It wasn’t all that long ago. They were the ‘SNP heartlands’ and we seemed unassailable. When I was first elected in 2001 the SNP at Westminster held 5 seats and all of them were from rural Scotland. From Kinross to Kinloss it was the North East shoulder of Scotland that returned SNP MPs and it was rural Scotland that sustained our Parliamentary footprint. In the nascent Scottish Parliament it was no different. In 1999 we won 7 constituency seats, all rural, the 6 constituencies we won in 97’s General election with the addition of Inverness. In fact if we were to look historically at where the SNP had won all their Westminster seats at General elections prior to the 2015 breakthrough, other than Dundee, they were all mainly rural. 

Fast forward to 2018 and the whole situation has flipped. The majority of the seats we hold are now in urban Scotland and the losses we sustained at last years General Election were in the seats that we used to rely on to give us our Parliamentary presence. 

What has happened in rural Scotland and what does this tell us about our prospects for securing independence? Because, let’s not forget, these rural seats were also the parts of Scotland that returned the biggest No votes in the 2014 independence referendum. Seats that stood alone in voting for independence supporting SNP politicians are now the seats we appear to have the greatest difficulty defending. 

Some say that rural Scotland is just returning to its natural Conservative ‘home’. Where rural Scotland did vote for the Conservatives in large parts of the last century it doesn’t explain why it was also the first part of Scotland to return independence supporting MPs? Maybe it’s even something to do with the ‘nationalist unionist’ narrative that people like David Torrance have recently written about. Before the SNP had fully emerged as a serious force Conservatives in large swathes of rural Scotland helped carry the torch for Scottishness, home rule and the preservation of much of our cultural iconography. Our Scottishness was very much under threat by a strong post war, all pervasive, unifying British identity and rural Conservatives in places like Perthshire and the North East were amongst the most curious defenders of our national symbols. It was only with the emergence of Thatcher that this part of Scottish Conservatism was effectively killed off. I often wonder if the logic of this ‘nationalist unionism’ had been properly pursued what sort of Scottish Conservative party might have emerged and where this interest in ‘nationalism’ might have taken it? The thing is rural Scotland is politically complex and is open to the idea of constitutional progress. We have prevailed in rural Scotland before and we can again. 

The other reason given for current rural disenchantment with independence is it is now seen as an urban concern. Most of the groups that emerged out of the independence referendum were left wing with a strong ideological and class base to their vision for a future independent Scotland. Where this played well in constituencies with a tradition of voting Labour there was perhaps an inevitable consequence in areas where small ‘c’ Conservatism is the predominant community and political value. For so much of rural Scotland observing the talk of a movement seeking to ‘transform’ our nation was maybe just a bit too much to take. 

But the urban/rural circle has been squared before and it can be squared again. There is also the example of the Highlands, the one part of rural Scotland that has mainly stuck with the SNP, and we need to know why we have prevailed there and lost elsewhere.

But more than anything we need a new independence case for rural Scotland. Opposition to independence has hardened in rural Scotland following the referendum experience but this means we just have to work all the harder to get it back on board again. It is about developing agendas that support and develop the rural agenda and explaining the opportunities independence can bring. We have to learn to speak to rural Scotland whilst listening and agreeing with them a bit more. And there are a lots of opportunities for debate. 


Food and drink is now our premier export and branding issues concern rural Scotland. Excellence in Scottish produce is one of our nation’s most important international calling cards and it is under threat from a Brexitised UK determined to pursue a one ‘UK’ approach to bilateral trade deals. Then there is the power grab. So many of the 24 powers that the UK wants to maintain in their desire to secure this UK ‘single market’ are in agriculture. This imposes a UK determined straight jacket on our farming sector and limits our ability to pursue our own priorities. 

Then there’s the obvious consequences of Brexit. Top amongst this is immigration and worries that there may not be a seasonal workforce to harvest the fields of rural Scotland. This extends to the rural hospitality sector where the bulk of hotel staff in large swathes of rural Scotland are from Eastern Europe. The ending of freedom of movement will have a bigger consequence in rural Scotland than anywhere else. There is also what happens when the £3 billion of EU farm subsidies comes to an end in 2022. The UK Government have wittered on about ‘rewarding efficiency’ but has produced no solid plan about what will happen. Scottish farming is more dependent on this EU support than any other part of the UK and is the most likely to be hurt with its withdrawal.

In the next few months I will be hosting a variety of meetings with rural businesses in my constituency and I will be listening very carefully to the issues that farming interests want to see pursued. My view is that rural Scotland is at a cross roads on a number of its preconceptions about Brexit and possible constitutional progress.

In the next case for independence we have to get to a One Scotland approach that unites every sector and part of Scotland. Where there are parts that need extra reassurance we have to offer it and understand the concerns. We must make sure that no part of Scotland is left behind in our quest for independence.


  1. TSD

    In Angus, we have the Blether-In in Forfar which is Yes Forfar’s indy hub and which opened last July and since then Montrose and Brechin have both opened Blether-In’s. Arbroath has recently opened their Indy Hub, Carnoustie and Blairgowrie are both talking about opening one, Kirriemuir has a strong Yes Kirrie presence in their Pop-In, Pop-Up meetings, and it’s a Kirriemuir person who started the #keepScotlandtheBrand campaign which is crucial for the farming community. We’re doing our best to promote the positive stories about Scotland but it’s hard when we have to depend on donations for rent and utilities, never mind flags, badges, pens, reading materials etc., when the Conservatives have an endless supply of money at their disposal.

