Unionist Party (Scotland)

The Unionist Party was the main centre-right political party in Scotland between 1912 and 1965.[1]

Unionist Party
Preceded byConservative Party
Liberal Unionist Party
Merged intoScottish Conservatives
British unionism
British imperialism
Scottish regionalism
Political positionCentre-right

Independent from, although associated with, the Conservative and Unionist Party in England and Wales, it stood for election at different periods of its history in alliance with a small number of Liberal Unionist and National Liberal candidates. Those who became members of parliament (MPs) would take the Conservative Whip at Westminster as the Ulster Unionists did until 1972. At Westminster, the differences between the Scottish Unionist and the English party could appear blurred or non-existent to the external casual observer, especially as many Scottish MPs were prominent in the parliamentary Conservative Party, such as party leaders Bonar Law (1911–1921 and 1922–1923) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963–1965), both of whom served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The party traditionally did not stand at local government level but instead supported and assisted the Progressive Party in its campaigns against the Labour Party. This relationship ended when the Conservatives started fielding their own candidates, who stood against both Labour and the Progressives.


The origins of the Scottish Unionist Party lie in the 1886 split of the British Liberal Party with the emergence of the Liberal Unionists under Joseph Chamberlain. The Union in question was the 1800 Irish Union, not that of 1707. Prior to this, the only Tory/Conservative party in Scotland was the official Conservative Party, which had never achieved parity with the dominant Whig and Scottish Liberal Party ascendancy since the election reforms of 1832. The new Liberal Unionists quickly agreed to an electoral pact with the Conservative Party in Britain, and in Scotland this pact overcame the former electoral dominance of the Scottish Liberals.

After the official 1912 merger of Liberal Unionists and Conservatives in Britain as the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Scottish Unionist Party emerged as effectively the Conservative Party in Scotland, although some candidates still stood on a Liberal Unionist ticket because of the latent appeal of the word "Liberal" in Scotland.

Ethos and appeal

Popular imperial unity was the central thread of the Scottish Unionist Party's belief system. While the Scottish Unionist party was linked on a Parliamentary level with the Conservative and Unionist Party in England and Wales, it was conscious that it had to appeal to the liberal tradition in Scotland, and so until 1965 it studiously avoided using the term "Conservative".[1] For example, it used Conservative Party literature but changed the word 'Conservative' to 'Unionist'.[2]

The party built up significant working-class support by emphasizing the connection between Union, the Empire, and the fate of local industry. Unity across the classes was often cited as one of the party's planks of Unionism. Along with this protectionism, Protestantism also played an important part in the party's working-class appeal. Although not explicitly articulated by the party, lest it alienate what small but wealthy middle and upper class Catholic support it had, this appeal was projected through the endorsement and promotion of well known Church of Scotland members like John Buchan, or prominent Orangemen in areas of west and central Scotland where the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland had strong support. Prominent Orangemen included Sir John Gilmour, the intermittent Secretary for Scotland in the 1920s and Home Secretary in the 1930s. Some saw this as an anti-Catholic appointment; however, it was Gilmour who, as the Secretary for Scotland, repudiated the Church of Scotland's highly controversial report entitled "The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality".

Being an independent Scottish party also drew electoral appeal when set against the threat of a London-based centralising British Labour party. A crucial aspect to this, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, was the ability to place an 'alien' identity upon Labour by successfully using the term 'Socialist' to describe the Labour Party.[1] This distinctively Scottish appeal was further strengthened when combined with opposition to the Labour party's post-war nationalisation programme, which centralised control (in London) of former Scottish owned businesses and council-run services. The strong Scottish character of the party was even evident in relations with Conservative government ministers, when, for example, Lord Glendevon admitted he would be at odds with Scotland's Unionist Party for refusing the post of Secretary of State for Scotland because he preferred to remain at Westminster.[3]

The party's campaigning reflected their desire to reconcile the two themes of individualism and collectivism in their appeal to potential Labour voters. This projected an image of flexibility and pragmatism when they expressed their support for the synthesis of "two fundamental ideas of human individuality and of service to others and to the community."[1]

Electoral record and the 1955 election

With the Liberal Party divided and declining, the Scottish Unionist Party managed to attract former Liberal voters during this period – sometimes with candidates standing on a Liberal Unionist ticket. The creation of the National Liberals also helped increase the Unionist vote.

Within this context their support grew, and the emergence of the Labour Party as a threat to the middle classes resulted in the Scottish Unionists gaining a majority of Scottish seats at the 1924 general election, with 37 out of Scotland's 73 seats. Suffering a setback in 1929, they reasserted themselves at the 1931 general election during an electoral backlash against the Labour Party that resulted in the creation of the National Government. The Scottish Unionist Party won 79% of the Scottish seats that year: 58 out of 73. The following general election in 1935 returned a reduced majority of 45 MPs.

