300-year-old union is going to be much harder than extracting ourselves from a 40-year-old union, and we want an end to further referendums, further divisions,” he continued.
Lib Dems as kingmakers?
The Scottish Conservatives looked consigned to electoral oblivion when they lost all their seats in the 1997 New Labour landslide, before holding just one seat in the following four general elections. But the Scottish Tories subsequently staged a remarkable resurgence, with their charismatic leader, Ruth Davidson, capitalising on the vertiginous collapse of Scottish Labour after the 2014 referendum by presenting the Conservatives as the unequivocally unionist alternative to the SNP.
Under Davidson, the Tories won 13 Scottish seats in the 2017 elections, which ensured that Theresa May could stay in Downing Street despite losing her majority.
This time, the Conservatives are expected to remain Scotland’s second-biggest party behind the SNP. Despite being on the wrong side of Scottish public opinion on Brexit, despite Davidson’s shock departure in August, and despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s unpopularity north of the border, the Tories will win in eight constituencies in Scotland, according to data analysed by polling expert Sir John Curtice. That could well give Johnson the edge he needs to win the all-important Commons majority.
But while all is up for grabs on a national level, there are “not many swing voters” left in the tight race for Stirling, St Denny said. Perhaps the biggest question is what happens to the nearly 1,700 voters there who plumped for the centrist Liberal Democrats in 2017, she suggested: While their votes could make all the difference in the Tory-SNP race, “some of them will be put off by the Conservatives’ endorsement of a strong Brexit – but at the same time, whether they can get over the SNP’s association with independence is questionable”.
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