Parking the bus with Douglas Ross

Sunday National, 4th April 2021.

My military correspondent was unimpressed: “I see the Tories have gone from Thatcher as prime minister commanding a Chieftain tank, to Ruth Davidson on a piece of self-propelled artillery they’d hired for an hour, to Douglas Ross on an armoured car. Their military stunts can’t fall much lower.”

Karl Marx suggested history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. I’m not sure what he’d make of round three. From Mrs Thatcher’s cold assault stormtrooper costume, the arc of Scottish Tory history has somehow bent towards a vision of David Brent having a mid-life crisis on the bonnet of a Land Rover at a Covid-compliant away-day.

Every politician says they’re fighting for every vote in an election – but in reality, that’s rarely true. Your prospective parliamentary candidate wants to turn out their true-believers and win the persuadables, certainly, but every political party quickly discovers the unpersuadables on the doorsteps – the folk on the electoral roll that would rather drink bleach than lend you the time of day, never mind their votes.

What has become apparent in this first week of the Holyrood campaign is that the Scottish Tories want to “park the bus” in this election. And strategically, this isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It’s human nature: every political leader reacts to and against their immediate predecessor. When the Scottish Conservative apparatus decided to haul Jackson Carlaw down and pop up Douglas Ross in his place, the Moray MP pledged to transform the party into a “Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti-Nat” outfit.

The criticism of his party colleagues was implicit in his leadership pitch from the beginning – critical of their reported antipathy to the new Prime Minister, critical of their lukewarm support for Brexit, critical of Carlaw’s deficiencies as the designated Hammer of the Nats in Holyrood. Under Ross, these equivocations and evasions would be replaced with lock-step devotion to the one nation British national project being spun out of Whitehall.

Ruth Davidson’s doubts about the Prime Minister would fly off (with Downing Street being decent enough to arrange a kindly parachute for her into the House of Lords.) Big Jock Carlaw could return to his favourite golf club stool to nurse a pink gin and tell stories of what it was like during the 1980s and Staunchy McStaunch would run the political line in Scotland for the Tories, blowing his whistle and waving the red card at the team in yellow.

Whether in public or in private, Ross seems to share none of the discomfort with the London regime experienced and leaked by his recent predecessors. He’s dispensed entirely with the old Scottish Tory trick of presenting himself to the electorate as a friendly buffer against the political excesses of their Westminster colleagues, or trying to convince us he’s a “different kind of Tory” with softer, more social democratic edges.

This shift is significant in at least a couple of senses. Firstly, it reflects the British nationalist outlook and rhetoric which is being embraced by Tories across the UK. It is difficult to see how the institutions of devolution are justified and explained in this political worldview. Secondly, it brings the party’s parliamentary leadership into much closer alignment with the instincts and sympathies of their core supporters. The leadership’s constant doubts and dubieties about the direction of the UK Tory party after 2016 have been replaced with apparent conviction, loyalty and solidarity with their party brothers and sisters representing constituencies in England and Wales. This partly helps explain why George Galloway’s Alliance for Unity is going nowhere slowly in this campaign – the Scottish Tories show every sign of having the section of the electorate which care about these things all sewn up.

In politics, it is important to realise the very qualities which make your political opponents obnoxious to you are often the same ones their supporters most value. Whether in print, on air, or in parliament – right-wing politics across the UK is addicted to rubbing the right people up the wrong way, and enjoying the rise they get out of them. Making your opponents howl into the void of social media is all part of the fun.

And in Scotland, the right people for Douglas Ross to be agitating are people like me and I dare say most of you – left of centre, anti-Tory, anti-Brexit, pro-independence. If riling up these people is your goal, you’ve got to admit, Ross’s personality is nothing if not successful. Ross’s narkiness, his rattiness – his sheer, unbridled impertinence to everyone he encounters, whether on radio or television – is an intrinsic part of his political brand.

When he snarks, he snarks for everyone who loves the current UK government and has come to viscerally loathe the current First Minister. When he snarks at the BBC, he snarks for everyone who thinks Pacific Quay is weak on the SNP, that the party gets a free pass in the media. Ross snarks for everyone who hates constitutional politics, everyone who wants arguments about independence and everyone keeping it alive to be bundled up into a rocket and fired into the sun. He snarks for people who want to hear snark. And they number between 20% and 25% of the Scottish voting public. The snark’s the point.

It is now clear Ross sees his job in this election is to lock down and lock in this vote, which partly explains why Ross is acutely sensitive to losing his position as the union’s Rottweiler – because blunt those teeth, and what other reason would you really have to support him? The extensive policy portfolio of shovel-ready projects? The wealth of political experience be promises to bring to the office of First Minister? The native charm? The natural wit? The winning personality? With the best will in the world, you begin to run out of political road that way pretty quickly.

This also accounts for why he’s been expending so much political energy this last couple of weeks, nipping away at Scottish Labour as faint hearts and pushovers. You can also see this relentlessly aggressive logic in the party’s decision – now a Douglas Ross hallmark – to lodge a no confidence motion in Nicola Sturgeon before she’d been afforded to give even a breath of evidence to the Holyrood committee. In an inquiry process concerned with procedural fairness and the right to be heard, this might strike you as an audacious move. In the event, it proved a remarkably stupid one, apparently driven by Tory anxieties that Sarwar might gazump them on Sturgeon as he gazumped them by getting in first with his motion of no confidence in John Swinney. Attack, attack, attack is the point – currently the only point – of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Despite that, a ruthless base strategy may be the best idea the Tories have got in an election where turnout remains a wildcard, and the party’s principal goal is the essentially negative aspiration to deprive pro-independence parties of an overall majority in the new chamber. But in focusing so relentlessly on keeping up their core vote in this election, there are obvious consequences for the party’s political ceiling in the shorter and medium terms.

The idea that it was possible and desirable to extend the Scottish Tory coalition was intrinsic to Ruth Davidson’s leadership of her party. Though this ambition never really acquired any policy clothes, and her pitch was essentially a personal one rather than an appeal rooted in any particular vision of social reform or policy change. Under Douglas Ross, this ambition is effectively dead. His snark may well take the snarkiest with him – but as this week’s BBC leaders’ debate illustrated, in the longer term, it will also make political space for Anas Sarwar and Scottish Labour to earn its right to be heard.

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