Anti-devolution sentiment could thwart the party’s electoral hopes
It won’t be news to anybody with a passing interest in the Scottish Conservatives that Douglas Ross is not going to be putting Boris Johnson front-and-centre in the party’s campaign for next year’s Scottish elections.
The Prime Minister is not popular north of the border, and the Tories need as little ballast as possible if they’re to challenge the Scottish National Party, who are managing to sustain a gap between their public image and the grim reality that Dorian Gray would be proud of.
Yet for an avowedly unionist party, jettisoning Johnson — perhaps even by splitting the Scottish Tories off altogether — is not the straightforward matter some like to pretend.
While it might bolster the short-term electoral position of the Tories, it would do so at the expense of the long-term health of the United Kingdom, which rests on the continuing legitimacy of a British political culture.
Devocrats are always tempted to try to shift blame outside their own arena and onto ‘Westminster’, just as London politicians used to do with ‘Brussels’, but the result is that this blame corrodes public understanding of the external institution in a way which eventually makes its defence extremely difficult, if not impossible.
It’s basically a marshmallow experiment, with the survival of the UK as the stakes. To win a future referendum, Scottish unionists need to persuade the electorate that the Union is legitimate and the source of good things. But doing this means abstaining from the short-term gratification of blaming things on it and demanding more powers from it.
Otherwise the Tories risk becoming like the Democratic Unionists, heavy on British symbolism and rhetoric but embodying a political and institutional system that has over decades hugely alienated Northern Ireland from the mainland and vice versa, opting out of national politics in favour of sitting with the ‘Others’ at Westminster whilst minimising its role in Ulster life.
Nor are such high-minded considerations the only thing militating against Ross putting too much distance from the wider Conservative Party. There is also the growing fractiousness of the Conservative electorate.
For all her personal qualities, the core of the Tory revival engineered by Ruth Davidson was her positioning the party as the unequivocal party of the Union. This added to its surviving base of die-hard Conservatives an extra chunk of voters who are Unionist (capital-U) before they’re anything else.
There aren’t enough of these voters to put Ross in Bute House. But there are enough of them to completely wreck his campaign if they decide the Conservatives have gone too soft on the Union.
As the Holyrood elections loom, the Scottish Tory leader undoubtedly has an uneasy eye on Wales, where an explicitly anti-devolution party, Abolish the Welsh Assembly, is on track to win seats in May. The arrival of a viable devosceptic challenger has forced the Welsh Tory leadership into a rather panicky effort to stave off a full-blown mutiny among their membership, and almost certainly killed off their traditional hope of ousting Labour by forming a coalition with Plaid Cymru.
Devoscepticism is less developed in Scotland, but it is still a significant body of opinion in the Conservative electorate, as is a broader sense of loyalty to British institutions and identity. This is probably part of why Ross’s solution to the Johnson problem is silence, rather than strident criticism.