As a boy, Douglas Ross, the new leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, had two interests: cows and football. Growing up on a dairy farm in Moray, he never aspired to hold political office. He enjoyed the solitude of early morning milking. ‘Some people like big tractors, other people like sheep. I was just really interested in dairy cattle, and Holsteins in particular,’ he explained earlier this year.
Now he finds himself faced with one of the more daunting tasks in British politics: thwarting Nicola Sturgeon and, in the process, preserving the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 2016, Ruth Davidson identified Ross as one of the most talented new Tory MSPs produced by that year’s Holyrood election. If Ross had not surprisingly defeated the Scottish National party’s deputy leader Angus Robertson in Moray at the 2017 Westminster election, he would probably have succeeded Davidson when she stepped down last August.
Instead the leadership was bequeathed to Jackson Carlaw, a florid used-car salesman from whom it transpired the Scottish electorate would not buy a used car. Last week, senior members of the Scottish party, many of them still allied with Davidson,-handed Carlaw a hefty dram and a revolver and invited him to do the decent thing. Having lost half the party’s MPs in December, and languishing in the opinion polls, Carlaw, a loyal party man to the end, recognised that his race was run. The way thus became clear for Ross to be parachuted into the role.
The coup took most Tory MSPs by surprise, even if they also rapidly welcomed it. The arrangement is not without its challenges, however. As a Westminster MP, Ross will have to wait until next year’s Holyrood elections before he can assume full control. In the interim period, before taking up a seat in the House of Lords, Davidson will lead for the Tories at the Scottish parliament.
Since no other Tory in Scotland ‘cuts through’ like Davidson, this is being presented as a package deal offering voters the best of both worlds: the freshness of new and more robust leadership coupled with the reassurance offered by Davidson’s return to the front line. There is a sense of the old band getting back together for one last tour.
As matters stand, next year’s Holyrood elections promise to be a brutally chastening experience for the Tories and the other Unionist parties. Current polling suggests that the SNP might well win an overall majority, despite an electoral system that was designed to make such an outcome all but impossible. Add the support of the Greens and the chance that a new pro–independence alliance party might pick up some seats on the regional list, and it is not inconceivable that Unionists could be outnumbered two to one in the new parliament.
Rather than depress the SNP vote, Ross’s task lies in maximising turnout among anti-SNP voters. That will require a campaign that nods to the risk of a second independence referendum but is not fixated on it. ‘Vote Tory to thwart Indyref2’ loses its salience if the people then vote SNP.
The Davidson-led Tory revival in Scotland was not an endorsement of Conservative policies on health or education — few Tory MSPs and even fewer voters could tell you anything about these — so much as an endorsement of Davidson herself and her willingness to stand up to the nationalists.
Ross must carry on that tradition while also, where necessary, standing up to a UK government that is hideously unpopular in Scotland. Tory insiders argue his resignation from that government on a point of principle — the Prime Minister’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings — is an advantage. ‘Douglas is a stubborn wee bastard,’ says one of his colleagues, fondly. Once set on a course, he will not be easily persuaded to change his mind. He insists, for instance, that he can combine leading the Tories with his duties as a part-time football linesman, claiming that this is a hobby, little different to playing golf or hill-walking at weekends. He is not a politician overly interested in other people’s good opinions.
Ross’s principles are not to everyone’s taste but a reluctance to trim his views to gain acceptance in polite society will be spun as a strength not a weakness. Three years ago, Ross was asked what he’d do if were prime minister for a day and, unthinkingly, responded that he’d ‘like to see tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers’. He has since repeatedly apologised for those remarks, while reiterating that illegal travelling sites are a problem in his constituency.
The emerging Tory line in Scotland is that it is time to move on from constitutional politics. To that end, the prayer of St Francis is their text: ‘Where there is discord, let me bring union.’ In a joint op-ed for the Scottish Daily Mail, Ross and Davidson wrote that ‘We cannot go back to the politics of nationalism — of us vs them’. Instead, Scotland ‘needs’ a party ‘with a patriotic vision that focuses less on opening up divisions than on opening up opportunities and life chances for our people’.
This is less a promise of a bright new dawn than a message for a tired country, worn down by a decade of quarrelling about the national question. ‘Give us peace’ is the cry. In the prevailing circumstances, in which the Scottish Tories are hamstrung by Brexit, Boris and the UK government’s record in dealing with the coronavirus — none of which meet with approval in Scotland — it may be the best argument available.
But for it to succeed, it requires voters to focus on the SNP’s underwhelming record in government. At present, there is little evidence that the electorate is prepared to judge the Scottish government by the standards to which they hold its UK counterpart. That double standard remains a fundamental problem for Unionism. And unless that changes, it places a ceiling on Unionist — and Conservative — aspirations.
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