This remained the situation until Labour's landslide victory at the 1945 general election. The Unionists won only 30 of the (now) 71 constituencies. At the 1950 general election, a majority of Labour MPs was returned again, but the Scottish Unionist Party closed the gap by returning 32 MPs. In the subsequent Conservative election victory of 1951, an equal number of Labour and Unionist MPs were returned from Scotland, 35, with Jo Grimond of the Liberal Party retaining the Orkney and Shetland seat.

With Church of Scotland membership peaking at 1,300,000 in 1955 – or over one-quarter of Scotland's population[4] – the 1955 general election brought unparalleled success as the party gained 50.1% of the vote and 36 of the 71 seats at Westminster.[5]:179 Often cited as the only party to achieve a majority of the Scottish vote, six of the Conservative and Unionist MPs were returned that year under the label of Liberal Unionist or National Liberal. This apparent success was the prelude to a number of events that weakened the appeal of both the Scottish Unionist Party and the Scottish Conservative branch that followed.

Merger with the Conservative Party

Following electoral defeat when the Party lost six seats in the 1964 United Kingdom general election, reforms in 1965 brought an end to the Scottish Unionist Party as an independent force.[5]:180 It was renamed "Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party" that constitutionally then came under the control of the mainstream UK party. These, and further reforms in 1977, saw the Scottish Conservatives transformed into a regional unit, with its personnel, finances, and political offices under the control of the leadership in London.

These changes had serious implications for the Scottish Unionists' identity and it was soon followed by the rise of the Scottish National Party. This seemingly paradoxical swing from Unionist to Nationalist might be explained because of the old Scottish Unionist Party's projection as an independent Scottish party opposing a British Labour Party and the fact that name "Conservative" was viewed as being rather English.

Consequences of merger

As the British Empire came to an end, so too did the primacy of Protestant associations, as secularism and ecumenism rose. The decline of strictly Protestant associations, and the loss of its Protestant working-class base, spelled the erosion of the Unionist vote. Though many Conservatives would still identify with the Kirk, most members of the established Church of Scotland did not identify themselves as Conservatives.

With the Daily Record newspaper switching from endorsing the Unionists to the Labour Party,[5]:180 the Conservative Party in the 1960s was mercilessly portrayed as a party of the Anglicised aristocracy. Combined with the new name, this helped switch previous Unionist voters to the Labour Party and the SNP, which advanced considerably in the two general elections of February and October 1974.

The relations between the Scottish Conservatives with the largely working-class Orange Order also became problematic because of the perceived aristocratic connection of the former, but it was The Troubles in Northern Ireland that created more concrete problems. On one level, there was the residual perception of a connection that many mainstream Protestant voters associated with the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland – a perception that is unfair to a large extent since the Scottish Orange Order has dealt more stringently with members associating with Loyalist paramilitaries than its Irish equivalent. However, the ramifications of this perception also led to the Scottish Conservative Party downplaying and ignoring past associations, which further widened the gap with the Orange Order. Any links that lingered were ultimately broken when Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This event witnessed Orange Lodges (amongst other supporters) setting up their own Scottish Unionist Party.

Electoral performance

This chart shows the electoral results of the Scottish Unionist Party, from its first general election contested in 1918, to its last in 1964. Total number of seats, and vote percentage, is for Scotland only.

Election Vote % Seats Outcome of election
1918 30.8%
28 / 73
'Coalition' Conservative Hung Parliament / 'Coalition' Liberal Victory
1922 25.1%
13 / 73
Conservative Victory (Unionist Prime Minister)
1923 31.6%
14 / 73
Conservative Hung Parliament
1924 40.7%
36 / 73
Conservative Victory
1929 35.9%
20 / 73
Labour Hung Parliament
1931 49.5%
48 / 73
Conservative Victory
1935 42.0%
35 / 73
National Government (Conservative) Victory
1945 36.7%
24 / 71
Labour Victory
1950 37.2%
26 / 71
Labour Victory
1951 39.9%
29 / 71
Conservative Victory
1955 41.5%
30 / 71
Conservative Victory (Unionists & National Liberal total was 50.1% of the vote and 36 seats)
1959 39.8%
25 / 71
Conservative Victory
1964 37.3%
24 / 71
Labour Victory (Incumbent Unionist Prime Minister)

Party Chairmen


  1. http://www.polis.leeds.ac.uk/assets/files/research/working-papers/wp13seawright.pdf
  2. David Seawright, An Important Matter of Principle (Routledge, 2018)
  3. "Lord Glendevon's Obituary". The Scotsman. 22 January 1996.
  4. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland " 29 March 2016, 7:33 pm
  5. Torrance, David (April 2018). "'Standing up for Scotland': The Scottish Unionist Party and 'nationalist unionism', 1912–68". Scottish Affairs. 27 (2): 169–188. doi:10.3366/scot.2018.0235 via Edinburgh University Press.
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