Scottish Tories must emerge from life support soon to make any difference

Scottish Tories must emerge from life support soon to make any difference

by Linda Holt
article from Monday 3, August, 2020

RECENT MONTHS have left me more despondent about Scottish politics than ever before. No doubt the ennui and oppression of lockdown, endured in what has felt increasingly like a one-party state, has played its part.

The First Minister has climbed ever higher in the leadership ratings, universally lauded over Westminster for her Covid-19 response. In reality, she attended to the pandemic with maximal fuss and dither before piggy-backing on UK government interventions. Since then, she has presided over various scandals, including thousands of what can fairly be described as deliberately induced deaths in care homes. Alongside the First Minister's seemingly inexorable rise, poll after poll began to deliver a majority for independence. 

The SNP crowed about rats and sinking ships, as key Scottish Tories threw in the towel: head strategist Eddie Barnes, head of press Adam Morris, and their cleverest MSP Adam Tomkins. Closer to home, two Conservative candidates who had been selected to fight Fife’s plummest seats at next year’s Holyrood election withdrew – after all, why break your back when your party is facing wipe-out? The chair of my local association joined the exodus.

I could barely watch Jackson Carlaw’s excruciating performances at FMQs, let alone muster the will to write yet another ill-tempered piece about the opposition’s missteps and missed opportunities.

Frustrations boiled over on social media, especially on Twitter. Conservative supporters openly regretted voting for Carlaw in February’s leadership elections. In early June, The Majority popped up, a new anti-nationalist website covering SNP incompetence and lies in order to fill the news vacuum left by a weak native media and feeble opposition. A few weeks ago, George Galloway leapt into the breach, by launching a new grouping, Alliance for Unity. Its sole purpose is to provide an effective Holyrood opposition to the nationalists by uniting the unionist vote for list seats at next May’s election. Alliance for Unity gained 10,000 Twitter followers in 10 days, put out a call for candidates, and has already announced 7 names for regional lists.

Since 24 of 31 Scottish Conservative MSPs come from the regional lists, there must have been a fair amount of panic in the ranks.

Now Jackson Carlaw has fallen on his sword – or was shoved, to all appearances, although I doubt he had much enthusiasm left for the job after the relentless battering of recent months. His resignation virtually coincided with the touting of MP Douglas Ross as his successor by Ruth Davidson, John Lamont and others. The Young Pretender now looks set for a coronation on Wednesday following his endorsement by Number 10, MSPs and potential challengers. Eddie Barnes and Adam Morris have returned to the fray to help Ross’s campaign, and Ruth Davidson has announced she will do FMQs until next May when Ross secures a seat at Holyrood. 

So far, so neat. Team Ruth appears to be back, and it looks like a well-planned intervention to save Tory necks at next year’s Holyrood election. But is it more than emergency resuscitation, followed by a spell of life support? 

The first thing I will say is that it’s not quite Team Ruth. Davidson herself is not coming back properly. She originally gave up the leadership because her heart wasn’t in it anymore; it likely won’t be now. If it is, she is liable to eclipse Ross and the comparisons with Davidson will be unfavourable.

Second, even putting aside her personal motivations for resigning a year ago, the political reasons still hold. Davidson, the vast majority of MSPs, and the Scottish party hierarchy were Remainers who supported 'anyone but Boris' for leader last year. Ross was a Remainer who voted for Boris. These weren’t just problems for Davidson personally, but for the Scottish party as a whole; it was put out of kilter with both the UK government and much of its Scottish support, as I argued.

This brings us to my third and larger point: the contradiction of being simultaneously a Scottish party in opposition, and a part of the UK Conservatives in government. This tension was evident in the media’s assumption, immediately following news of his resignation, that Carlaw had been ousted by Number 10. It is also structural in the dual role of Ross himself – as leader of the Scottish party and as an MP at Westminster. He was a member of the UK government until a couple of months ago, when he resigned in protest at Boris Johnson’s retention of Dominic Cummings. 

As a Moray councillor, Ross resigned from the Conservative-led administration within 18 months of his election, only to be ousted again five years later in 2014 for repeatedly voting against its policies. If Ross shows the same independence as Scottish leader, papering over the Scottish Tories’ branch office problem will get a lot harder.

Fourth, it’s hard to see how a mere change of face at the top will remedy the larger malaise which afflicts the Scottish Conservative Party’s membership, elected representatives and organisation. Compared to the SNP, the Scottish Conservative Party is a shell, maintaining a fantasy of a functioning political organisation. A party needs foot soldiers as much as it needs people with political courage and intellectual imagination. There is still no sign that higher-ups in the Scottish Conservatives understand this or see the urgent need for fundamental reform. 

All these reasons provide fertile ground for new parties and charismatic leaders like George Galloway. Alliance for Unity’s greatest strength also threatens to be its greatest weakness: it’s not a fully-fledged political party so much as a protest movement, reflecting the overriding feature of Galloway’s remarkably varied political career. In this, admittedly, it mirrors the SNP, which continues to enjoy a stellar political run.

An obvious gap remains for a native Scottish unionist party without a mothership in London. Debates on this bubble up from time to time inside and outside the Scottish Conservative Party. The advent of Ross and the prospect of next year’s election may serve to quash them for the time being, or they may not, if intimations of a relaunched Scottish Unionist Party are realised.

Either way, support for independence will not ebb in the short term. Nor will a new leader be enough to prevent the Scottish Tories from haemorrhaging votes and seats next May, especially if the Alliance for Unity can marshal the resources to mount a ground campaign with credible candidates.

Above all, the UK government has to come through as never before. Thanks to Covid, this is not a matter of the government putting its money where its mouth is, as the SNP always charge. Quite the reverse: it must put its mouth where its money is.  Scotland has long been an afterthought for many at Westminster, regardless of party – if it has been thought about at all. Too often that afterthought has been a reflexive panic at the prospect of a nationalist victory, based on poor advice, and not followed through. Putting Michael Gove in charge of a new Union policy committee is an excellent start. However, given past experience and the sheer scale of the Brexit and post-pandemic challenges facing Boris Johnson’s government, Scotland is unlikely to stay uppermost in ministers’ minds for long.

Linda Holt, Councillor - East Neuk & Landward, lindaholt.org.uk

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