Douglas Ross provokes fear and loathing among disunited separatists

Douglas Ross provokes fear and loathing among disunited separatists

by Tom Gallagher
article from Wednesday 5, August, 2020

THE SCOTLAND that wanted to be good at making things, producing well-educated young people with bright prospects, where politics rarely clouded ties between friends and neighbours, and an obsession with banners, slogans and flags was confined to small numbers, might not be dead and buried just yet. Someone unambiguously opposed to the dystopian Scotland that has emerged under the SNP has come to the forefront of politics. He may be capable of giving a party now drunk with power a sobering reality check.

The most promising thing about Douglas Ross, leader-elect of the Scottish Conservatives at the time of writing, is that he gets under the skins of those at the controls of the Scottish National Party. Months of political warfare can be anticipated up to and beyond the Scottish parliament elections due next May. It might have been assumed that that the ruling party would have confined itself to issuing a guarded ironic welcome to Ross. After all, the SNP is not a picture of health despite enjoying a comfortable polling lead. 

Senior critics in the party have accused Nicola Sturgeon of manipulating the party’s rules with the sole aim of blocking senior opponents. Then there is the enquiry at the Holyrood Parliament into the sequence of events that led to the failed prosecution of her predecessor Alex Salmond on grave sexual abuse charges. Did political interference from the civil service or from Bute House itself lay behind this epic debacle, suggesting that under the SNP the distinction between the executive and the justice system was as muddy as it used to be in totalitarian societies?

One of those likely to be giving evidence to a cross-party committee of MSPs will be 55-year-old Peter Murrell. He combines two roles in a country whose politics have become firmly shaped around personality for perhaps the first time in the age of Scottish democracy. For a decade he has been Sturgeon’s husband and for much longer he has been in charge of the SNP party machine. Such a duopoly is very rare in any conventionally-run country and as Professor Jill Stephenson has pointed out, it is really to the communist world that one has to look for parallels.  

Kenny MacAskill, the MSP for East Lothian and a previous justice secretary, has accused the secretive Murrell of putting his wife’s personal interests far beyond the party’s welfare.  Anyone who assumed the SNP’s chief executive would therefore be exercising prudence before he testified about the Salmond affair, turns out to have been mistaken. 

The tweet that went out from party headquarters on 3 August about ‘Boris-Backing, Brexit-Positive Douglas Ross’ was laced with rancour. Ross was accused of having a callous attitude to the NHS, and siding with London in the adversarial struggle the SNP insists has raged between Westminster and Scotland since time immemorial. There was a dig about the fact that he had missed Commons debates while refereeing at European football matches. But the most serious charge was spelled out in five words: ‘Long history of racist views.’ 

Ross is still only 37. So how did he accumulate such a gruesome record? It seems that his foray into ethnic politics chiefly boiled down to a promise he made in 2016 that if he had the chance, he would impose ‘tough enforcement against Gypsy Travellers.’

An outcry followed which included an intervention from the novelist Irvine Welsh. He tweeted on 27 August 2016:

          ‘Which c**ts voted that f**king amoeba to represent them...?’  [text edited]

The Scottish chronicler of alternative urban lifestyles was never questioned about the extreme nature of his language. Instead, the politician was assailed by the media and third sector groups, championing a range of minority interests, for his seemingly callous outlook. It did not seem to occur to any enterprising journalist to ask why a politician who had been a councillor in rural Moray for a decade had a bee in his bonnet about the activities of some members of the travelling community.

In a book published in 2009, The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism, I had referred to long-running tensions between ‘Wild Scots’ and ‘Householding Scots’. It usually had a Highlands v Lowlands dimension but it could also boil down to the contrasting approaches to property and its use by indigenous semi-nomadic people and settled folk. A casual look at court records in the press over many generations is likely to reveal recurring cases involving fly-tipping, illegal occupation of land, theft, halting sites left in a deplorable state. 

However large the volume of complaints they may receive from constituents, politicians are reluctant to speak out. The travellers, along with European Roma and Irish Travellers, have benefited from the blossoming of human rights legislation enshrined in the 2010 Equalities Act. Their rights have been codified and there are a small army of lawyers and human rights activists ready to assert them. 

Few politicians joined the mass of outraged British citizens by speaking out about the terrible end met by PC Andrew Harper in August of last year when he was dragged along for a mile behind the car of three teenagers who had been discovered while trying to make off with a quad bike valued at £10,000. Unable to read or write and associated with the West Berkshire travelling site, they were found guilty of manslaughter which means they are likely to serve sentences of less than ten years. The outcry has led to the Attorney General deciding to review whether the sentences imposed might have been too lenient. 

The politicisation of ethnicity in the West means that people whose behaviour is widely seen as disruptive to perhaps a majority of citizens can avoid pressure to conform to acceptable behavioural norms if they have key advocates in the justice system and among social pressure groups. Power has been transferred from elected politicians to non-elected gatekeepers of group rights. 

