Sunday National, 7th February 2021.
A red letter day. We are, by my reckoning, some 187 days into Douglas Ross’s leadership of the Conservative Party in Scotland. In the summer of last year, Jackson Carlaw’s poll ratings was deemed both unacceptable and unsustainable by his party colleagues. His leadership criticised by colleagues as “thin-skinned” and reacting “badly to criticism,” poll after poll showed Carlaw remained an unknown and unliked quantity to the public at large. His party was reliably capturing just 23% of Holyrood preferences. The men in grey suits concluded he had to go.
And so Douglas Ross appeared, sold to his party as the “best man” to turn their fortunes around. And half a year in, less than half a year out from the next Holyrood election, how would you say things are going? Since his July coup, the Scottish Tories have found themselves floating in the doldrums of between 19% and 21% in the polls. And since we’re talking about thin-skinned politicians who react volcanically to criticism…
As loyal readers will know, this column has something of an obsession with the characters, psychologies, convictions and outlooks of Scottish Tory leaders. I’ve kicked around enough powerfully conservative institutions in my life to have encountered plenty of natural Tories. They’ve been social conservatives and social climbers, people who vote with their pocket books, happy to entrench their existing advantages and folk not terribly keen on paying their taxes, British nationalists and the solidly conventional – wets and Thatcherites and the ideologically adrift.
Douglas Ross is only three and a half years older than me. We both have our roots in rural Scotland, though in different parts of the country. Our careers, I grant you, have diverged considerably. Our political outlooks no doubt differ on many things. I didn’t misspend my youth as a Liberal Democrat. He wanted to be a PE teacher, ended up as a dairy farmer, and took up debating in the Young Farmers of Moray. This gateway drug led him into politics. Applying to be a PE teacher seems to me like applying for the vacant position of state torturer – but that probably tells you more about my education than it does about most candidates for the job. These days, I’m sure PE teachers can’t all be career sadists. The jury’s out on football referees.
“Running the lines” – to borrow one of Ross’s laboured everyman clichés – is meant to toughen a character up. But in the whole history of devolved politics, I don’t think we’ve seen a party leader who is quite so thin-skinned as Douglas Ross. I’m not saying he’s necessarily another Jim Murphy. The oddball antics of the People’s Jim were in a class of their own, sterling and enjoyable, but I think Mr Ross has what it takes to become the figure of fun we’ve all been missing.
Successful politicians can’t afford to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Political leaders can’t have nerves which combust in public on a hair-trigger. And if the last six months have taught us anything, it’s that Douglas Ross’s fuse has been paired down to the quick. I suppose all serious people ought to take themselves seriously on some level. If you’re in contention to be the First Minister of your country, you’ve got to think about that level of responsibility in a sober way, and imagine that you’re a fit and proper person to take on the challenge. Even if it is a fantasy, you’ve got to play your part straight. But at the same time, you can be serious without seeming to take yourself too seriously, and at this task, Mr Ross fails and fails with flying colours.
Jackson Carlaw brought a bumptious bonhomie to the Scottish Tory leadership. Off-colour jokes and golf club jibes, Jackson Carlaw’s jaunty forays into middle class misogyny at least came from a place you recognised. Annabel Goldie seemed like good craic. His successor and Ross’s political nursemaid Ruth Davidson had a bit of this too. Scratch her happy warrior brio, and she could spit acid away with the best of them. Knock her off her buffalo, and the good humour would take a slide. In fairness, every effective politician needs to return a low pH reading occasionally. But compared with Ross, Ruth’s geniality looks copper-bottomed and titanium-plated. Ross can’t even make a decent fist of pretending to be amiable.
Brittle and apparently completely humourless, Ross invariably leads – whether in parliament, in interviews with the media, debates with his opponents, or Q&As with the public – with a very hard edge. He imagines, I suppose, that this comes off as imperious, fearsome – that the voters will conclude that here’s a boy uncowed by the Nats, who takes no prisoners and has no mercy. But to describe Ross’s media manner as abrasive barely does his rough edges justice. Watching him being interviewed is a natural exfoliant.
Charm is an underestimated talent in politics. Some politicians are born charming, some achieve charm, and some have charmlessness thrust upon them. This quality doesn’t always read through the telly. I mind a friend of mine met Enda Kenny – the former Taoiseach of Ireland, a dry old stick from County Mayo, but who worked the room like a rare old pro, all twinkle and good fellowship, a handshake, and how are you doing. Some learn the knack. Some grow into themselves. Others – like the late Charles Kennedy – were naturals in front of an audience or a camera.
Douglas Ross, by contrast, is a spirit of abnegation, a walking, talking portal to the negative energy plane. The vaccine nationalism of the last two weeks has been a powerful case in point. It is quite remarkable that the Tories have done their weather best to turn a good news story into a morass of negativity, ratchetting up public anxieties during an already anxious time, but that’s been precisely the strategy.
After months of being strapped in, locked up and locked in, bound and immiserated by lockdowns, anxious about the older people in our lives, concerned that the vulnerable should be insulated as far as possible from the virus – the vaccine roll-out had considerable potential to be good potential for the United Kingdom, even without a union jack being printed on every vial, but the Tories couldn’t help themselves. They had to go negative.
In the House of Commons this week, Jacob Rees-Mogg couldn’t help himself, drawling that “the unionist government is helping the devolved Scottish government roll out its vaccine programme. More people will be going from the British army to help set up more vaccines centres, but this is our UK government bailing out a devolved government.” Our fantasies always reveal something about us, even if we’d rather they didn’t.
Contemplating the state of the polls, it is clear – whether or not they think this as fair or justified – that people living in Scotland are giving Nicola Sturgeon the credit for a job of work over the last year. Applying conventional political logic, if your opponent is drawing strength from the perceived strength of their management of public services – your job as an opposition leader is to undermine confidence in the efficacy of those services, that management, and so damage your opponent’s political credit with the public.
But a pandemic? A pandemic excavates a yawning hole in public confidence and that changes the opposition dynamic. I don’t know about you, but my psychological tolerance for pointless carping is somewhat limited at the moment. Under Keir Starmer, the Labour Party have perceived this elephant trap, and have mostly been keeping their peace on Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, judging the risks of seeming oppositional outweigh the benefits of aggressively highlighting the government’s errors.
This approach isn’t without its own risks. The problem with elephant traps is that you avoid one snare, and wander into another. In Starmer’s case, the risk is a perception of quiescence and acquiescence in government policy, letting Johnson off the hook. Worried about alienating people, you win no new friends.
In the United Kingdom, this party political logic grafts onto inconvenient institutional boundaries, and thus it is the Conservative Party – who notionally wish to retain the Union – who are most invested in proving that devolution has failed. In Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservatives have appointed the perfect receptacle for all of its political vices: defensive, aggressive, touchy, obsessed with their opponents, bereft of any perceptible positive agenda, saturated by negativity body and soul.