Douglas Ross must blow the whistle on Tory failings


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: image © Chris McAndrew / CC BY 3.0, cropped.

Boris needs Avengers for his Union fightback

Birmingham Police visit

There is a frisson in the air around constitutional matters, an abrupt zing of urgency at Westminster about the future of the Union.

After years of indolence, ministers have suddenly awoken to the scale and immediacy of the threat to the United Kingdom. The ‘resignation’ of Jackson Carlaw, the candidacy of Douglas Ross and the ennoblement and impending return to the barricades of Ruth Davidson are signs that something is afoot. 

However, ascertaining the existence of a problem isn’t the same as solving it. For that, you need ideas, alternatives, political nous and institutional experience. You need to subject assumptions to rigorous scrutiny and scope out policies for pitfalls and unintended consequences. Above all, you need this process to be orderly and streamlined, with clear responsibilities and lines of communication. Right now, Union policy has more cooks than the Cordon Bleu. Among those feeding into it are the Scotland and Wales Offices, the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove’s Cabinet subcommittee, the devolved parties and backbenchers. There is too much chatter and good ideas risk becoming lost in all the noise. 

This is why Boris Johnson should appoint a Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on the Union, a panel of independent but broadly pro-Union grandees from the worlds of politics, business, academia and beyond. Their remit should be to provide the PM counsel on three main topics: 1) public opinion on secession and Scottish Government agitation for another referendum, 2) the devolution settlement, its impact on the Union and the potential for reform, 3) strategies to strengthen the Union in political, economic and cultural terms. To be confident that their advice would be listened to, the Council would need to deal directly with either Michael Gove or Dominic Cummings. 

Their overriding task would be to counter the vast chugging engine of separatist mischief-making that roars inside St Andrew’s House and is fuelled by political, academic, cultural and civil society elites. The council would be a small team pitted against a potent enemy, different talents and viewpoints united in their mission to rescue the Union from its foes. Imagine the Avengers, only with Adam Tomkins instead of Iron Man and Mike Russell standing in for Loki. Unionists, Assemble! 

What might be the composition of such a council? The obvious candidate for chairperson is Ruth Davidson. No one has her up-close experience of nationalism nor her success in frustrating its ambitions. The Edinburgh Central MSP is also a pragmatist and would keep the council grounded in the political possibilities (though this can be a bad thing as well as a good thing). Davidson would contribute leadership to the group but also an understanding of how the SNP operates, the traps it lays for the UK Government and the ways in which it surreptitiously pushes its agenda. 

Adam Tomkins is standing down at the next election and returning to academia but that is no reason to let his talents go to waste. His legal expertise and merciless analysis of both his own side and his opponents could prove invaluable in weighing up legislative amendments to the status quo. Any advisory council would be wise to keep a seat for him.

Also deserving of consideration is Vernon Bogdanor, perhaps the UK’s foremost professor of government. Few have studied and written as extensively about the UK constitution and he would bring a grasp of its history, the nooks and crannies where quiet reforms can pay off, and the prospect for more fundamental change. 

Oxford-educated advocate turned MSP Donald Cameron is the Scottish Tories’ policy maven. He has moderate, devolutionist instincts and a liberal’s suspicion of both inertia and overreach. He would credit the council an open mind, a gradualist instinct and a conciliatory manner, all vital qualities for facing the challenges ahead.

Somewhat less conciliatory would be Lord Forsyth. He was a divisive figure in his days as Secretary of State for Scotland, yet he was one of the few senior figures in politics to oppose devolution. He warned that it would progressively enfeeble the Union and give nationalism the opening it needed to finish the job. At the time, this view was treated not only as unfashionable but slightly mad, but two decades of the Scottish Parliament has vindicated his scepticism. His foresight then warrants giving him a seat at the table now.

Jack Straw is a Labour elder statesman with significant and useful experience. The council should not be a Tory echo chamber and Straw could bring an acute understanding of international relations and global institutions and how the loss of the Union would damage the UK on these fronts. He also takes an interest in the constitution, having chaired the Constitutional Affairs Cabinet Committee under Tony Blair. Following the No vote in the independence referendum, Straw proposed passing a law to define the Union as ‘indissoluble’.

The economics of the Union are often spoken about but not always understood, mandating the inclusion of an economist. There is surely no more respected scholar of Scottish economics today than Professor Ronald MacDonald of Glasgow University, whose analysis played a substantial role in the 2014 referendum campaign. He is, as far as I am aware, politically unaligned and his counsel would be all the more precious for it. Likewise, economist John McLaren, without having to sign up to any political prospectus, could advise on using the Union to promote a more socially and economically just UK. Former CBI Scotland director Sir Iain McMillan would bring an unparalleled grip of business while the celebrated composer Sir James MacMillan could contribute much-needed pointers on the cultural dimensions of the Union.

In the short term, the council would be focused on Scotland but if the Prime Minister decided to do more than tinker with the devolution settlement and embrace an agenda of UK-wide constitutional reform, the council would have have to be reconfigured. 

However, even in its original calibration, it ought to contain one representative each from Wales and Northern Ireland. Lord Bourne, the former leader of the Welsh Conservatives, and Lord Trimble, the first First Minister of Northern Ireland, would be ideal candidates. 

While Lord Trimble is a Unionist, the consociational nature of politics in Northern Ireland would make it prudent to invite cross-community contributions from outwith the council. Former SDLP leader Baroness Ritchie and past Alliance head John Cushnahan, although they hold different views about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, could supply valuable insight. 

Provide this body with enough resources and it could commission advice from relevant authorities on constitutional law, politics, business, economics and defence. 

Lord Robertson would be one such example. As former Secretary General of NATO, he would be able to sketch the importance of the Union to national security, the fate of Trident in the event of separation and the likely impact on the UK’s standing in institutional bodies if Scotland were to secede. There might also be a morbid curiosity for the reflections of the man who famously trumpeted devolution as a means to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. 

Input might also be sought from around the world. Jean Chrétien, the Canadian Prime Minister who narrowly defeated the sovereigntists in Quebec’s 1995 referendum, ought to be surveyed on his response to the near-loss of a united Canada. 

Chrétien adopted a policy called ‘Plan B’, sometimes dubbed ‘tough love’, which promoted Canada directly to Quebecers while tightening the law to make any future attempt at secession more difficult. Twenty-five years on, opposition to separation enjoys a comfortable majority among Quebec voters. 

Similarly, Kerry Jones could be consulted on her tenure as director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, in which role she headed up the No campaign in the 1999 republic referendum. Going into the campaign, polls showed a majority of Australians backed a breakaway from the British monarchy in favour of an independent head of state; however, when referendum day came No triumphed over Yes — 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

It seems at times as though nationalists have all the ideas but that is only because believers in the UK are disorganised and unmotivated. Establishing a Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on the Union could change that and revitalise the intellectual case for the United Kingdom while setting out practical steps for making it more united still. If the PM is serious about a pro-Union fightback, it’s time he hired some generals. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

A new Act of Union is needed to save the United Kingdom


Jackson Carlaw’s leadership of the Scottish Conservatives will not be remembered as one of the party’s high points.

