I wouldn’t want to be Douglas Ross.
Given my knowledge of Scottish football was only recently updated with the startling information that Dundee has two teams, that is probably for the best.
But the challenges facing the latest Scottish Tory leader are more daunting than anything he has encountered on the football pitch. He assumes the helm of a party 35 points behind in the polls and becomes de facto head of the pro-Union movement at a time when a spurt of recent surveys indicate a majority for Scexit.
The SNP has been in power for 13 years but, despite a mediocre record of delivery, it has not faced robust opposition for some time. The past seven days confirm what happens when a government is not held to account: ministers placed Aberdeen under lockdown after failing to contain Covid-19, incurred the wrath of teachers and pupils over exam results, and refused to disclose legal advice about the investigation into Alex Salmond.
Douglas Ross is pincered in by a Catch-22 dilemma. He must rebuild his party’s falling support while also championing the Union — except championing the Union potentially puts half the country beyond his reach. Conversely, if he downplays the Union to attract the votes of SNP and Scexit supporters, he risks alienating a substantial chunk on his own side for whom the Union is deeply important.
If this wasn’t enough to get his head around, there is the small matter of another Holyrood election in nine months’ time, at which he aims to be elected as an MSP. There is a reason the road he has taken is less travelled: it’s the one pocked with landmines.
Ross will need to strike a delicate balance. He must reorient the Scottish Conservatives to matters such as schools, hospitals and the economy without diluting its identity as a party of the Union. It may be tempting to rival national identity politics with a different brand of said politics, but while that might bring short-term gains it would do harm to Scotland’s long-term wellbeing. The only hope of tackling the country’s social and economic problems is putting social and economic matters front and centre once more. Where the Nationalists offer flags and victimhood, Ross must offer bread and butter.
This is difficult enough in itself, even setting aside the drag of constitutionalism. The Scottish Conservatives are good at saying what they are against but it is not altogether clear what they are for. They need what George Bush Snr termed ‘the vision thing’: big ideas for the country and a purpose that is clear, memorable and attractive to the voters.
The SNP wants independence. Labour wants redistribution. What do the Tories want? Once he settles on what that vision is, Ross should compile a credible policy agenda to achieve it. He must assemble a strong team of strategists and advisers, just as Alex Salmond did when he regained the SNP leadership in 2004. Ross needs aides of the calibre of Kevin Pringle and Geoff Aberdein.
One of the most pressing priorities is recruiting fresh talent to the Scottish Tories. If you got rid of a quarter of the parliamentary party, no one would notice, but if you got rid of half, then things would really start to improve. Ross must be swift and unsentimental. If there is any way to redraw the Tories’ regional lists before next May, and he has identified suitable replacements, he should make doing so an immediate test of his control of the party. Good policies won’t shift without good retailers.
This would be a decent start but it still would not address the constitutional question. While Ross must be clearly for the Union, solving the problems of devolution will have to take place at Westminster. There are small but encouraging signs that Downing Street understands how drastically devolution has undermined the Union and that the Prime Ministers is contemplating remedial action.
Ross ought to impress upon Boris Johnson the urgency and importance of such remedies. As long as the SNP is able to use Holyrood as a Trojan horse against the Union, the future of the country will remain in question and the Tories (as well as other pro-Union parties) will struggle to reorient Scottish politics to the material interests of individuals, families and businesses.
I recently used an essay in the Scottish Daily Mail to call for a new Act of Union aimed at enhancing the unity of the United Kingdom and preventing the misuse of devolution for ulterior ends. Since then, the Scottish Fabians, an affiliate of the Labour Party, has published a similar proposal. There is a growing recognition that the flaws of devolution, exploited and exacerbated by the Nationalists, are imperilling the Union and turning the Scottish Parliament into an instrument of arid constitutionalism.
That is not what the parliament was designed for and not the parliament Scots voted for in the 1997 referendum, but that is the parliament we have thanks to design faults in the devolution settlement, aggressive mission creep by the SNP, and foolish concessions by the Cameron-era Tories. Nationalists can only set the terms of debate if their opponents concede them. It’s time to stop conceding.
Every day devolution goes unreformed is another day in which the Union lumbers closer to its demise and the constitution elbows out education, health and economic opportunities. If better schools and hospitals are what drive your politics, Holyrood is not the destination for you. That has to change but only the sovereign Parliament can change it.
There is something else that should concern Ross, and the leaders of the other non-nationalist parties: the potential for further fracturing of the pro-Union vote.
Last April, I warned of the emergence of a group I called the New Unionists, opponents of independence whose political consciousness was stirred by the electoral success and assertive style of the SNP since 2007. I argued that their Unionism was ‘coming to mirror the zeal and belligerence of nationalism’ and they were ‘dug in for a war of attrition’. Should Scotland vote to quit the UK, these New Unionists would disregard the result as the Nationalists did the outcome of the 2014 referendum. ‘The Tories would not represent them,’ I ventured, ‘but the vacuum would not be long in being filled’.
That column brought a number of phone calls in which I could hear the eyebrows being raised down the line. Yet 15 months on, there are signals that the New Unionists are beginning to cohere into an identifiable movement. George Galloway’s Alliance for Unity has materialised as a cross-party force against a second referendum and plans to field candidates next year, including Ukip founder Professor Alan Sked.
While his facility for oratory is undeniable, Galloway is a Brexiteer seeking election in a country that voted 62 per cent Remain. The last time he successfully contested a Scottish seat was 19 years ago, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, R.E.M. was in the charts and Twitter was still the noise a bird made. What electoral threat he would pose to the SNP is not obvious but the potential to shave a percentage or two off the support of mainstream pro-Union parties is clear.
Also standing next May will be the Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party and it is likely that the Scottish Family Party, neutral on independence but against another referendum in the next parliament, will also pop up on the list. The pro-Union vote, already sliced in three, could be split at least six ways.
This is what makes Ross’s position so precarious. He must win over non-Unionists while keeping the most fervent Unionists on board. Competition from fringe factions may be more of a nuisance than a viable electoral challenge for now, but there is no guarantee this will remain the case.
This is a gargantuan agenda for Douglas Ross but it is bookmarked on either end by the question of credibility. He must begin by showing himself to be a credible leader and, on the far side, he must show the Tories to be a credible party of government.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image © Chris McAndrew / CC BY 3.0, cropped.