Hence Ross may have been rather quixotic in seeking to speak out in defence of constituents in this new age of reinforced rights for selective groups of citizens. It would not be a surprise if it turned out that he had been quietly taken aside by his then leader Ruth Davidson and urged to kill the story as it was only enabling enemies in the media with urban perspectives to have yet another go at the Tories. Or he may have concluded on his own account that there was no point in sticking to his guns. Accordingly, he issued an apology and resumed his career as a Holyrood MSP. 

But ten months later, in June 2017, he was back in the limelight when he stood against Angus Robertson in the Westminster seat of Moray when a British general election was unexpectedly called. It turned out that the voters of Moray did not have the same disdainful views of Douglas Ross as the urban lawyers, intellectuals and activists. The Conservative vote increased by 16.5% to 47.6% and he was bound for Westminster with a 4,159 majority. 

The unexpected interruption of the career of the SNP’s parliamentary leader at Westminster, led in time to his attempt to revive it by becoming the MSP for Edinburgh Central. His candidacy is now mired in controversy because his nomination was contested by a leading critic of the Sturgeon leadership, Joanna Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South-West. A rule change hastily drawn up, presumably under the aegis of Peter Murrell, makes it almost impossible for her to transfer from Westminster to Holyrood. Her withdrawal followed along with the exposure of the depths of factionalism within a party supposedly leading Scotland to the high road to freedom. In an unexpected denouement, a previous SNP holder of the seat Marco Biagi then intervened to try and snatch back the seat. 

Robertson has been careful to disassociate himself from what is seen as a display of panicky intolerance from the Sturgeon camp. Perhaps if he had been able to speak to Murrell, the more emollient Robertson would have pointed out that this was the wrong time to be nasty to the likely new Scottish Tory leader. Somebody may have eventually spoken to the male figure in the SNP power duopoly because the vitriolic online material was withdrawn amidst calls for Ross to pursue the matter via the courts. 

The MP for Moray knows that the SNP has a difficult few months lying ahead. Thus he would be ill-advised to shift the media focus away from the internal troubles confronting the husband-and-wife at the top of the SNP. 

He is likely to be a magnet for ongoing SNP anger because he is a combative politician unlike his predecessor Jackson Carlaw. He is also a vote winner who survived the anti-Tory (or more accurately anti-Boris Johnson) backlash at the December 2019 election. He has a strong following in the North-East where the SNP’s past success was often based on importing outsiders from the Central Belt. They often had little knowledge, or enduring interest, in the area’s economic needs . All too often their interests remained firmly urban, with the North-East being neglected and used as a convenient stronghold to try and break-up the Union. 

Ross by contrast seems to be a well-grounded politician capable of handling major national issues as shown by his six months in government until his resignation in June over the Dominic Cummings affair. These include not only the perennial constitutional one but health and education. 

The North-East-of-Scotland is a Cinderella region for health. At least one major health board has been placed under special measures and there is a staffing crisis in a range of specific medical areas. It means lengthy waiting times and unwell people undertaking arduous journeys to Glasgow or Edinburgh (where resources are concentrated but often woefully mismanaged). 

The obsession with accumulating power in order to campaign with ever more determination for separation has made the SNP arrogant and myopic. It will probably take some time for it to dawn on the ruling couple and their minions that patronising Ross or manipulating him (as occurred with his hapless predecessor) is unlikely to work. 

Rehashing old stories about his attempt to pursue a refereeing role in Scottish and European football some years ago are unlikely to cut it for the SNP. A lot of Scots will respect a party leader who faced the Old Firm hordes in at least one Celtic-Rangers confrontation. Ordinary Scots not captive to any political creed, have responded to politicians who display independent initiative and are not colourless automatons. The countervailing tendency in politics is the rise of herd-like conformity as elected positions are filled with MPs and MSPs who lack any experience of the real world and whose only strong commitment is to police thought and language across society with ever increasing vigour.

The doyen of these authoritarian commissars is Humza Yousaf, the minister of justice who, like his boss Sturgeon, lacks any real professional experience outside politics. This has not stopped him from drawing up a Hate Speech Bill which has terrified religious, secular and a range of professional interest groups by the extent of its coercive reach. 

Stopping this bill will be a major battle for Ross and also Ruth Davidson who will be standing in for him at Holyrood until next May. He is likely to focus much of his energy on the runaway illiberalism and deep-seated incompetence that has come to define SNP governance.

If Ross is successfully able to rally those Scots who have suffered from such an incompetent state, as well as others who fear that democracy will gradually die under a leader who is ruthless towards dissent in her own party, he could be the leader who stops Sturgeon in her tracks. Perhaps to best accomplish this he will also need to forge an alliance between Scots in other parties and outside politics, who wish to end what will be 14 years of SNP domination by next spring. 

It is no coincidence that Carlaw’s precipitate exit was fuelled by the impact enjoyed by the Alliance for Unity within weeks of its launch last month. Amidst the Covid-19 scourge and the mounting job losses, the Scottish political waters are stormy. How Douglas Ross navigates them may well decide not just his own political fate but much else besides. 

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. He has written 16 single or main-authored books on European and British politics and contemporary history. 'Scotland Now: A Warning to the World' appeared in 2016. His latest is a biography of Portugal's Antonio Salazar

Photo of Douglas Ross by Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0


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