But while his personal qualities as a leader, a strategist and a communicator are plainly not beyond reproach, neither do they fully explain why he is stepping down after just six months in the job. Certainly, he contributed to his party’s grim situation — 35 points behind in the polls and Scexit now the majority view after 13 lacklustre years of SNP government — but he is not the sole author of Scottish Tory misfortune. 

Douglas Ross, if he succeeds in his bid to replace Carlaw, will come to learn just how demanding a job Scottish Conservative leader is these days. In reality, it is three jobs in one: head of the party, head of the parliamentary opposition and de facto head of the pro-Union movement. 

This is a near-impossible triumvirate to manage. The Tory leader must hold one government to account while acting as the whipping boy for what another government does. He must set policies philosophically discrete to a political party while attempting to hold together a politically diverse pro-Union coalition. He is fated to erect his every policy, strategy and statement around the constitution, limiting his political horizons but also putting at least half the country beyond his electoral reach. 

Ross could prove to be as tough and tenacious as Ruth Davidson but he will still be at the mercy of the same currents. The problem is an institutional one as much as a matter of personal character or ability. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives will always be on the defensive because the devolution settlement as weaponised by the SNP puts him there. 

Control over Holyrood not only gives the Nationalists power inconsistent with the unity of the United Kingdom, it also furnishes them with a platform to agitate for separation. As long as the SNP remains in charge of an unreformed devolution settlement, the constitution will continue to loom large and as long as it does any scope for better governance of Scotland (and with it political alternatives to the SNP) will be forfeited. If the Tories cannot appreciate the constitutional necessity of remedying the dangerous flaws in devolution, they should be able to grasp the political expediency.

Westminster must do the heavy-lifting of repairing the constitution so that Ross, or whoever succeeds Carlaw, can focus on the day job. Some belated attention from SW1 would be welcome. Successive prime ministers have neglected Scotland and left the defence of the Union to opposition parties at Holyrood. The public are subjected to a daily barrage of grievances about Westminster and spin for separation. From Westminster, they hear only the occasional squeak of objection. 

The problem is structural. Westminster built a devolved parliament to stop nationalism but instead nationalism took control of that parliament and is using it to put a stop to the Union. Devolution was a policy born not only of fear but of arrogance. The Labour establishment that had ruled Scotland for half a century was prompted to action by the prospect of losing its grip on the nation’s politics to the SNP but it failed to contemplate losing in the new system it proposed. Scotland was Labour and devolution would only make it more so. 

There is not much to recommend nationalists if you’re looking for good schools or new hospitals but they understand human nature better than social democrats. The Nationalists told Scotland it was a victim of Westminster. Building a Scottish parliament didn’t dispel this myth, it conceded it. The same dynamic would later destroy Scottish Labour as a force in Westminster politics: if Tory governments did Scotland down, as Labour had thundered for decades, why would Labour stand with the Tories against independence, Scotland’s chance to be free of them forever?

Not everyone in the party was so shortsighted. The late Tam Dalyell, lifetime member of Labour’s awkward squad, called devolution ‘a motorway without exit to a Scottish state’. Today, we are at the final services station before the point of no return. Of the nine polls taken on independence so far in 2020, five showed a majority for separation, two were tied and a further two produced the narrowest of majorities for staying in the UK. 

The Prime Minister has refused to grant a second referendum, but this line can only be held so long. Eventually, the SNP will either call his bluff by holding a consultative referendum or seek the power to hold an official plebiscite via the Supreme Court.

Either of these options carries significant risk for the Nationalists but not for them alone. Public opinion in the rest of the UK would only tolerate a constitutional crisis for so long before concluding that Scottish secession might be in everyone’s best interests. The next Scottish Tory leader should be acutely aware of that danger.  

Before outlining a way forward, let us dispense with some of the easy answers that lie at either fringe of the debate. Some figures in Scottish Labour, with their careers as much as the constitution in mind, say Westminster should not block another referendum on separation.

What is disguised as the argument of a democrat is in fact the groundwork-laying of opportunists who see momentum and instinctively chase it. The Union should not be abandoned simply because it is less popular or because it would be politically advantageous to side with the new Scottish establishment. The United Kingdom is worth fighting for. 

On the other margin are those who want rid of devolution altogether. Scrapping the Scottish Parliament and other devolved assemblies is within Parliament’s prerogative but it would mean disregarding the result of referendums. Parliament may be sovereign but where Parliament has consulted the electorate on constitutional matters — a relatively recent phenomenon which should be allowed to die out — it ought to respect their will.

Devolution was badly designed and introduced for the wrong reasons but the principles of localism and dispersed powers are sound ones. Perhaps legislative devolution and UK unity are intrinsically incompatible, but before tossing out the baby, we should at least try to refreshen the bath water. 

Making devolution work better requires us to recognise its design flaws. Rather than addressing the distinct needs of ordinary Scots, devolution focussed on erecting further political structures for elite actors. Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary who oversaw Holyrood’s creation, went directly to serve as First Minister. Unsurprisingly, the system he helped devise consolidated an array of powers in his hands and since Labour would govern Scotland till Judgement Day, there was nothing to worry about. 

On this flawed settlement the SNP has built its empire and turned what was intended as a formal expression of a fiefdom into a rival seat of political authority to Westminster. The leeway that the current arrangements grant the Scottish Government both to act as though it were running an independent state and to use the levers of devolved power to agitate for such a state is extraordinary. 

The UK Parliament could permit this situation to continue and hope the SNP comes up a cropper or that Scots pull back from the brink the clearer the costs of separation become. It should be obvious by now that complacency and drift only help the nationalist cause. The continuing prospect of independence creates for Nicola Sturgeon a built-in level of support approaching, or even surpassing, a majority in Holyrood and Westminster elections.

Equally, Parliament could restrict itself to the sort of limited reforms we are beginning to see on the internal market and the Shared Prosperity Fund. However welcome these measures are, they are attempts to tether mist.

Something more substantial is called for. Spike the football or they will score. 

The problems began with a Scotland Act and were exacerbated by further Scotland Acts. The remedy must begin there, too: a fresh Act of Parliament for a fresh constitutional settlement.

A further Scotland Act might sensibly take the form of a new Act of Union, since the Holyrood experience has demonstrated the potential for devolution arrangements elsewhere to be similarly captured by anti-UK forces . Such legislation has been proposed before and Boris Johnson’s government should take it up for it is the last best chance of not only saving the Union but making it stronger. A great deal of political, legal and constitutional enquiry would have to go into the provisions of the Act but the broad themes can be sketched out. 

A modern Act of Union should be for a truly United Kingdom. It should define the UK as a unitary state in which due deference is accorded to each nation’s distinct history, tradition and legal systems but in which the seat of sovereignty is placed beyond doubt.

Scottish nationalists and the more romantic-minded in Labour and the Liberal Democrats assert the ‘sovereignty of the Scottish people’ as a constitutional principle and the Claim of Right (1989) as its instrumental manifestation. In fact, no such principle is recognised in law and the Claim of Right was a glorified press release with zero constitutional standing. Under the UK constitution, Parliament is sovereign — or, properly, ‘the Crown-in-Parliament under God’. 

