Newspapers talking up a Tory surge in Scotland are missing the point

The Tories' local election success may be "man bites dog". But the SNP’s electoral success remains "three headed dog-octopus from outer space bites man". 

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The media are talking up a Tory surge in Scotland when they should be making up with the Scottish National Party.

Talking to one of the nation’s best political commentators this week, he suggested to me that my Scottish expertise would come in handy during this general election since “that’s where the story is going to be,” he claimed.

The story being a Tory surge that’s gained rocket boosters after today’s local election results. Yet next month, the Conservatives will increase their seats tally from one to four with a fair wind. Maybe seven if 8 June 2017 is a very good night. 

Even if the Tories' wildest dreams come true, and they win a sixth of the seats in Scotland, the SNP's tally will outnumber all the unionist parties put together three or four times over.

Of course the press are talking up the Tory surge because it’s new.

But if the Conservatives increase in vote share at the general election and at the local elections today is man bites dog, the SNP’s electoral success remains "three headed dog-octopus from outer space bites man". It’s still a story. Or at least it would be if the Scottish press were not so solidly unionist.

Apart from The National, and that is a very silly publication that can barely be described as a newspaper, there is no-one on the Nats' side.

Alex Salmond, still the second biggest beast in the party after Nicola Sturgeon, is almost universally loathed among political journalists in Edinburgh and Glasgow. That can’t just be because he comes across as a bit of a tit. For the number of self-regarding oafs in politics is legion, yet the likes of Boris Johnson, David Blunkett and Nigel Farage still are, or were, fawned over by certain sections of the lobby.

It seems remarkable that after a decade in power, the number of credible SNP cheerleaders in the media can be counted on one hand. Why?

Partly it’s a historic hangover. Many political journalists, like most Scots, grew up in the days of Labour hegemony in Scotland. It’s bred a mindset that’s hard to shake off.

Partly it’s cultural. Journalists are a naturally cynical bunch suspicious of anyone with a cause. SNP member and elected members all come with a zealous gleam in the eye.

But a lot of it comes down to bad feeling left over from the 2014 independence referendum. The SNP’s programme for an independent Scotland was interrogated by the nation’s journalists and found wanting. The SNP, then led by Salmond, got the hump at being asked difficult questions, and the media didn’t take kindly to being monstered for asking them. Neither side is willing to be the first to say sorry.

The media, bizarrely given the country is split 50/50 on the independence issue, sees no benefit in endorsing the SNP outlook.

Journalists throw up their arms at any suggestion they are out of touch with the political weather and point to the heated newsroom debates that took place ahead of the 2014 poll. I know about these meetings, I was in one of them, and yet every title of note came down for No.

The Nat attitude is that they don’t need the media – all the party’s achievements have been won despite the media mood music.

And yet the SNP are not over the line necessary to bring about independence. Perhaps putting more effort into wooing the media would get them there.

It seems bizarre that having taken so many leaves out of the New Labour playbook, the SNP has completely ignored the chapter on winning over a hostile lobby. Tony Blair’s administration did win over the naturally Tory Westminster press pack by a combination of divide and rule, cultivating favourites and downright bullying.

The Daily Record, once the rock solid newspaper of Labour voters, is very wobbly these days. A concerted effort would surely bring it into the SNP fold. But suggest such a proposal to SNP media types and they are genuinely baffled as to why one would bother.

And so, with the local election votes counted the story is that the Tories are on the march. They got 13 per cent at the last local elections, they’re going to double that this time out, feeding a narrative of success going into the general election.

Meanwhile the SNP record yet another actual success, topping the local election poll again and returning the most councillors. It’s hard to argue with Nicola Sturgeon when she stands at the Glasgow count after ending 40 years of Labour rule in that city that: “The SNP won this election.”

But somehow the commentators will find a way to say that peak Nat has passed.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is the author of The Gender Agenda and Dads Don’t Babysit