(Bloomberg) -- It’s a damp Highland morning in Forres and the only sign of the U.K. election on the town’s main street is a shriveled yellow Scottish National Party balloon lying discarded in the rain.
Around the corner, Conservative candidate Douglas Ross, his Dalmatian dog and five activists in matching blue waterproof jackets are knocking on doors trying to persuade voters to shed their lingering inhibitions and elect him as their member of the U.K. Parliament. The district has been held by the pro-independence SNP for the past 30 years after his party was vilified for the demise of Scotland’s heavy industry and mass unemployment.
“It doesn’t seem to be that people are embarrassed about being Conservative voters any more,” said Ross, 34, who twice contested and lost the Moray seat in U.K. elections. This time around, locals are “fed up” with the nationalists, and while not enthused by leaving the European Union, he says they don’t see breaking away from the rest of Britain as a solution.
“People are more supportive of Scotland’s place in the U.K. than they are about Scotland’s place in the EU,” Ross said.
The outcome of the contest in this rural region of northern Scotland almost 600 miles from London will arguably say more about Britain’s political and constitutional future than anywhere else in Britain’s June 8 general election.
With campaigning slowly resuming on Thursday following the terrorist attack in Manchester, polls show that Prime Minister Theresa May is going to win big as voters answer her plea to increase the Conservative majority and strengthen her hand in the coming Brexit negotiations on leaving the EU. Scotland, though, has a different political dynamic. Here, rejecting Conservative dogma has long been the norm, and the main divide is now over independence versus the survival of a 310-year-old union with England and Wales that no British leader can afford to sacrifice.
In an era which May says will be defined by Brexit, Scotland, which voted to stay in the EU, must now decide whether it wants to be the last bastion of resistance or to fall in line with the rest of the country.
It’s all about muffling the strongest dissenters, but to do that the Conservatives, known as the Tories, need to score victories in the double figures, according to Andrew Crines, lecturer in British politics at Liverpool University. “If the Tories make big gains in Scotland it will dilute the anti-Brexit voice and dilute the Scottish referendum voice at the same time,” he said. “There will be a lot of eyes on Scotland.”
Moray, with its mountain-to-sea landscape, shortbread factories and hunting lodges, is picture-postcard Scotland in miniature. Once an ancient stronghold of the Picts, the early Scots people about whom little survives but their hill forts and carved symbol stones, it is now most closely associated with whisky.
The River Spey that bisects the district is the home of classic malts like Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan and Cardhu. Some 50 Speyside distilleries produce about half of Scotland’s entire malt whisky output. Stretches of the river bank are dotted with Range Rovers belonging to anglers enjoying a day of salmon fishing.
Yet poorer coastal communities with a legacy of commercial fishing, and hundreds of military families associated with two local bases, Kinloss and Lossiemouth, contributed to Moray being the most reluctant part of Scotland to remain in the EU last year: just 122 votes divided “remain” from “leave.” It also showed below-average enthusiasm to quit the U.K. in Scotland’s independence referendum in September 2014.
With the once dominant Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown all but a spent force in Scotland, the Conservatives smell an opportunity. They haven’t held more than one Westminster seat in Scotland since 1997 and are betting that reluctant “remainers” wary of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s push for a second Scottish referendum can bring about a broad incursion into what is now SNP territory.
Upsetting the odds and defeating Angus Robertson, the party’s Westminster leader and Sturgeon’s deputy, would be a major coup. Robertson has held Moray since 2001 and beat Ross by more than 9,000 votes in 2015, when the SNP bounced back from the referendum defeat to take an unprecedented 56 of Scotland’s 59 electoral districts. Two years later, there are signs of exasperation with the nationalist cause.
“If Nicola would stop going on and on about independence, I’d vote SNP,” said Mary Dustan, 75, a friend of the Tory candidate’s mother who volunteers in the Alzheimer Scotland charity shop in Forres. She’ll likely vote SNP anyway, but not because she’s happy with them. “I’d vote for anyone who wasn’t a Tory or my mother would turn in her grave,” she said.
Beyond the town’s edges, the rich farmland teems with pheasant and deer. Yellow gorse in full bloom lines the road to Elgin, the regional capital a 20 minute drive away, where Robertson’s campaign headquarters sits along the road from the Walkers shortbread factory.
For Robertson, 48, a veteran of the long years of political wilderness before the SNP broke Labour’s hold on Scotland, the biggest challenge is to energize supporters to turn out at the ballot box. The party has now run the semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh for 10 years, but this election will be the sixth vote in less than three years for Scots, and voter fatigue is everywhere.
Faced with a world that suddenly seems more complex, many voters feel they’d “just like to get on with their lives,” he said over coffee. “I totally get that, but this election is about whether you vote for me or get a Tory.”
Born in London to a German mother and Scots father, Robertson is appalled by Brexit. By refusing to accept May’s drive to unify the country around her, “we are showing that there is another way,” he says.
If the SNP can maintain its dominance, Sturgeon’s mandate to push for a second independence referendum will be reinforced and could even act as a restraining influence on the prime minister in the Brexit talks. But if the Conservatives take more than a handful of districts, then May could claim the tide has turned against the nationalists.
Tory polling suggests the party could take as many as 15 seats from the SNP. Betting markets give them a more modest five to eight seats, with the SNP favored to take 45 or more.
The SNP is rolling out its ground operation accordingly. In Elgin, half a dozen activists — including a doctor, a former Royal Air Force officer and two local councilors — spread across a blue-collar housing estate to get out the message.
But even here, where SNP support is strong and party stickers decorate windows, it’s not all one way. June Reid voted for the SNP and for independence, but she’s in favor of Brexit and said she plans to switch to the Conservatives. “In the EU you can’t rule your own country,” said Reid, 54. “If you want independence, you want independence, you can’t have it both ways.”
Reid is the kind of voter Ross, the Conservative, is counting on swinging the seat his way. The son of a local farm worker, Ross has been promised a visit by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. In a sign of the limits of May’s appeal in these parts, Davidson rather than May appears on his campaign leaflets.
Conservative support in Scotland has never recovered from its collapse in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Her free-market ideology never took hold in Scotland, where her policies were blamed for the dismantling of steel, shipbuilding and coal industries that formed the backbone of the Scottish economy.
“I’m in no doubt this is going to be a close race,” said Ross, who pointed out he wasn’t even born when Thatcher came to power. “But I’m not booking my flights to London just yet.”