It may ring old-fashioned but a 21st century Act of Union should reassert the primacy of Parliament because it is the guarantor of liberty, order and good government but also because it binds Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish together, where the devolved assemblies set us apart. 

Which powers should be assigned where is a big question that cannot be exhaustively answered here, but certain principles can be outlined. In each devolved nation, such powers should be devolved as are required to cater for discrete needs or contexts but all powers not specifically devolved should be considered reserved. Practically, there are areas where it makes sense for a devolved body to legislate as well as administer.

Health provision has been discrete to Scotland since long before the NHS, and when that institution came along it did so in the form of a distinct NHS Scotland. History and tradition, in addition to specific health needs in parts of Scotland, mount an overwhelming case for most of health policy to be decided at Holyrood. 

The same principle, it might be argued, should apply in portfolios such as education and skills; large parts of justice and public safety; agriculture, environment, land reform and planning; infrastructure, housing and tourism. 

Even where powers are reserved, the government should give due consideration to any recommendation from the Scottish Affairs Committee for bespoke policies, structures, funding and timescales for Scotland. However, if the UK is to be a unitary state and its Parliament sovereign, any new Act of Union ought to dispense with the convention that Westminster does not generally legislate in devolved areas without Holyrood’s approval. The ‘permanence’ of Holyrood should be dropped and a prohibition placed on expending taxpayers’ money or parliamentary time on reserved matters.

Another myth that an Act of Union could put to bed is the notion that it is possible to obtain a mandate for a constitutional referendum in a Scottish Parliament election. The constitution is reserved. A Scottish Government elected on a manifesto commitment to an independence referendum has no more of a democratic mandate for one that if it had triumphed with a call for a referendum on expelling Trident or recognising an independent state of Catalonia. These powers rest at Westminster and Westminster alone. 

It should hardly need to be said that the coalition against a new Act of Union would be sizeable. Not only the SNP and the Greens, but the wider devocrat industry, including the federalist Lib Dems and even the more hand-wringing Tories. Among the fiercest opponents would be Labour’s devolution-ultras, who have not had a fresh idea about the constitution since 1997 and daren’t have one for fear of conceding just how much damage their experiment has done to the Union. 

The academy, civil society, the third sector, the Kirk and Scotland’s establishmentarian artists and intellectuals would be especially vocal. The sheer scale of this enmity is not a reason to reject an updated Act of Union; in fact, it demonstrates why one is so necessary. These interests represent an independent Scottish state in gestation and would merely be lashing out at losing the power they have spent so long accruing.

A revised devolution settlement would bring with it revised responsibilities. Westminster’s sovereignty would be secure again but its duties to the entire United Kingdom would be clearer than ever. If the UK is to be more politically united, it must be more economically united too. This country is the sixth largest economy in the world but if you live in Greenock or Barlanark or Ferguslie Park, it doesn’t feel like it. 

Alongside any Act of Union Bill there should be plans for a UK Solidarity Fund that funnels resources to the most deprived parts of the country, relocation of most government departments and agencies to the nations and regions, corporation tax holidays for firms that headquarter in Livingston or Llandudno rather than London, and the use of the taxation and welfare systems to lift more people out of poverty and guarantee a minimum standard of living across the UK. 

After politics and economics, the third leg of the unity stool is cultural. You can make laws, you can even hand out free money, but you cannot make people feel British. That requires the building of new institutions and fostering of new identities in place of the old ones that used to bind people together across our four nations.

The UK must be a country where complex and even contradictory ideas of self, belonging, community and nationality can coexist. It is possible to be Scottish, British and European at the same time, but while Scottish and European identities are promoted and reinforced, British identity is increasingly invisible in Scotland. Pass all the Acts of Union you want but until you change that, the fate of the Union will remain in contest. 

This is a towering agenda for any government to adopt but if the Conservatives aren’t prepared to do it while they command a healthy majority in the House of Commons, then it will never get done. The Scottish Conservatives will pay the price for this complacency, as every fresh leader is welcomed with much hope and eventually waved back out with glum resignation.

The fate of the Tory Party is of little concern to me. The greater injury will be to the Union, which will be corroded further until it can no longer be repaired, but if an appeal to the national interest cannot persuade Boris Johnson to act, petitioning his party’s political interests might be the clincher. Nothing the next Tory leader does will be as important as what the Prime Minister decides to do about devolution. He can either concede that independence is inevitable or steel himself for a historic fight for the Union.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Image by Waldo Miguez from Pixabay. 

Jackson Carlaw gave his all but it wasn’t enough


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.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at

How Keir Starmer can win in Scotland


Tony Blair won Labour three elections and one day they might forgive him for it.

The former leader cuts a sombre figure these days, the Labour elder statesman few in Labour want to listen to anymore. The Conservatives would do well to perk up their ears, however, because if there is one thing Blair knows about it is electability. Last week, he concluded that Sir Keir Starmer had made Labour ‘politically competitive’ again and ‘completely changed the image certainly of the Labour leadership amongst the public’.

In his outings at Prime Minister’s Questions, the former Director of Public Prosecutions has been merciless in his cross-examination of Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister is not a details man and Sir Keir is steadily introducing the public to that fact.

He has shown himself to be canny, refusing to step into several traps Downing Street has laid for him. He has proven ruthless in putting the Corbynistas back in their box. On coronavirus, he has demonstrated how to oppose constructively but effectively. Compo is back down the allotment and a proper leader in charge again.

Sir Keir has two jobs: to make Labour respectable and then make it electable. The first order of business has been driving antisemitism out of the party. Labour can never undo what it did to British Jews and it may be that relations will never again be as strong and warm as they once were, but Sir Keir has made some important progress, not least in settling the defamation suit brought by party whistleblowers who were vilified for raising the alarm.

It does not make up for his choosing to sit in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet all those years, but it is a welcome indication that anti-Jewish racism is becoming less tolerated in Labour.

Electability will be an even greater challenge. Sir Keir is neither Corbyn nor Boris and, for now, that is enough, but when the British people come to decide on their next prime minister, they will be looking for more than just a savvy opposition leader. He will have to win back Red Wall Tory switchers, frustrated by Labour’s Janus-faced approach to Brexit, while retaining graduate, higher-income Remainers who have still to come to terms with our departure from the EU.

He has to earn back the country’s trust in Labour’s ability to govern, oversee a dynamic economy and keep us safe. Max Weber described politics as ‘a strong and slow boring of hard boards’ and Sir Keir has an entire B&Q warehouse to get through before he can make Labour electable again.

He presents as more prime ministerial than his predecessor, certainly. Of course, a family of mole rats scrapping in a wheelie bin would be more prime ministerial than his predecessor, but the scale of improvement is impressive.

Even so, doubts niggle at the back of my mind. Is he the three Ls that curse otherwise talented Labour politicians: too left, too lawyerly, too London? A big part of any journey back to power will be realigning a party of big cities and university campuses with the values and instincts of the British public.

