Sunday National , 8th November 2020.
There is a time in the affairs of all Scottish Tory leaders when they decide they’d better “distance themselves from London”.
For new boy Douglas Ross, this is a tad more challenging – what with him being a loyal member of Boris Johnson’s majority in the Commons – but sooner or later, every Scottish Tory leader is moved to “demonstrate their independence,” to put “clear blue water” between them and their colleagues down south, and convey the impression they aren’t fully owned subsidiaries of the UK party.
Play the party game well enough – as Ruth Davidson undoubtedly has – and they’ll even throw in the peerage anyway, notwithstanding the rude things you may have occasionally said about the First Lord of the Treasury.
So the question isn’t whether your Scottish Tory leader du jour embarks on these kind of evasive manoeuvres – but when. Since burying Jackson Carlaw out in the back yard, Ross has taken to this kind of chicanery almost immediately. He’s a natural. Indeed, Ross’s pitch for party leadership – as a politician of negligible profile and negligible experience – was rooted from the start in the idea he would simultaneously support and oppose Boris Johnson’s administration.
In the loyalist ledger, Ross promptly positioned himself – in his own words – as “Boris-backing, Brexit-positive, anti-Nat,” in implicit contrast with Davidson, who was at best one or two of the above, occasionally, depending on the day of the week. But Ross also sought to persuade us that his resignation from his unpaid post in the Scotland Office over the Cummings affair should be taken a key indicator of his character and future relationship with the Prime Minister and his acolytes. Here’s a lad with a mind of his own, with “steel”, he hopes we’ll say.
I don’t know about you, but I mostly see incoherence in the emotional tone and intellectual pitch. This conflict of loyalties – and conflict of tones – is barely new in Tory politics in Scotland. In the old days, Scottish Secretaries used to play this game too. “Scotland’s man in the cabinet,” and all that humbug.
For Ross, “I’ll support the Prime Minister where we agree and be frank when I don’t” is a neat enough answer to get you through a Sky News interview, but it is difficult to project yourself as a Johnson superfan on the one hand, and as a sceptical and independent-minded Scottish Tory leader on the other.
I appreciate there may be a happy medium between being a stormtrooper for Brexit and its biggest critic – but most of the men and women in history who have tried to ride two horses pulling in different directions have at least ended up with a ladder in their tights. No man’s gusset survives such manoeuvres untroubled, and it is naïve politician who imagines the seat of his pants are any different.
People will, I’m afraid, notice when you shift between these modes, Douglas. They jar. “Better together” had the great merit of simplicity and clarity. Political ambiguity is always harder to sloganise. All four recent Scottish Tory leaders have adopted a Goldilocks approach to conflict with their London colleagues. The friction shouldn’t be too hot, nor too cold. It needs to be peppery enough to set them apart from the UK party, but not so fiery that it plays into Nationalist hands.
Ross seems incapable of realising that the desperate unpopularity of the Johnson administration seriously limits his options and the scope for this kind of double-dealing. “Just right” isn’t on offer. Watching the ridiculous pantomime over furlough in the House of Commons last week, as Johnson and Ross manoeuvred to give the Scottish Tory leader an entirely synthetic “win” on telly, I encourage you to take a longer view of Ross’s recent attempts to resolve the tension he and his party are under: it never leads anywhere.
Here’s another starter for 10. Who was it who said this? “Too often we appeared to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland. Often we gave the impression of just not listening. But we need to admit something else too; that the problem goes much deeper. For too many people the Scottish Conservatives have been regarded as a brake on the aspirations of Scotland and not a torch-bearer.”
No, not Ross – but Davidson this time, back in January 2013, in a speech entitled “Scotland First”, which set out her aspiration to reconcile the competing loyalties Ross is now trying to outrun. Davidson gave her “Scotland First” speech against the backdrop of a coalition government. The 2014 referendum results had not yet been posted. The idea of a Brexit referendum, or a Johnson premiership was the stuff of speculative fiction.
This UK government is profoundly repulsive to a large majority of Scots. That negative feeling is certainly more intense now than it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. But the basic conundrum remains the same for Scotland’s Tory leadership today. Desperate parlour tricks won’t cut it.
We’ve been here before. The political games the Tories have been prepared to play with Scottish budgets have remained reliably shabby through the long years of this government. £140 million. That was how much raw cash the Treasury squeezed out of the Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service between April 2013 and 2018. And during the same period, just how much VAT did the police forces and firemen in the rest of the UK end up forking over? To use a technical accountancy term: sweet FA. Nihil. Nada. Nowt.
For six years, Police Scotland was the only police force in the UK required by HMRC to pay VAT. For six years, the Tories were quite happy to artificially inflate the cost of Scottish policing and the fire and rescue north of the border. For six years, during which this glaring inequity was consistently brought to their attention by the Scottish Government, by Scottish MPs, MSPs, and the public servants themselves – the UK government was content to keeping counting the money.
Creating national police and fire services – as the party now likes to forget and I will never tire of pointing out – was Scottish Tory policy going into the 2011 Holyrood election. In the fevered Scottish Tory imagination, however, the good idea they decided to advocate in has mutated into a “sinister” and “centralising” measure.
On any fair reckoning, the early years of Police Scotland have been no unalloyed success. But I mean, really, who do they think buys this stuff? They read like the talking points of the crackpot unionist fringe.
The Tory line? “The SNP knew the rules, they knew the consequences of introducing these bodies and they ploughed ahead anyway.” But in the aftermath of the 2017 election, the Scottish Tories in Westminster decided to run a little parliamentary pantomime. Having turned a deaf ear to the issue for six years, in the summer of 2017, Phil Hammond announced “my Scottish Conservative colleagues have persuaded me that the Scottish people should not lose out because of the obstinacy of the SNP government.”
The lesson you’re supposed to take from this – at least in the mind of optimistic Tory spindoctors – is that the now much-depleted band of Scottish Tory MPs are a bonny fechters, achieving practical gains in Whitehall which no Edinburgh Government or opposition politician could achieve.
But unless you are a bear of very little brain, none of this nearly holds together. Both of these are – what? Great Scottish Tory victories in the teeth of … Tory opposition? That’s the great spin? Loyally forcing your party to slightly change course, terms and conditions to follow?
In both cases, what most folk will see is not a powerful Scottish Tory delegation winning tactical gains from their political allies, but a cynical UK administration prepared to game more or less anything for perceived advantage, screw the consequences and screw the principles. It will remind folk why this union is bust.
If you’ve any nose for political phoneys, these guys stink.