  2. Peter A Bell

    We have here a curious instance of someone getting the point, then losing it. Pete Wishart lights upon a highly significant observation, only to immediately walk away from it in his eagerness to get back to comfortable and comforting platitudes about “new independence case”.

    Difficult as it may be for some to believe, there was a time when there were genuinely Scottish Conservatives who really were regarded as the defenders of ‘Scottishness’. As Pete acknowledges, in the decades following WW2 that ‘Scottishness’ was threatened by a “pervasive, unifying British identity”. It was Conservatives, and particularly rural Conservatives, who stood for all that was distinctively Scottish.

    In part, those Scottish Conservatives were standing against the homogenising influence of post-war socialism. But they were also resisting the rise – or should we better say, the resurrection – of a form of British identity which had its roots in the idea of the UK as a ‘Greater England’ within which all the constituent parts, but particularly Scotland, were to be subsumed.

    Sound familiar? What those Scottish Conservatives were resisting was an earlier, less aggressive, less extreme form of the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism which today threatens Scotland’s distinctiveness.

    This is, of course, an oversimplification. But there is an essential truth here which Pete Wishart first notes, then chooses to disregard. The Scottish Conservatives of that post-war era won support in rural Scotland (and to some extent in urban areas as well) in large part because they tapped into a popular mood which valued Scottish distinctiveness and rejected the concept of a ‘One Nation’ British state.

    What is perplexing is that, having picked up on something which has obvious relevance to the constitutional debate today, Pete Wishart declines to explore its implications. If opposition to ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism was a significant influence on attitudes and electoral choices in rural Scotland then, might it not be an important consideration now? If people in rural communities placed such value on ‘Scottishness’ then, is it not reasonable to assume that they might still do so?

    Of course, that was fifty years ago. Times have changed. But have those attitudes also changed? Is that not, at the very least, a question worth asking?

    The Scottish Conservatives have certainly changed. In fact, they no longer exist as a political party. As part of the blight of Thatcherism, they were absorbed into the British Tories. Today, the term ‘Scottish Conservatives’ is as much a deceptive misnomer as ‘Scottish Labour’. But the popular regard for Scottish distinctiveness that helped fuel electoral support for Scottish Conservatives half a century ago hasn’t necessarily disappeared along with distinctive Scottish Conservatism. In fact, subsequent SNP electoral success in former Scottish Conservative strongholds such as Perthshire suggests that this desire to maintain a distinct Scottish identity may still be a powerful motivating factor for voters.

    Might it not, therefore, be a latent force for Scotland’s independence campaign? If the Scottish Conservatives of old could tap into a vein of opposition to the threat of a “pervasive, unifying British identity” back then, why should the independence movement not exploit that same well of popular feeling today?

    Other things have changed since a vote for the Scottish Conservatives meant a vote for ‘Scottishness’. Scotland’s distinctiveness has changed dramatically in both form and degree. Whatever ‘Scottishness’ meant fifty years ago, today it refers to a distinctive political culture. To whatever were the historical and cultural connotations of the term has been added a brand of politics which contrasts starkly with that of the British state. A more progressive and humane politics which is increasingly at odds with the harshness and coldness and downright cruelty of British politics.

    There is more that is distinctive now than there was then. More that is worth defending.

    The threat has also changed. The “pervasive, unifying British identity” has metamorphosed into an ugly, bitter brand of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism which poses a real and imminent threat, not only to Scotland’s distinctive political culture, but to the very democratic institutions and process which have been the source of that distinctiveness. British Nationalism is no longer merely concerned with suppressing ‘Scottishness’. It seeks to destroy ‘Scottishness’ at its roots.

    The threat is greater now. There is more that must be resisted.

    The obvious conclusion from all of this is that the Yes campaign should take the form of a bastion against the threat posed by this pernicious British Nationalist ideology. What would seem to logically follow from the first part of Pete Wishart’s analysis is that the Yes campaign should go on the attack against a project which would subsume Scotland into a homogenised British state.

    I surely can’t be the only one who is perplexed at the way Pete Wishart side-steps the pachyderm in the parlour to get to the comfy chair of his preconceived notions about a “new independence case”.

    Even if there was anything “new” to be said about independence, what is the point of presenting this to people who aren’t listening because they’ve already decided that independence isn’t happening? What purpose is served by putting all the resources of the Yes campaign into polishing a proposition which is already as perfect as any political proposition might be?

    Why is Pete Wishart so resistant to the idea of doing something new? He almost makes the case for a Yes campaign focused on vigorously defending what Scotland has and aggressively attacking that which puts it in jeopardy. But then he backs off from this and takes refuge in a rather less politically ‘brave’ obsession with being ‘positive’. He almost gets there. But then he chooses to let the British Nationalists off the hook. Why?

  3. Pingback: Backing off – Peter A Bell

  4. Sarissa

    Fishing post-Brexit could also play a part in these areas. I noted with interest Michael Gove, when presenting the fishing white paper, mentioned that the additional fish quotas that (might) be available would be apportioned by the UK government, and their guiding principle was that UK fish were a national resource to be used for the good of the country as a whole.

    Tellingly, he specifically mentioned they would consider an auction or bidding system as part of this, on the way to a future policy of treating fish stocks on a more commercial-value basis.

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