However, nothing stands in the way of Sir Keir’s path to Number 10 as stubbornly as Scotland. To win even a bare majority without making gains north of the Border, Sir Keir would have to pick up 124 seats in England and Wales. Gaining more than 100 seats to go from opposition to government is rare enough that it has happened only twice in post-war history: the 1945 Labour government and Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide. If Sir Keir is to become Prime Minister, he needs a plan for making inroads in Labour’s lost heartlands.

Any plan needs to take account of the man nominally in charge of Scottish Labour. It pains me every time I have to write about Richard Leonard. Some politicians deserve to be told how hopeless they are but Leonard is not one of them. He’s a decent bloke and, though firmly on the Labour left, devoid of the sectarian poison that pumps through the veins of that particular faction.

But his leadership — a dumbfounding 982 days and counting — has been a low point for Scottish Labour, and this is a party once led by Henry McLeish. Never once has he challenged his party to be better, to go beyond its comfort zone, to trespass onto the radar of ordinary voters.

Scottish Labour isn’t so much a party of lions led by donkeys as donkeys led by Eeyore. Leonard is a former organiser for the GMB union and had he stayed in that job, he could have done more good in a day than he has managed to do in almost 1,000 days at the helm of Labour.

Sir Keir will be understandably reluctant to interfere in the Scottish party. Corbyn and John McDonnell’s endless interventions on the constitution not only did political harm, they placed a heavy strain on comradely relations. In an ideal world, Leonard would appreciate that he is a drag on his party’s fortunes and make way for new blood in the form of Anas Sarwar or Jenny Marra.

If Scottish Labour is not going to get better, then Sir Keir will have to go around it. Build a direct relationship with Scottish voters to pitch himself as a prime minister in waiting, the man who can beat the Tories, jump-start the economy and put fairness at the heart of government.

The biggest mistake he could make is following his predecessors into the constitutional cul-de-sac. Sir Keir should resist those voices in his party who will agitate for him to propose federalism, or yet more devolution, or some other clever scheme intended to shore up the Union but which inevitably ends up undermining it further.

Every time a Labour politician puts the constitution centre stage in their appeal to Scottish voters, they tell Scottish voters that the constitution should be centre-stage for them. Labour can’t win on these terms because it can’t out-nationalist the Nationalists; it must be the party of jobs, opportunities and security.

Sir Keir won’t pick up Commons seats in Scotland by beating Nicola Sturgeon because he won’t beat Nicola Sturgeon. The match-up is uneven, she has home court advantage and the Labour leader cannot afford to get bogged down in a war of attrition in one part of the country.

Since trying to defeat Sturgeon is futile, the next best option is to make her irrelevant. Do not engage her or the SNP on constitutional questions. Do not be drawn into hypotheticals about pacts or coalitions. Do not agree to fight on Sturgeon’s terms.

Fight on your own terms: Boris Johnson or Sir Keir Starmer — choose.


It’s an unpopular view but I consider Humza Yousaf a good man doing his best to make Scotland a safer place to live. I just wish he wasn’t so toweringly certain.

Among those warning that his Hate Crime Bill will squelch free speech are eminent lawyers, law lecturers, campaigners from across the spectrum and even his party’s former deputy leader.

But it’s not just free expression this Bill threatens; Yousaf is putting the SNP’s agenda in jeopardy. This Bill is so ill-conceived, so illiberal that, once the prosecutions begin and the unintended consequences are laid bare, even a majority SNP government would struggle to keep it on the statute books.

If it passes this parliament, the next parliament will busy itself repealing or extensively amending it. When the SNP hopes to be making the case for a second referendum, it will be fighting a rearguard action in defence of legislation that divides even the independence movement.

Yousaf’s good intentions won’t count for much then.


I don’t make a habit of agreeing with the Nationalists, but I wonder if they have a point about the BBC being out-of-touch with Scotland.

Over the weekend, this headline appeared on the Corporation’s news website: ‘Why have Scotland’s pubs opened before its gyms?’

It’s like they don’t even know us.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at Feature image © UK Parliament by CC BY-NC 2.0.

Letter to a Prime Minister in more trouble than he realises

Boris Johnson Cabinet Meeting at the FCO
21/07/2020. London, United Kingdom. Boris Johnson Cabinet Meeting at the FCO.The Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his first face-to-face cabinet meeting at the Foreign Office since the Covid-19 Lockdown took place in March. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Dear Boris,

Welcome back to Scotland. It’s always good to see a Prime Minister travelling north of the border, even when he isn’t convinced there is a border. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy to see you and some nationalists even think you ought to have secured permission to come here.

That is absurd, though no more absurd than any of their other pronouncements. You are the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and no more require someone else’s say-so to come here than Nicola Sturgeon does for her international junkets where she cosplays as a Caledonian Angela Merkel.

There is a border between Scotland and England but it is a jurisdictional boundary, not a sovereign division. It reflects Scotland’s distinct legal system and devolved governing arrangements, not a dividing line between separate states.

We, the Scots and the English, are not only neighbours but compatriots. Scotland is your country as much as it is mine.

Speaking of the First Minister, I understand you are not meeting her on your visit today. No worries. Keep a TV on in the background; she’s on at least once an hour.

Besides, there are more pressing matters for you to attend to. Let me be blunt: Things are not going well for your party up here. Jackson Carlaw is a good man and a robust parliamentarian but he is no Ruth Davidson. Were she still commanding the bridge, HMS Scottish Tories would be chugging full steam ahead to a respectable result in next May’s Holyrood election.

There was a fair chance the Tories under her could have deprived the separatist parties of their majority. As things stand, the SNP is heading for a majority in its own right.

The Scottish Conservatives have to fight their own battles, but a battle that is very much yours is being waged even before hostilities open in the 2021 election.

Just as you built up your vote by championing Brexit, the SNP sees an opportunity to advance Scexit despite your refusal to grant another referendum. There are growing calls within the nationalist movement to hold a Catalan-style wildcat ballot or to take the UK Government to the Supreme Court for one.

A recent spurt of polls suggest a majority of Scots would vote to leave the United Kingdom in any such plebiscite.

There is no sense in sugar-coating it: the Union is on the brink of destruction. Its foes have scarcely been stronger, better prepared or more handsomely resourced, nor its friends more disorganised, divided or despondent.

The Union may not be what got you into politics and it is not what made you Prime Minister but it is what will define your premiership and its place in history.

Making a success of Brexit, levelling up and Civil Service reform drive you and Dominic Cummings far more than the UK constitution, but if you lose the Union, you will almost certainly fail to deliver the rest of your agenda.

If that sounds melodramatic, consider this: Theresa May was Prime Minister for three years. Can you name anything she did in that time without using the word ‘Brexit’? Mrs May had her faults but had she been as implacable as Margaret Thatcher she would still have become trapped in the great suffocating swamp of process.

And if you think the process of negotiating the end of 47 years of trade relations was arduous, think what overseeing the demise of a 313-year-old political union would entail.

