Is the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives the man to save the UK?
The Scottish Conservatives have a new leader in Jackson Carlaw – the former Ford car-dealer who has been filling-in as their interim leader since August last year when Ruth Davidson quit.
The sixty-year old Carlaw is a political veteran of countless rear-guard actions throughout the Scottish Tories’ thirty-year war of fighting retreats.
He first stood for Westminster in a by-election in 1982 age nineteen. Multiple disappointments in Westminster and Holyrood elections followed until he eventually became a beneficiary of the Scottish Parliament’s additional member system of proportional representation. Throughout these years of campaigning, infantryman Carlaw made no great incursions into enemy territory, but unlike flashier cavalry officers who came and went, he is still armed, still standing. And now he has the marshal’s baton out from his knapsack.
The long toil has some reward. Since 2017 the Conservatives have re-emerged as Scotland’s second party. The collapse of the Scottish Labour Party – which was a formidable force in the 2014 IndyRef but would struggle to be so now – means that if there is a second IndyRef sometime after 2021, it may fall to Carlaw, this stolid performer, to save Boris Johnson from being remembered as the last prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Despite Carlaw’s length of campaign experience and his role as the party’s de facto Scottish leader during December’s general election (verdict: not optimal; not disastrous), there was widespread apprehension among Tory activists about him being simply anointed leader. The grassroots-minded MSP, Michelle Ballantyne, rose to the challenge. No compelling case was made for her to become leader (and Carlaw was overwhelmingly the Establishment choice) but there was appreciation of her usefulness in testing him.
Carlaw was overwhelmingly the ‘Establishment’ choice
Carlaw has now passed that exam, beating Ballantyne by 4,917 votes to 1,581. On the one hand, he has scored a resounding victory. On the other hand, only 6,498 votes were cast.
When we are repeatedly assured that the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party (as it actively styles itself) is once again a power to be reckoned with, it is worth noting how few active members this “resurgence” actually rests upon, in a nation with a near 4 million electorate.
6,498? In the nineteenth century, there were Scottish constituencies with larger electorates, and that was in the years before the working man (or any women) were enfranchised. With Scottish Labour broken and increasingly half-hearted in the Union’s defence, it is not much of a UK defence force.
The shadow of Ruth Davidson hangs over her successor. In 2017, the party under her leadership won thirteen seats in Scotland, whilst with Carlaw at the helm that number of MPs fell to six in 2019. But Davidson’s undoubted success was a long time coming. Elected leader in 2011, she fought and comprehensively lost the 2015 general election in which the Scottish Tories won only one seat. Her sharp eye for the media opportunity, mouthy down-to-earth manner and failure to conform to the typical Tory stereotype were all plusses, but not, by themselves, all there is to explaining the Scottish Conservative recovery.
Unlike Davidson, Carlaw is not a “performer,” although he managed a decent jab during a televised leaders’ debate in 2019 by (briefly) silencing the otherwise irrepressible Nicola Sturgeon with the charge that the only referendum result she has ever accepted was the illegal one in Catalonia.
What of the substance? Carlaw inherited two policy imperatives from Davidson. On Brexit, she was an outspoken Remainer who made no effort to conceal her distaste for Boris Johnson. Being for Remain placed her closer to majority Scottish opinion (although less so Scottish Conservative sentiment) but it is a yoghurt carton whose use-by date has passed.
Being for Remain is a yoghurt carton whose use-by date has passed.
Back in 2016, Carlaw also voted for Remain, but better understood the value of moving on. When he picked-up the reins that Davidson forsook, he speedily re-orientated the Scottish party towards supporting Johnson’s no-deal brinksmanship. Scottish Tory grandees (or what passes for them) admonished his recklessness at the time, although his judgement now looks better than theirs. Whatever Brexit delivers, Tories on both banks of the River Tweed have no option but to own it.
Davidson’s second, defining, policy was to make defence of the Union the Party’s clarion call. The message was clear and plausible that the SNP was obsessed with seeking another IndyRef to the detriment of tackling the problems over which the Party did have responsibility – such as education and healthcare. This line of attack reaped dividends in 2017 and continuing, but diminishing, dividends in 2019.
The problem is that in opposing the SNP’s IndyRef monomania, the Scottish Conservatives risk sounding equally like a broken record on the subject. The Nats may not have devoted sufficient energy to improving public services in Scotland, but what intelligible thinking have the Tories done about improving them? Such policies as they have articulated have not taken flight.
Carlaw’s first great test is in preparing for the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year. Sturgeon has made clear that she will regard the return of an SNP government to Holryood in 2021 as a mandate to demand another IndyRef, or else…
Does Carlaw rise to this bait? Are Scotland’s voters to be treated to a continuation of the Tories banging on about independence (bad thing) as much as the SNP does about independence (good thing)? If the 2021 Holyrood election is fought purely on this issue and the SNP win, then the Tories’ accepting the terms of the debate on the SNPs favourite subject will have backfired, perhaps catastrophically.
But if the Scottish Conservatives are to fight on schools and hospitals (which ought to be what Holyrood elections are all about since it is what Holyrood has competence over) then they first need to have intelligible policies on public services. Even trickier, they will need policies that are appealing to a broad swathe of Scottish voters.
For a nation that gave the world Adam Smith, a large swathe of Scotland remain unconvinced by his teaching. The Conservatives have found it hard enough to win on public sector provision in England (neutering Labour’s advantage was the aim in 2019) – how much harder will that be among Scots? It is not an easy call.
The direction that Jackson Carlaw takes the Scottish Conservatives in the coming months – whether to keep crooning his Party’s greatest hit, or to record new, more experimental, material – will do more than establish his ability as a leader. It may determine the fate of the UK itself.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe