Douglas Ross has ditched ‘no to indyref2’, but his new mantra is just as ineffective

Sunday National, 11th October 2020.

It must be difficult to give a party conference speech via Zoom with all the gusto you’d give it on stage. Perhaps it’s the fact you are badly lit from below at a weird angle, the lobes of your skull standing out above you like a Mars Attacks alien. Perhaps it is the fact you sound like you’re speaking to the assembled digital throng through a snorkel. Perhaps it is the lack of a live and responsive audience. The camera always deadens some performers.

Amid the hurricane on political news, you could be forgiven for missing the Tory Party conference this week. Like other parties, this took place online – and featured our own Douglas Ross, who had his first opportunity to lecture his party colleagues as leader of the Scottish Tories.

Most of Mr Ross’s address was given over to scolding them for “defeatism and disinterest towards the future of the Union.” He accused them of “devolving and forgetting,” claimed “the case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh” and said “it is time for the whole Conservative Party to rediscover its Unionism and get behind us.”

Some of Ross’s conference claims are guaranteed to make your hardened Scottish nationalist cough up her scone. The SNP, he suggested, are “backed by the London media.” In Mr Ross’s staunch parallel reality, you can’t flick through a copy of the Daily Mail, or the Express, or the Telegraph, or the Times without being assailed by glowing write-ups for Scottish separatists. Well, whatever makes you feel hard done by, ref.

But perhaps more interesting than his efforts to persuade his English Conservative and Unionist colleagues to give a damn about the union has been the raft of policies which have been chased out over the last week. Embracing the triangulating tendencies I identified last month, this week, the new Scottish Tory leader ditched his party’s unpopular policy of introducing a £6,000 graduate tax.

This was the little brother of the UK party policy, which can saddle English students with more than £9,000 of debt each year to undertake studies in higher education. Confirming the shift at a Young Conservative fringe event at the virtual conference, Ross attempted to pin the change on Covid-19.

“This group of young people have had their education disrupted like no other. They’re losing out on life-defining experiences and they’re going to be entering the job market at the most difficult time. We cannot burden them any further. So now is the time for the Scottish Conservatives to re-think our policy on introducing tuition fees and a graduate contribution,” he said. It is a cute line, but humbug. In policy terms, it represents a complete capitulation.

Ross’s other plans are on crime, and these at least have the hallmarks of a little political cunning and enough guile to occupy empty political territory. “Right now the SNP’s soft-touch justice system is stacked against victims,” Ross told a Scottish tabloid this week. “It lets criminals away with easy sentences for horrific crimes. The first Bill I’ll introduce next year will crack down on crime and put victims at the heart of the justice system. I’m fed up seeing the SNP talk tough then back down and break their promises to victims’ families. This Victims Bill puts their rights in law, so nobody can forget them.”

The fact that Ross wants to jog the Tories onto this corner of the pitch – I hope there are no monopolies on strained footballing metaphors – is an interesting development. The last serious attempt to leverage a “tough on crime” message in a Holyrood election came from Scottish Labour back in 2011.

As part of Iain Gray’s fraught and unsuccessful leadership of his party which concluded in the election of an SNP majority, Labour ran on a platform of mandatory incarceration for knife carriers. We’ve “listened to the concerns of knife crime campaigners and the tens of thousands of Scots who want the Government to crack down on knife criminals,” they said, pledging to “take strong action and introduce mandatory minimum custodial sentences for knife crime in Scotland. We are very clear – if you carry a knife, you should go to jail.” They settled on a mandatory six months.

Back then, Labour found a sympathetic public advocate in John Muir, whose son Damian was stabbed to death in Greenock aged just 34. The policy began to collapse under scrutiny on two fronts. Andy Kerr put in abominable turns explaining the policy on the late night politics shows, when confronted with hard cases. What about someone carrying a knife with a reasonable excuse?

Perhaps more fundamental was the sheer bloody cost of what Scottish Labour was proposing – they couldn’t quite work out whether their plan would result in Scotland’s sheriffs jailing hundreds of new prisoners, or thousands, or several thousands. Expert estimates put the number of new prisoners likely to be processed by Scotland’s jails in the region of 1,500 people – which to put it in some kind of context, is the full capacity of HMP Barlinnie, described recently by prison inspectors as “crowded,” “outdated and antiquated” and blighted by “severe state of disrepair”.

Many of those practical challenges remain in 2020. Scotland still has one of the highest prison populations in western Europe. With every prison place costing in excess of £35,600 per year – with the daily prisoner numbers living in Scotland’s crumbling prison estate still hovering at its capacity of around 8,000 daily places – there just isn’t the resources dramatically to expand the prison population without more overcrowding, even less rehabilitation, and even less resources to address the underlying factors we know drive offending.

Iain Gray couldn’t snap his fingers and conjure a second Barlinnie from the air in 2011. Ross’s will find his thumbs lack the same magic a decade on. Don’t take my word for it. Plans are now well in hand to bulldoze and replace the overcrowded Victorian prison with a new facility on a 22-acre site in Provanmill on Royston Road. Barlinnie is currently operating at 140% of its design capacity. It is estimated the new 1,200 inmate facility HMP Glasgow facility will take between three and five years to build and cost around £100,000,000.

The same criticisms run to the Scottish Tories’ newfound gusto for expanding the prison population and filling up the prison estate. While there are doubtless some people who public protection demands should be cloistered away from the rest of humanity, is knee-jerk resort to incarceration – the one form of punishment which never has to justify its outcomes – the best way of spending these resources? Why pretend short sentences work – when all the evidence suggests otherwise?

“Tough on crime” rhetoric is easy. It will find an audience in parts of Scottish public opinion. It is also an issue for the Tories’ distinctively to own. But the commitment underscores this is a manifesto for opposition – not government.

Above all, Ross’s message since taking over from the stricken Jackson Carlaw has been one of transcending constitutional divisions, a vision of Scotland’s two governments working together for the commonweal. If you want to reach past “no to indyref2”, what do you say? He’s settled on “what people want is for us to work together to build a better Scotland for everyone.” This, he repeats and repeats.

I’m not convinced any of this can fly. The logical problem with Ross’s case is that it is premised on the idea that it is the SNP which are the aberration, the hand-biters, blockers and girners, and that it is Tory regime in Whitehall which is patient, reasonable, open-minded – and it will be perceived to be so by a significant segment of the Scottish population.

The problem with this should be obvious. The notion Boris Johnson’s administration is being stymied in its attempts bring harmony to discord in these islands is bleakly comic. Just this week, we learned that the UK government decided to cut all three of the devolved administrations out of the loop on central and politically-sensitive elements of its Brexit plans and the awkward consequences of Tory party policy.

Whitehall’s “transition period planning assumptions” was circulated to members of the Tory cabinet in June, with specific warnings that it “should not be shared publicly or with the devolved administrations at this stage.” Another paper discussing the likelihood of contractions in the supply of fresh products as a result of Brexit was also held back, notwithstanding the fact that it would impact dramatically on areas of devolved competence.

You can understand why Mike Russell says there’s “no trust left” and that inter-governmental relations – always tricky, always characterised by rough edges and different priorities – seem to have broken down almost entirely, with Tory ministers resorting to fiat rule from Westminster and Whitehall to get their way, whatever the Senedd, the Belfast Assembly, or Edinburgh’s Parliament might think about what they’re doing.

As Douglas Ross will discover, it is difficult to sing a song of harmony in a choir of unity with a UK government perceived by most Scots – including many opponents of independence – as by turns malign, duplicitous, or clownish – and all too often, an abominable combination of all three.

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