Just the prospect of Scottish secession will play havoc with the UK’s ability to strike post-Brexit trade deals and the reality of Scexit would leave the UK diminished not only in geographic area and population but in global standing.

Could the Security Council really justify continued denial of permanent membership to Germany, Japan and India while granting it to the UK?

As the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia confirms, Scottish secession isn’t merely a political matter but a national security one.

The ISC’s findings echo similar conclusions in a Facebook report published earlier this year about Iran’s interference in the 2014 referendum.

Rogue regimes that seek to undermine the democratic West and its intergovernmental bodies detect in Scottish independence an opportunity. They are right to. Not only would the lengthy distraction of Scexit reduce the UK’s ability to participate fully in international affairs for some time, it would directly imperil Britain’s defences.

The SNP is inveterately opposed to our independent nuclear deterrent and has previously endorsed a four-year timeline for Trident’s removal in the event of secession. Defence experts say this is nowhere near enough time and, anyway, there is no suitable location elsewhere in the UK to base the submarines and the warheads.

A Commons committee that looked into the question in 2013 concluded that Britain might have to ask the United States or France to take Trident in while a suitable facility was built.

These are the stakes and they are yours to bear, like it or not. You will either be the Prime Minister who saved the Union or the man who lost it and with it our status as a world power. This is why the Union matters and why it must be your first priority.

Now that we’ve got the apocalyptic bit out of the way, you might be relieved to hear you are doing some things right. The decision to put Michael Gove in charge of a Cabinet subcommittee on Union policy is one of the canniest you’ve yet made in relation to Scotland.

Gove understands the Nationalists in a way too few senior figures at Westminster do. You have also grasped the value of using the Shared Prosperity Fund to invest in Scottish infrastructure, thus demonstrating the benefits of the Union.

But it is not enough. The Scottish Government has established itself as Scotland’s primary government and Westminster is increasingly seen as remote and even irrelevant. The Nationalists have hijacked a parliament and an embryonic state built by New Labour in order to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ and turned them into a juggernaut for separation.

You are going to have to confront that fact and confront the scale of the task involved in undoing some of the damage. Here is something no one around you is yet prepared to say: a new Scotland Act is needed.

More immediately, the UK Government has to increase its visibility and political relevance in Scotland. Scottish Government ministers are hardly off television screens but UK ministers are seldom seen. There is no face of the Union, as there is of independence, and in the absence of one the separatists are happy to have you fill that role. Please know that this is not a good thing.

History has cruel designs on you and your legacy. The Prime Minister who got Brexit done and got Britain undone. The English Tory who took back control and lost control of Scotland.

You have endured your own personal trials recently, but the battle that lies ahead will test you in ways no prime minister has been tested since Churchill’s darkest hour. The country is on the line and with it your place in its history.

Yours etc.



Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

That’s not a power grab, THIS is a power grab


They say the older you get the more right-wing you get but I find myself becoming more contemptuous of politicians of all stripes.

Maybe this is how the education of a young idealist plays out: the faster the years pass, the greater the impatience with the failure of political promises to manifest in material change. There is plenty talk about belief in a better world but a distinct lack of things getting better. 

Somewhere things are not getting better with any great haste is Holyrood. We have a legislature that most provinces and federal states would grab with both hands if they got half a chance. But our powerhouse parliament is never more animated than when it is talking about itself, or rather shouting about itself in the direction of another parliament. 

The latest stramash between St Andrew’s House and Whitehall isn’t all that different to previous stramashes, but my tolerance is markedly diminished. A BBC producer called me over the weekend to ask if I could come on and talk about the testy exchanges between SNP constitution minister Mike Russell and UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma. I made up an excuse but the truth is that I am fed up being asked to talk about intergovernmental indignation and other petty narcissisms passing for serious ministerial business. Is this really what devolution was supposed to be about? 

If you have been fortunate enough to miss this nonsense, it goes something like this: Sharma is responsible for making the UK internal market more coherent after our final severing from the EU. This will make it possible for friction-free commerce to continue throughout the country but it will also make it easier to negotiate trade deals with foreign nations. As such, while some competencies currently held in Brussels will transfer to Holyrood, the final say over certain regulatory frameworks will revert to Westminster. 

The SNP charges that this is a ‘power grab’ and that Sharma’s plans will expose Scotland to substandard goods. Agricultural products from the United States are typically cited because, while demanding the US drop tariffs on Scotch whisky, the Scottish Government is not above stirring up a little anti-Americanism for political gain. 

Anything that strengthens the UK is welcome and Sharma’s blueprint should contribute to a more seamless internal market. But it is important that ministers in central government be sensitive to the concerns of businesses and consumers across the country. The Nationalists will ever be on the lookout for divisions to exploit and prejudices to stoke but that does not mean that every grievance is illegitimate. Do not confuse the Scottish Government with Scotland. The former you have to tolerate, the latter you are there to serve. 

However, while this is no ‘power grab’, Downing Street is trying to use internal market regulation to reassert itself and the unity of the United Kingdom. I happen to agree with the ends but the means are sneaky. Instead of facing up to the weakening of the Union, for which the Tories deserve much of the blame, they want to act surreptitiously to repair some of the damage. 

Nevertheless, there is a power grab at work, but it has nothing to do with the machinations of devious Whitehall. Rather, it is the SNP, with its misuse of devolution to advance its separatist agenda, that is embarked on the true power grab. The Nationalists have hijacked a parliament intended to improve the administration of public services in line with discrete local needs and turned it into a battering ram against the Union. 

They have done this not only in their exploitation of devolution’s legislative platform to provoke, obstruct and divide but in turning the machinery of government itself into an engine for separation. One area in which this behaviour has been particularly egregious is foreign affairs, a matter wholly reserved to the UK Parliament. Yet Nicola Sturgeon has used her office to work against UK Government policy on Brexit, including in meetings with international political figures and addresses to national parliaments. The Scottish Government is effectively crafting a separate Scottish foreign policy and, until now, Westminster has shown utter complacency. 

The Scottish Parliament was not established to progress the cause of independence. In fact, when Labour sold devolution to the voters, it promised that: ‘The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.’ That worked out well. Now Scottish Labour joins the orchestra of umbrage from the Nationalists, with the party’s constitution spokesman Alex Rowley calling the internal market proposals ‘nothing short of an attack on the devolution settlement’. Not many arsonists have the chutzpah to offer commentary on the efforts of the fire brigade. 

Has it occurred to the Nationalists or their fainter echoes that if Holyrood wants more powers it should prove that it warrants them? That if the SNP is so concerned with Westminster power grabs it should grab those welfare powers Westminster has tried to transfer but which Scottish ministers prefer to keep in London? Legislative competencies are not an end in themselves. Instead of constantly seeking to further empower themselves, MSPs should be using their existing (and extensive) legislative options to empower ordinary people across Scotland. 

The more-powers consensus is a creature of Holyrood, the commentariat and Civic Scotland. Scots who want to leave the United Kingdom want independence for Scotland, not more tinkering with the status quo. Scots who want to remain in the UK, though they may divide over whether further devolution is desirable, are more interested in schools, hospitals, and job opportunities than the interactions between one parliament and another. 

