Can this new Tory pragmatism help secure the future of the Union?
HE certainly looked and sounded like the new Tory leader, but hang on a minute – didn’t he just attack his own government?
On closer inspection, it really was Douglas Ross railing against a Tory administration in London that he said had alienated many Scots.
Its shambolic handling of the coronavirus pandemic has helped to loosen the bonds of the Union – and the same goes for its messianic devotion to Brexit.
The net effect, Mr Ross argued yesterday in a keynote speech for the Policy Exchange think-tank, was that a lot of Scots are going off the idea of the UK, and the subtext is that Boris Johnson is a part of the problem – probably a big part.
Later, in a TV interview, Mr Ross went even further and suggested Mr Johnson’s extremely poor approval ratings in Scotland were detrimental to Unionism.
Some of what he said might have sounded like typical Nationalist fare, but Mr Ross – in stealing some of the SNP’s clothing – arrived at a radically different conclusion.
With a degree of political courage, he was arguing that his own side had sabotaged the case for the Union at every turn, and it’s hard to argue with his cold logic.
I voted for Brexit and don’t buy a lot of the hyperbole about its calamitous repercussions, particularly when it’s independence supporters making that argument – they would wish upon us a disaster of far greater proportions.
Mr Ross denounces the Tories’ backing for a No Deal Brexit, if it comes to that, but it’s a reality of negotiations with Europe that a tough starting-point – in contrast to Theresa May’s placatory tactics – is more likely to generate dividends longer-term.
But his assessment that the case for Brexit, including the repatriation of powers to devolved administrations including Holyrood, wasn’t sold properly to Scotland, is correct.
There wasn’t much of a Brexit debate here, and the Nationalists, historically Eurocsceptic themselves, did a good job of shouting down anyone who dared to speak up for EU withdrawal.
More broadly, the new Tory leader is right to point out that ploughing a narrow ideological furrow, without trying to re-build bridges with those who disagree, is a bad idea.
Ironically, that describes the SNP’s position for many years, though it might now argue that, according to the latest polls, its cause is more popular than ever, and is backed by most Scots.
Polls during a full-blown public health crisis are more a measure of dissatisfaction with the performance of the UK Government than a deep-rooted desire for Scotland to go it alone.
But Mr Ross is among relatively few in his party who recognise the threat to the Union, and acknowledge that combating it must be about more than platitudes and rhetoric.
His emphasis on healing the scars of Brexit division may be bitter medicine for some Brexiteers to swallow – they know it’s true that, frankly, many Remainers will never come round to the idea, whatever the outcome of the ongoing trade negotiations.
But it’s sensible advice – polarised politics has wearied all of us and we could do with less tribalism.
Mr Ross quit as a junior minister at Westminster after the Dominic Cummings scandal, and deserves credit for doing so; it’s hard to imagine any SNP ministers stepping down in protest at, well, just about anything these days.
As much as I admired Mr Johnson for his election victory, and getting us out of the EU, it’s unlikely he will be remembered for these triumphs after his chaotic leadership during the pandemic.
Drams all round: but Douglas Ross fears his boss has an image problem in Scotland
He does believe in the Union, and he has faced down the SNP’s almost daily referendum demands, but it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that a lot of Scots just don’t like him.
That’s borne out in the polls showing the SNP prospering despite an equally lamentable record this year, from the care homes disaster to the botched flu vaccination programme that has risked the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Mr Johnson was a master tactician on Brexit, but some of that nous has deserted him on the Union.
There is also tone-deafness from his government when it comes to Scotland, with honourable exceptions, including Michael Gove, who’s heading up efforts to fight back against the surge in support for the SNP.
Every now and again, senior Tories in England wake up to the fact that the Union may well be heading towards a precipice – but Covid and Brexit have combined to form a powerful distraction.
And for some Conservatives, maintaining the backing of the ‘red wall’ constituencies of the north of England (or perhaps winning it back) is a bigger priority.
But there is something inspirational about the prospect of a Union that no longer apologises for itself, and which can be self-critical without tearing itself apart.
Mr Ross’s message is clear: he can stand up to the UK Government when needed, and will have more clout than Nicola Sturgeon when it comes to shaping policy.
In doing so, he is challenging the notion that only the Nationalists can ever champion Scotland – Tories can talk the same language as the SNP, without advocating the destruction of the Union.
That’s why Mr Ross has aligned himself with the First Minister in successfully calling for Treasury furlough cash to be available for Scotland once the English lockdown has ended.
There’s no doubt that Miss Sturgeon is hypocritical in pleading for more funding while calling for the abolition of the Union that has prevented mass joblessness in recent months.
But the principle that the differential lockdowns now in place across the UK need to be underpinned by a fair furlough system, for as long as it lasts – and it’s astronomically expensive – is a sound one.
Some Unionists will be wary of Mr Ross’s stance, bemoaning it as appeasement at a time when we need a bare-knuckle political fighter.
And of course we do – it’s been heartening to see Ruth Davidson back in action at Holyrood, though it’s a shame the double act has a limited shelf-life.
Saving the Union may well hinge in the short term on depriving the SNP of a majority at the next election, and part of that is about relentlessly highlighting the failures of the Scottish Government over the last 13 years.
It’s fish in a barrel stuff, and it’s about making sure the message gets through.
But Mr Ross’s pragmatic approach chimes with traditional Conservativism, which has always focused on the business of getting and keeping power.
And that can only be done by making a pitch to the centre-ground while sticking to core Tory principles, many of which revolve around the idea of solid governance – which has been sorely lacking in Scotland for more than a decade.
Moving onto the higher moral plane the SNP has tried to grab for its own will also help to starve the Nationalist cause of the oxygen it needs to thrive.
The idea that you can only be a true Scot if you back its destructive agenda is crazy, but it has gained a foothold. No longer – it needs to be called out as the poisonous bilge it always was.
It’s early days, but Mr Ross has identified a way forward that provides some concrete recommendations for shoring up the Union – at a critical moment for its survival.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 3, 2020.