Jackson Carlaw is a man of his party.
He was forged by it, shaped by its triumphs and more often its defeats, but he carried its banner loyally and with the very best humour, even through the lean years of the 1990s. His decision to resign works that same seam of duty: party before personal ambition.
Carlaw was first elected to Holyrood in 2007, representing the West of Scotland region, but his service to his party stretches back decades. Aged 23, he cut his teeth in the Queen’s Park by-election held after the sudden death of Labour MP Frank McElhone in 1982, and would go on to contest Pollok in the following year’s general election.
Much of his efforts were as a backroom man, chairing first the Scottish Tory youth wing then serving as deputy chairman of the party itself. He campaigned against devolution as a threat to the Union though later sought election to Holyrood.
After Annabel Goldie stood down as leader in 2011, Carlaw was one of four contenders to replace her, and when Ruth Davidson triumphed she chose him as her deputy. After decades working the seat, he finally retrieved Eastwood from Labour’s clutches in 2016.
Eastwood is pure Carlaw: middle-class, showy and ever so slightly pushy, but with an identifiable sense of community spirit. That the Tories could win there again was proof that Scotland was not a lost cause but it was down entirely to Carlaw’s personality and uncanny grasp of his constituents’ instincts.
Boris Johnson called him ‘a tremendous servant to the Scottish Conservative Party for more than four decades’, and said he had ‘given his all and deserves our thanks for his efforts’. This is true, but Boris owes him much more. Without him, Carlaw would not have been thrust into one of the most difficult jobs in Scottish politics. Without his Brexit, it might be Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership in doubt instead.
Despite being for Remain and not being terribly fond of the Prime Minister, Carlaw has shown him fidelity when it would have profited his own personal and political standing to become a thorn in his leader’s side. His dependability only brought him grief. When it was revealed that Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown rules, Carlaw foolishly held the line long beyond anything his MSPs or his own conscience were comfortable with. He was damned for backing Boris’s man then damned for no longer being able to stomach it.
Internal criticism and adverse comment on his leadership, I understand, had steadily got the better of him. He was slated for failing to hold Sturgeon to book, especially over her handling of coronavirus and efforts to restart the referendum juggernaut, and the opinion polls were brutal. Under his leadership, the SNP took a 35-point lead and backing for Scexit crossed into the majority. As one of those responsible for some of the adverse comment, there was no pleasure in pointing out the flaws in his performance. Sometimes the Press swarms in a feeding frenzy but other times the carcass just sinks on its own.
For all that his leadership warranted critique, Carlaw himself is clubbable, a gentleman, stops to chat with everyone and always remembers people’s names. The Del Boy caricature that his opponents tried to work up – and to which he sometimes played up – isn’t really Carlaw. He’s more G&T in the Whitecraigs Tennis Club than a Caribbean Stallion down the Nag’s Head, though he was once better known for a line in after-dinner humour that would nowadays see him on the sharp end of the Twitter mob’s pitchfork. He was, however, tremendously popular with the party’s grassroots and to hear disappointment and reproach bubble up from that quarter cannot have been easy.
What even his detractors would agree is that a nerve of principle runs through Carlaw’s politics. The causes he chose to champion are not those of a popularity-pursuer. He has been a Tory in Scotland, a Europhile in a Eurosceptic party and a firm friend of Israel in a parliament decidedly cool on the Jewish state. Switching sides in any of these matters would have done his prospects no harm but he stuck with a sense of right and wrong that is simple and suburban and all the better for it.
That black-and-white morality, though unfashionable, has led Carlaw to be on the right side of matters where others find themselves hobbled by relativism. In an interview with me last year, he broke down when discussing the thought of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, given the fears expressed by British Jews about what it could mean for their future in the country. Carlaw was raising concerns about the growth of antisemitism in UK politics many years before most politicians grasped the scale of the problem.
So what went wrong? Let’s get the obvious out of the way: he was no Ruth Davidson, but everyone who followed her would have failed to live up to the standard she set. She was a shin-kicker, a role Carlaw tried to mimic but didn’t have the stomach for. He would much rather wound an opponent with some caustic wordplay than with a brutish verbal thump. Age perhaps played a part, too. Davidson belonged to a generation more au fait with social media and the ever-shifting ways voters consume and think about politics.
He could not count on the loyalty of his parliamentary ranks and, according to one MSP I spoke with, they were kept in the dark about his decision to leave. In fairness, Carlaw did not give them much reason to remain faithful. Unlike his long service to the Scottish Tories as a foot soldier, his stint in the leadership produced nothing approaching a legacy. He seems to have sought the job for the same reason Mallory scaled Everest – because it was there. Only, when he reached the summit he didn’t know what to do next.
The Union is the fault line of Scottish politics and, bluntly, Carlaw was not the man to lead the fight for it. His statement yesterday acknowledged as much. That does not mean his service to his party or the Union ends here. His successor will gain from the advice of a veteran with enviable institutional knowledge. The PM has seen how useful Baroness Goldie has been in the Lords and the government could benefit from another hand on deck when it comes to the Union, not least someone with Carlaw’s extensive experience with separatism.
Whoever comes next will need a much sharper sense of why they want the job, what they stand for and what they plan to do. The Scottish Conservatives need ideas, a clear message, fresh talent, and more besides, but nothing quite so much as strong leadership. The purpose is not to get the grassroots to like you, it is to get them to follow you. The Tories don’t know who they are or what they’re after. Why would the electorate put a cross next to that prospect?
Deciding what the Scottish Tories are for is a weighty feat and the talent on the Holyrood benches thin and ever-thinning. It might be wise for the party to look elsewhere for its next leader. There is precedent for this: Alex Salmond led the SNP from Westminster between 2004 and 2007, with Nicola Sturgeon serving as leader at Holyrood. If the Tories did choose to go down this route, they would need a new deputy leader tough enough to go toe-to-toe with Sturgeon every week.
Politics is a rough old business and fond of its vicious little ironies. Jackson Carlaw’s lot was to be the Remainer left to defend Brexit, the leader who carried off the role with elan in an acting capacity but lost his grip when the job was his in his own right. Leadership is not just a task but a talent, one that most do not possess. He gave the best of himself but accepted in the end that it was not enough. You can hang a man for many things but you can’t hang him for that.
Carlaw will step down after an unhappy time in charge and he will have to account for why he failed, but his commitment to his party is beyond doubt. It has not always treated him kindly but he has always served it with steadfastness and a smile.