The Scottish Parliament should pull itself out of the morass of constitutional dispute and arid, time-consuming rows about process and repay the confidence the electors placed in it two decades ago. Be for independence or be for the Union but be better than this. 

Holyrood isn’t the only parliament in need of hearing some harsh truths. Westminster viewed devolution as an opportunity to pass the buck for the political and democratic difficulties of the Union to a distant body. Since then, MPs have done much harm to the Union through ignorance and indifference. If only they would mount a power grab, it would at least indicate that they give a damn.

Neither parliament is putting the country first. One is exploiting the deficiencies of devolution while the other pretends they don’t exist. It’s not powers or frameworks we lack in this country, it’s leadership and honesty and courage. 


Adam Tomkins’ decision to stand down next year was no surprise. It was an open secret that the Tory MSP was unhappy. The father-of-four wants to spend more time with his family and return to teaching law. From Holyrood to academia; the man doesn’t make things easy on himself. 

Tomkins has never fit in at Holyrood. He is a first-rate mind in a third-rate parliament and if he succeeded in proving that curiosity, critical thought and intellectual rigour could be the hallmarks of an MSP, he failed to inspire others to do the same.

Talent is a minority pursuit in the Scottish Parliament. A smattering of members elevate the place by their participation but most do not. Some are good people doing their best, others dreary partisans unable to distinguish the common good from the party line. 

Two decades in and MSPs like Tomkins aren’t merely the exception, they’re getting out of the game altogether. A reflective political culture would be troubled by that. 


Donald Trump is mulling a ban on video-sharing app TikTok as part of a national security crackdown on Chinese-owned social media firms. This prompts some urgent questions:

  1. Would such a ban be consistent with the First Amendment?
  2. How would the United States go about blocking TikTok’s software?
  3. Could a Chinese company please buy Twitter? 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Image by Waldo Miguez from Pixabay.

Sunak’s bailout billions mean tough choices ahead


Poor old Boris. He’s not even been Prime Minister a full year and already his replacement is being anointed.

Rishi Sunak is the heir apparent, apparently, and it is not simply because of his largesse with the national credit card. His handling of the coronavirus recession has been impressive, not least for managing to keep nine million people employed through his job retention scheme, but he has also grasped the importance of national unity in a time of crisis. 

Delivering his latest economic statement, he sent a pointed message to the SNP: ‘This crisis has highlighted the special bond which holds our country together. Millions of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been protected by the UK government’s economic interventions – and they will be supported by today’s Plan for Jobs. No nationalist can ignore the undeniable truth: this help has only been possible because we are a United Kingdom.’

The Chancellor’s £1,000 job retention bonus, cuts to VAT and Stamp Duty, and £10 vouchers for dining in popular restaurants like Pizza Hut will help prop up the economy, but his use of the Treasury’s coffers to protect Scottish families and businesses is a powerful example of how being part of the United Kingdom benefits Scotland. He has made a better practical case for the Union than any opposition politician at Holyrood has managed for some time. 

It is evident from Michael Gove’s appointment to chair a new Cabinet subcommittee dubbed ‘the Ministry for the Union’ that Downing Street is — finally — alive to the growing threat of separatism. Money alone cannot save the Union but Sunak is in a unique position to demonstrate just what the broad shoulders of the UK can do for Scotland. This is not merely a transactional relationship but a statement of solidarity across four nations. 

Had Scotland been a separate country when Covid-19 hit, it would have been left to fend for itself. Sunak has shown that we are part of something bigger and that cooperation and the pooling and sharing of resources is as much in our self-interest as it is in the interests of the Union. When disaster struck, we did not look out only for ourselves, we put our treasure at the disposal of all who needed it. Even as national and devolved governments went at their own pace and according to their own policies on lockdown, testing and masks, we pulled together where it mattered. 

Sunak has been the focal point of that effort and he has shouldered the responsibility calmly but efficiently and with fortitude. In setting aside his own Tory instincts about public spending and debt to do the right thing by ordinary Britons and businesses, he has laid down a marker for how to be a leader rather than a partisan in a moment of strife. There are some politicians north of the border who could learn a thing or two from him. 

That he is already being talked of as a future PM is perhaps unsurprising given his current role as Santa Claus for grown-ups, but it is a quiet commentary on how much Britain has changed for the better. The Hindu son of a Kenyan-born father and a Tanzanian mother whose families originated in India holds the second-highest office in government. From migration to Downing Street in one generation is a testament both to Sunak and to the country his parents chose to make home. 

While Sunak is a fascinating entrant to the political races, talk of the premiership is hasty at this point, not least because of his current post. In the last hundred years, roughly a quarter of Chancellors have gone on to serve as Prime Minister but their fates have been mixed. Sunak can take succour from the career trajectories of Lloyd George, Churchill and Macmillan, but he must also reckon with Law, Callaghan and Brown.

Chancellors are not supposed to be liked. They are supposed to put up fuel duty and make us fork over more for a pint. The Treasury is the ultimate source of most of the unpopular decisions a government takes and the more unpopular the decisions, the more unpopular the man responsible. 

Which is why Sunak’s moment in the sun may well be short-lived. As every parent knows, it’s easy enough to dole out sweets to children — it’s getting them to brush their teeth that’s the battle. The Chancellor will eventually run out of pizza vouchers and when he does, a greasy slice of reality will be served up to all of us. 

Sunak’s spending is being funded by government borrowing and that will eventually have to be paid for. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates the deficit is now in excess of £300 billion, around £254 billion higher than last year and double what it was at the peak of the global financial crisis. Public debt stands at a colossal £1.95 trillion, or 101 per cent of GDP, the first time since 1963 that government debt has been larger than the economy itself. 

The reckoning that is heading our way will be punishing. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the Mail on Sunday his government would ‘not go back to the austerity of 10 years ago’, which is an indication of two things: 1) there will be a return to some sort of austerity and 2) tax rises are on the cards. In truth, to bring the public finances back to manageable levels of debt and deficit will require both painful cuts to public spending and income-squeezing revenue hikes. It is unavoidable. There really is no magic money tree. 

When the time comes to pay the piper, Rishi Sunak could go from youthful and exciting prime ministerial material to the most hated man in Britain. On his watch, we can expect to see harsh cuts, sharp tax increases and chronic unemployment. He should begin in earnest linking his stimulus spending to the common national endeavour to beat coronavirus. 

For now, government is making fiscal sacrifices while millions remain at home, but the next stage will mean us taking the financial hit in our taxes to prevent our economy and public services from imploding. Government and taxpayers will have to work hand-in-hand for a recovery that restores economic health and allows for taxes to be lowered again. 

That is not an easy message to sell but if Sunak can do it, talk of Number 10 might not be so premature after all. 


Everywhere you look, anger and hatred seem to be consuming the world. The worst of humanity is carried live, retweeted in approval or outrage, and monopolises the front pages. Sooner or later, you start to wonder if everything is rotten. 

Then there are people like Max Aubin. Last month, Aubin was one of six people stabbed at a Glasgow hotel by Sudanese asylum seeker Badreddin Abadlla Adam, who was then fatally shot by firearms officers. 

