Among the many challenges facing Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross has been the question of definition. It is difficult to define yourself in the best of times, let alone in the middle of a pandemic. When, on top of this, your seat is in Westminster, and not the devolved parliament on which the Scottish media focuses their resources and priorities, it’s harder still to penetrate the public consciousness. No matter how often you try to get yourself in front of a TV camera, you can still feel like the Invisible Man.
Ross used his speech to the Scottish Conservative conference to narrate who he is and what he believes. There had already been a steady stream of image-softening to position him as an ordinary bloke, husband and harassed young parent, who, not content with leading the Scottish Tories, assistant-referees Old Firm matches in his spare time. There was more of that — references to his police sergeant wife, a toddler who enjoys interrupting dad’s speeches and another baby on the way — but there was also a noticeable shift onto policy.
Pledges included 3,000 more teachers and a national tutoring service, expansion of the M8 motorway and high-street rates relief, full-fibre broadband by 2027 and community vetoes on planning decisions. There was also talk of the criminal justice system better serving victims, plus bang-‘em-up rhetoric about whole-life sentences, ‘double sentencing’ for attacks on emergency staff, and abolishing Scotland’s ‘not proven’ verdict. There is still a lot more meat needed but, seven months into Ross’s leadership, the policy bones are no longer bare.
There was a strong section on values, a thread which he said ran through his upbringing, the way in which he and his wife intended to bring up their children, and the future of children across Scotland. Education has a particular resonance in Scotland, which once prided itself on the rigour of its schooling and the opportunities that created for even the lad o’ pairts (the very poorest child) to make it to the top. It is the closest thing Scotland has to the American Dream.
That dream has collided with the reality of educational outcomes after 14 years of SNP government. Ross rehearsed a familiar lament: ‘Scottish education used to be the pride of our nation, the envy of the world. To be Scottish was to be educated. Our history is steeped with the lives of great inventors, philosophers and poets. Drivers of an enlightenment that saw Scottish ideas and innovations taken around the globe and still highly influential today.’
His solution was ‘to give the next generation the best tools possible to forge their own future’, including the additional teachers and tutoring, an ‘independent’ schools inspector, a fund to promote the best instruction methods, and a £120 million ‘Catch-Up Premium’ to help pupils who have fallen behind as a result of the pandemic. There are good ideas amid that pile but the long-standing internal contradiction in Scottish Tory education policy endures: the failings the party diagnoses require fundamental transformations but the remedies they prescribe are less than transformative.
There was a line that ought to be said more: ‘Our children don’t all have to strive for the same qualifications, or follow the same path, so long as they grow up to be happy, fulfilled and with the skills to aim as high as they can dream.’ This reflects his own biography — while his sisters went to university, Ross opted for agricultural college — and it rejects the outdated notion that higher education is the optimal destination for school leavers and other paths into the world of work lower-status.
Ross spent much of his remarks inveighing against the SNP over its ethical probity and plans for a second secession referendum. His language was combative: ‘All the latent ugliness in the SNP has broken out. It’s on show for all of Scotland to see. It’s consuming their party at every level of government. The scandals, the sleaze, the secrecy. Abuses of power, cover ups, dishonesty, deceit, outright lies to the Scottish Parliament. The SNP have become the very thing they sought to destroy. They are the morally bankrupt Scottish Labour party they once rebelled against.’
He even went as far as to claim Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive married to Nicola Sturgeon, ‘pressured the police’ and ‘committed perjury’ in relation to the Alex Salmond affair. The volume dial was cranked up more than once. This is, I think, a problem for Ross: when he gets angry, he sounds authentic — but he also sounds angry. In person, Ross is very personable but that personality isn’t the one that comes across on camera.
The first half of the speech was the angry half and the second half the policy and vision stuff. It would have benefited greatly from the two halves being flipped and the angry half being closer to a quarter. There is an election on and Ross is up against the most brutal, ruthless, unscrupulous political machine in the UK, but in frontloading his speech with the manifold sins of the SNP — and his dudgeon about them — he framed May’s poll as a choice between competing strains of negativity.
Maybe this is what he needs to do to get through his first electoral test and a sunnier, more optimistic offering will be forthcoming afterwards. Maybe the Scottish Tories are fated to be against everything, loudly, for as long as independence is the dividing line of Scottish politics. Maybe Downing Street’s refusal to take responsibility for the constitutional question will keep Ross and his colleagues perennially trapped as an anti-independence movement but nothing more.
The public tends to vote governments out rather than oppositions in but they still like oppositions to have something positive to say. Douglas Ross has positive things to say but he only says them negatively. The Scottish Tories aren’t going to be voted in on May 6 but if they ever hope to form a government, and if Ross hopes to lead it, they and he need to define themselves as more than the angry party of no.
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