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Religious divide could be price to pay as Conservatives rise again in Scotland

Donald Cameron of Lochiel statue in front of the Church of Scotland at Fort William
Getty Images | Arterra | Philippe Clément
Donald Cameron of Lochiel statue in front of the Church of Scotland at Fort William

The divide between supporters of independence and unionism in Scotland is providing the Conservative Party with an electoral boost but some warn it could fan the flames of religious rivalry.

On June 8, the U.K. wide general election takes place with a Conservative win predicted in most polls, but it is the party's resurgence in Scotland that has taken many by surprise.

Robin McAlpine, the director of the left-of-center think tank Common Weal, said the Scottish Conservative Party leader, Ruth Davidson, has successfully cultivated a unionist vote that appeals to many Scots of a Protestant faith.

But he added that the strategy could be risky.

"Sectarianism is a beast that you think you might be able to tame. But you can't.

"My guess is Ruth Davidson doesn't know what sectarianism looks like and Scotland won't thank whoever brings this back," he said in a call to CNBC.

McAlpine said the Conservative Party in Scotland had reframed the debate as not being left versus right but about whether Scotland should be independent and they had "very successfully" become the biggest unionist vote.

The West of Scotland, in particular, has long wrestled with a sectarian divide between Catholic and Protestant religious faith.

McAlpine said encouraging Protestants who typically support union with England to vote based on their religious persuasion, could bring back violence associated with the past.

Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party leader Ruth Davidson speaks during a general election campaign visit to a removals depot in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 5, 2017. Britain goes to the polls on June 8 to vote in a general election only days after another terrorist attack on the nation's capital.
BEN STANSALL | AFP | Getty Images
Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party leader Ruth Davidson speaks during a general election campaign visit to a removals depot in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 5, 2017. Britain goes to the polls on June 8 to vote in a general election only days after another terrorist attack on the nation's capital.

"Nobody wants to return to the 1970's where Catholics and Protestants are fighting in the streets," he added.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland is a Protestant fraternity that defends Protestantism and the continued unity of the United Kingdom. It's the Scottish branch of a wider organization formed in Northern Ireland in 1795.

Jim McHarg, the Grandmaster of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, told CNBC via telephone that his organization is openly encouraging members to vote against the Scottish National Party (SNP) who support independence.

"We ask our members to choose a candidate that has the best chance of beating the SNP.

"We are unashamedly unionist. I have always been a Tory [Conservative supporter] but I have voted Labour in the past because I thought that would provide the best opportunity to help maintain the union," McHarg said.

The Irish civil war that raged for decades was fought along Protestant and Catholic lines but McHarg firmly rejected any notion that pro-unionist politics could split Scottish communities in two.

"Northern Irish politics is totally different. Over there politicians defend their own areas which is very, very sad.

"The Scottish conservatives would not want the Orange Order to split communities. And that isn't something we want," he added.

The Orange Order chief said its members who enjoyed recent success in local elections were there to work for the whole community.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Getty Images | Staff
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

The Conservative Party in Scotland has long struggled to gain support as many felt the party was out of touch with the country, only representing the views of wealthier, English people.

The leadership of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980's compounded that view as her closure of factories and unionized industry disadvantaged many areas of Scotland.

But after securing 276 councillors at last month's local elections in Scotland, the Conservatives are now the second largest party in local government, marginally ahead of Labour. The SNP finished with 431 councillors.

John Curtice, a political scientist who currently works as Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, said the last time the Conservatives enjoyed this sort of polling success was almost 35 years ago.

He argued however that support for Scottish Independence isn't actually falling.

He said any potential drop in support for the Scottish National Party is potentially related to the country's day to day management, rather than issues of independence.

"It could be that the domestic agenda isn't helping. Certainly it is clear that the First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon) is not as popular as she once was."

In 2015, the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland.