Sunday National, 12th September 2021.
The Sarwar vision goes something like this. Having taken over leadership of his party on the cusp of the 2021 Holyrood election, Labour’s fortunes and failures could safely be pinned on Richard Leonard and legacy Corbynism. Sarwar’s big job would be to take the party through the Holyrood campaign without sustaining any more damage while lining himself up as a First Minister in waiting and polishing up his party as a credible alternative in five years’ time.
In this ideal world, Labour would even have nudged ahead of the Scottish Tories in the final seat count in 2021, swapping sides of the Holyrood chamber, crossing that significant psychological Rubicon, and giving Scottish Labour instant forward momentum in the new parliament. In the event, this didn’t happen. The party, stuck in third place, dropped two seats despite most of the media declaring Sarwar had a “good campaign.”
As you might recall, Sarwar came up with a new shtick for the last election. The new Scottish Labour Leader would rise above it all. He’d be the “adult in the room” promising “grown-up politics” and an alternative to the constitutional bun fight between the SNP and the Tories. While this gave Sarwar a script for this televised debates, and some serviceable attack-lines, it was a strange line to take when facing down an extremely experienced incumbent running – at least in part – on her experience and political reputation as a responsible adult.
Why make the election a character test, when that plays into your opponents’ strengths? If I was the baby politician, I might think twice about throwing around the language of childishness. This week’s Opinium findings underscore what a duff strategy that was. Asked who they think would make the best First Minister, Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross are hog-tied at 11% apiece, while Nicola Sturgeon tears ahead at just under 50%. And that’s just the start.
Almost a quarter of Sarwar’s voters support the Greens entering government, want to see another independence referendum, and 20% of them intend to vote Yes. Of all the opposition leaders, Sarwar arguably lost out most of all as a result of the Green deal. Yes, all the opposition parties enjoyed the jeopardy of minority government, but only Sarwar had serious hopes of using that jeopardy to try to restore Labour’s fortunes in the Holyrood election scheduled for May 2026. Now he’s stuck in the doldrums, parliamentary arithmetic against him, struggling to tack any kind of distinctive policy tack, the wind in everyone else’s sails. Alex Cole-Hamilton faces the same problem on a much smaller scale, neatly captured by the fact Sky News forgot to include him in its poll this week. That’s got to sting.
In the end, the problem Sarwar faces is the same problem which beset each of his predecessors in the aftermath of the 2014 poll. Like each of his predecessors, his “grown up politics” was – essentially – asking the voters to put aside such childish political questions as: who rules Scotland? It is the polite, centrist version of the consistent and condescending Labour line that constitutional politics can somehow be separated from basic questions such as whether a family can put food on their table, how much of your income you contribute to the common pot in tax, and what public services you receive in return. Pretending constitutional politics is a distraction from these questions was always humbug. Dressing up your reluctance to confront the real views of real voters on the real political problems they perceive the country to be facing isn’t “grown up politics.” It is just escapism.
Notwithstanding this unpromising backdrop, with a little reflection you can see where Sarwar’s driving ambition comes from. One of the most curious features of Scottish politics is that the largest opposition party in Holyrood stands a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming the party of government. It is easy to overlook how strange this is. With the Greens taking up ministerial posts in the Scottish Government, every party in the Holyrood chamber now has some experience of Holyrood office – apart from the Tories. Nothing suggests this will change any time soon.
Under the influence of Douglas Ross, and his chronically abrasive spokesmen like Stephen Kerr, the Scottish Tory motto is now essentially “no one hates better than us.” Hate powers the media message. Hate powers the policy decisions. Hate is the only emotional note they consistently strike. And it works. Or rather, it works for the 20% or so of people living in Scotland who hate the SNP, hate Nicola Sturgeon, hate Greens, hate independence, and hate talking about the idea this country is well-able to govern itself. Hate shores up the floor of the Scottish Tory vote. Hate also slaps a very hard ceiling on it.
This strategy has allowed the party to consolidate its share of the diehard pro-union vote and make gains since 2014. But in the longer run, I wonder if this isn’t a classic case of putting tactics before long-term strategy, trading in future loses for very temporary political gains. These are people, after all, whose mission in politics is supposedly holding Our Precious Union™ together.
Only the densest Scottish Tory politician could seriously believe this delicate task can be achieved by leaning further and further in to kneejerk antagonism towards everything and anything the Scottish Government does. Only the least reflective Conservative can honestly believe that the cracks running right the way through the UK’s territorial constitution and public opinion can just be wished away.
One of the most significant findings in this week’s Opinium poll for Sky News is the extent to which any future independence campaign will be determined by people who aren’t fully sold, either on independence or continuing union. There aren’t so many of them. The pollster found that 35% of Scots would definitely support independence now, and 33% determined to vote No. That leaves just 29% of switherers up for grabs by either side. In 2014, Better Together focused on this segment of the electorate ruthlessly.
Amongst these swing voters, Nicola Sturgeon is the only politician in Scotland with a net positive trust rating when it comes to statements and claims made about independence. The Tories fare particularly poorly here, though Boris Johnson carries away the prize for dastardliness, blaggardry and deceit, enjoying a -60 trustworthiness rating amongst swing voters. Opinium also found that Alex Salmond is only a few steps behind the Prime Minister in terms of public mistrust. Interestingly, despite all the puffery from the press about her common touch, Ruth Davidson is considerably more unpopular among swing voters than she is with the general public, and more unpopular still than her successor Douglas Ross.
This is the backdrop against which any second referendum on independence will be fought. Whether you support or oppose independence, the lessons are clear. A campaign for the already converted is a campaign guaranteed to fail.
Under Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory shows every sign of having lost the run of itself – and the base love it. Even Tory MSPs who have historically shown a bit more gumption are being dragged into the defensive, increasingly hysterical mentality of its Holyrood leadership.
Just imagine fighting a second referendum on this kind of prospectus, with Douglas Ross as the unsmiling face and hectoring voice of why we’re still Better Together. But in the wake of Brexit – with its preoccupations with union flags, British nationalism, restoring Westminster sovereignty at the expense of devolved nations as well as Brussels – I’m not sure the Scottish Tories have it in them now to change the emotional tone. They’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole. Hate is compulsive. Hate is addictive. Hate is fun. Hate spares you the hard work of introspection about how it can be that so many of your fellow countrymen don’t see politics in the same way you do. And from the perspective of the 31 Scottish Tory MSPs elected last spring, hate got the political job done. Or seemed to. In time, their short-termism may come to be viewed as the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s greatest mistake.