Here is what Aubin has since told the BBC about his attacker: ‘We have to forgive him. I am alive and once the doctor said I would be okay, I prayed for him. I forgave him already.’

Such charity of spirit just floors you. Aubin, who is from Côte d’Ivoire, is a Christian who has taken to heart Scripture’s teaching to ‘bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you’. Whatever faith we have, or even if we have none, we should try to be as generous and compassionate as Max Aubin.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Feature image © HM Treasury CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Stand up for the Union or lose it


Patriotism can take many forms but the real dividing line is between inclusion and exclusion.

Inclusive patriotism sees love of country as a uniting force, something that can transcend social, racial and religious differences to bring people together. A patriot’s admiration and sense of duty are not contained within lines on a map and he may feel he belongs to other, broader identities. He can be for his own nation without being against anyone else’s.

The exclusive patriot, who is invariably a nationalist, cannot comprehend this mindset. For him, the nation is special and commands a special loyalty; other causes must take lesser priority and other nations a lesser place in his heart. He views inclusive patriotism as promiscuous and is quick to suspect its sincerity. It is not enough that he loves his country, he must love it more than everyone else and to prove this he invests much time and energy in identifying those whose ardour is lacking.

Last week brought a gruesome showpiece in exclusive nationalism, a grand guignol performance of lurid, horrifying insularity. A contingent of Scottish nationalists gathered near the border with England. Dressed in hazmat suits and sporting face masks, the flag-bearing convoy had come with a message for visitors to Scotland. ‘Basically, what we’re saying is, stay the fuck out,’ one of the participants declared.

Others reportedly shouted ‘plague carrier’ at cars arriving from England and pledged to ‘Keep Scotland Covid Free’. Another attendee explained that the registration details of holidaymakers were being recorded. ‘If they’ll not stay at home, we’ll shame them to death,’ he said.

After calls from opposition MSPs, Nicola Sturgeon eventually distanced herself from the border-blockers, but the damage had already been done. Images of self-appointed frontier guards with more saltires than sense howling into the headlights of English camper vans painted a picture we would sooner not have in the minds of our compatriots south of the border when they are planning their next getaway.

That picture made Scotland look small and mean, an angry little fortress guarding against an enemy that doesn’t even realise it is an enemy. It made Scotland look like a country of exclusive patriots.

Days after that grim display, we were given a presentation of its polar opposite: an inclusive patriotism aimed at building up the country, rather than battening it down. Chancellor Rishi Sunak once again stepped up to support struggling families and businesses across the UK, regardless of whether they were in Portsmouth, Penarth, Portrush or Pollokshields. In doing so, he sent his own message back up the M74, past the border-patrollers and directly into the living rooms of ordinary Scots.

He told them: ‘This crisis has highlighted the special bond which holds our country together. Millions of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been protected by the UK Government’s economic interventions – and they will be supported by today’s Plan for Jobs. No nationalist can ignore the undeniable truth: this help has only been possible because we are a United Kingdom.’

Scottish nationalists are allergic to talk like this, not only because it reminds them of the economic consequences of their grand political project but because it demonstrates that the four nations of the UK are, to borrow a phrase, better together.

Separatists, because they are exclusive patriots, view support from the Treasury as dependency on a foreign institution and, if they are unable to convince themselves that Scotland actually subsidises England (there are nationalists who believe this), they find it humiliating that Scotland is accepting handouts from what they imagine to be a colonial power.

That these nationalists are relaxed about other forms of pooling and sharing of sovereignty and resources, for example the European Union, is not mitigation for their aversion to a comparable arrangement with England, it is in fact more damning. They value solidarity across an entire continent but not an island.

Supporters of Scotland’s place within the UK are stuck in a rut at the moment. Opinion polls indicate that backing for secession has tipped into majority status and voter surveys suggest Nicola Sturgeon is heading for a landslide victory in the 2021 Holyrood elections. Boris Johnson is distracted by a four-pillar agenda of Covid-19, Brexit, levelling up and overhauling the civil service.

Michael Gove has been appointed to oversee a pro-Union fightback but it is not yet clear whether he will be afforded sufficient resources and political capital to make the most of it. Meanwhile, the opposition in the Scottish Parliament is marked by drift, indecision and irrelevance. Advocates of inclusive patriotism who wish to see Scotland prosper inside a prosperous Britain have not been in such glum circumstances since the SNP’s yellow tsunami in 2015.

It is easy enough to slouch in complacency and let the clock run out on the Union. There is no second referendum on the horizon and, even if there were, something would happen, someone would come forward to save the United Kingdom. It would all work out. The harder path is the one that recognises this kind of thinking for the defeatism that it is. The Union has endured for 313 years and, although we live in a time when tearing down is more fashionable that building, there is no reason it shouldn’t be here 313 years from now.

Whether it is, or whether we end three centuries of history in a moment of sentiment, depends on the Union’s ability to serve the broad sweep of people who live within it. Materially, there can be no doubt that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are wealthier, healthier, fairer and more internationally significant for being part of the UK. Undoubtedly, there are social problems but not one of them is caused by the solidarity between our four nations and not one would be solved by breaking that bond.

Pro-Union campaigners must never lose sight of the importance of material conditions. They must strive to improve the lot of the worst-off, and of average families, across the country. There are enough people whose first and last thought every day is of a flag. But with one eye on the material, Unionists must train the other on the philosophic.

Why, when the Union is in the interests of a majority of Scots, does there appear to be an emerging majority against it?

Why do so many Scots buy into the SNP’s exclusivist view of patriotism rather than the more inclusive identity of Scottish and British?

Why is the Union which the Scots largely built, regularly tended, and often ruled falling out of favour?

There are many potential answers for these questions but we will concern ourselves with three important ones.

All opinion polling should be read with caution but let us suppose that the most recent polls indicating a majority for Scexit are accurate. Not only is this not surprising, it is remarkable that it took so long to arrive at this point. Almost six years since 45 per cent of Scots opted to break away and set up a separate country, and despite Brexit and Boris, only now has Leave achieved a breakthrough.

The delay has very little to do with anything the pro-Union side has done because the pro-Union side has done very little. Prime ministers have said No, their emissaries have echoed dutifully, and Unionists in Scotland have strained to move on to other matters.

In moving on, however, pro-Union voices have vacated the battlefield at the very moment their adversaries are gaining strength. Agitators for dismantling the Union have continued fighting for what they believe in but those who oppose them have mounted no such case for their constitutional vision.

For six years, separatists have been saying Scotland should be a separate country and Unionists have been saying it’s time to change the subject. The voters have yet to hear a defence, let alone a trumpeting, of the Union because no one of any prominence has deigned to make one.

Few if any pro-UK politicians got into politics with the Union as the sole or even primary cause. Almost all Nationalists are where they are because they believe in their cause entirely and above all else. While it would be a mistake to become a Unionist mirror image of the SNP — all flags, all the time — their opponents could learn something about their unquenchable enthusiasm, iron determination and breath-taking stamina. Nationalists do not give up, they do not take No for an answer, they keep going until they convert. They are in the business of soul-winning.

Those who are by instinct for the Union lack that evangelical fervour when talking about it. They reserve their vim for literacy standards, proper funding of care packages, and better provision for the marginalised, all of which are worthy causes but none of which will win a single vote for the UK. They should not abandon their social and economic agenda but they ought to set more time aside for talking about the Union, the good it does Scotland and why it must continue.

Scots need to hear from people as passionate and articulate about the virtues of the Union as they do from those enthused by the idea of ripping it apart. The voters cannot be expected to be inspired by a worldview if the people tasked with selling it are uninspired and uninspiring.

Unionists need to stop talking about the Union as a series of pragmatic alternatives to separation (secure currency, bigger coffers, more defence firepower) and start thinking of it as an ideal, a vision for the country that gives us hope and pride and something to work towards together. Stop talking just like accountants and start talking like dreamers too.

Scottish identity has always been distinctive, in part because the country retained so many of its own institutions while entering into a union with England and in part because we are by temperament a thrawn people wedded to our idiosyncrasies and traditions.

But Scottishness and Britishness were, until relatively recently, able to coexist with relative ease. The emergence of parliamentary nationalism and especially of nationalist government has changed that. The SNP has used the many levers of devolved government to emphasise Scottishness as something fundamentally different from, if not incompatible with, Britishness.

Again, the response from their opponents has been a mutter of discontent and not much else. Every now and then a UK Government, whether Labour or Tory, starts a debate about ‘British values’ then either abruptly abandons the discussion because it has strayed into issues of multiculturalism in England or simply forgets about it. Otherwise, Britishness is scarcely heard of anywhere in these isles, let alone north of the Border, where it is needed.

Fostering a British identity that can encompass 66 million people is no mean feat but the United States manages it with 327 million across 50 states and India with 1.4 billion across 28 states and eight territories. What is missing is the will and the gumption. Supporters of unity must come to appreciate the importance of identity.

Economics may have appeared to carry the day in 2014 but the real choice was between certainty and uncertainty, and the UK no longer represents the dull stability it did just six years ago. There is a reason the saying ‘may you live in interesting times’ is considered a curse.

Unionists watch their opponents waging and winning a war of culture and identity and tell themselves a few more fiscal analyses will see things right in the end. To the extent they are doing any preparation for a future debate on separation, they are paving the way for a quiet, humble defeat.

Instead, they should look to their inclusive patriotism and strive to erect an identity around it, a modern Britishness that accommodates all of the UK in its manifold distinctions and variations. The foundation stones should include fairness, freedom, opportunity and global responsibility and these should give rise to an identity united by common purpose, equal effort and shared achievements. We should be proud of what we do, not merely who we are. Britain should be a philosophy as well as a country.

No honest assessment of the challenge ahead can ignore the unfortunate obstacle in the middle of the road, all the more unfortunate because it was devised, packaged, spun, delivered and initially governed by Unionists themselves.

The Scottish Parliament has not only given the SNP a platform but almost an entire state at their disposal and they have not been shy about using it to their own political ends. What well-meaning but short-sighted men intended to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ in fact delivered separation its most powerful battering ram against the Union. Devolution is the Trojan horse that Troy built itself.

Unionists can venerate inclusive patriotism all they like. As long as exclusive patriotism controls the Scottish Parliament, it will continue to use its legislative and administrative powers to push its own version of Scottishness and to undo the Union that forms the basis of inclusive patriotism. This is not a problem that can be fixed at Holyrood. The UK Parliament will have to confront the basic structural flaws in devolution, or it will come to rue them with bitter hindsight.

When their commitment to the country is impugned by nationalists from Nicola Sturgeon on down, Unionists turn indignant and defend their patriotism heartily. The rest of the year round, they seldom think of it. But patriotism is not something to store on the shelf and polish occasionally; it must form part of a Unionist’s political consciousness and help inform his priorities in politics and public policy.

Inclusive patriotism is not a gentler devotion; it should be no more diffident or sluggish than its nationalistic counterpart. Unionists should not be so inclusive that they fail to make a case for what they believe in.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay.

Praise be! Pubs (and churches) to re-open

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Sometimes I wonder if Nicola Sturgeon ever sleeps.

Not only does she have to run the country and the campaign to set up a new country, but leading the Covid-19 response has brought her an unexpected career move: live TV host. As lunchtime talk shows go, her daily coronavirus updates are grim, repetitive, and depressing, but still better than Loose Women.

Recess means the Scottish Parliament isn’t sitting at the moment but the First Minister rocked up for her usual Thursday slot with an announcement about Phase Three of lockdown. In lieu of First Minister’s Questions, we had to settle for a ‘First Minister Statement’. Eventually, she’ll just send Fergus Ewing down the mountain with stone tablets.

The gist of the latest sermon was that places of worship would return for communal services from July 15, although with limits on number of attendees and restrictions on hymns and chants. Singing indoors is believed to have spread Covid-19 among some congregations and no one wants the roll being called up yonder any sooner than needs be.

Pubs will reopen but Sturgeon advised us to ‘avoid, literally like the plague, indoor activities’. That cliche used to be annoying but at least it used to be a cliche.

The First Minister decreed that some contact sports could resume from Monday, but neither she nor Jackson Carlaw bothered to wait till then. The Scottish Tory leader asked why Sturgeon was banning travel to and from all of Spain.

‘The decision includes the Canary Islands, which includes Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Tenerife and then onto La Gomera, and the Balearic Islands, which includes Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, all of which have a very low incidence of Covid,’ he rhymed off.

‘I was starting to wonder there whether Jackson Carlaw was outlining his summer holiday plans,’ Sturgeon deadpanned.

She poked the needle in further: ‘I was also interested in what appeared to be a proposition from Jackson Carlaw, that where there are different prevalence rates within a different country then different arrangements should apply.’

‘The difference between Spain and the islands is that there’s a thousand miles of water, which there isn’t between Scotland and England, however much the SNP might wish it otherwise,’ Carlaw riposted.

Sturgeon said dental surgeries could reopen from Monday, though dentists would not be allowed to use aerosol-generating devices like drills until further notice. Finally, a lockdown measure we can all get behind. Gyms and call centres would also remain shut for the foreseeable. At this point, I started to wonder if I had been wrong all along about this wise and sensible woman.

Then she went and spoiled it by relaxing the two-metre rule for public transport. That’s the one place where it should be doubled. There is an implicit contract involved in taking a bus or train in Britain: don’t sit next to me, avoid eye contact, wear headphones, keep your child out of sneezing distance, and if you sit your bag on a seat, I will spend the rest of the journey furiously tutting, unless you offer to move it, in which case I will pretend I never wanted to sit in the first place.

Oh, and there was a splendid piece of spin from the First Minister. Jackson Carlaw asked why her pledge to expand childcare was ‘on hold’ when parents were trying to return to work. Sturgeon explained that policy was ‘not on hold — it has inevitably had to have a re-evaluated timescale’. Straight face. Not a snicker. What a pro.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at