That Scottish Conservative manifesto in full. Ruth Davidson spells it out with Douglas Ross (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Winning by inches or losing by miles?

The Scottish Conservatives self-congratulation is delusional. They have not stopped the SNP.

Artillery Row Portcullis

Unionists are trying to make light of the SNP’s remarkable achievement. Never mind that a party which has already been in power for fourteen years with few measurable successes to show for it has secured a fourth term. It secured 47.7 percent of the constituency ballot votes only weeks after Nicola Sturgeon was supposedly fighting for her political life and Alex Salmond went rogue. All irrelevant detail apparently, for the Scottish Conservatives insist that what really matters is that the SNP fell one seat short of a Holyrood majority.

Never mind also that the pro-independence Scottish Greens will give the Nats the majority they want on the issue that matters most – legislating for a second independence referendum (and the ensuing battle in the Supreme Court to stop it). “Bring it on, if you think you’re hard enough” is the sum of a Scottish Tory riposte seemingly emboldened by getting 0.1 percent less of the constituency vote than in 2016. With 21.9 percent of the vote this time, the Tories beat Labour to remain in second place by all of 8,126 votes. Clearly the Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, has taken to heart Al Pacino’s “winning by inches” speech.

Securing the support of one in five Scottish voters by focussing almost exclusively on an issue in which one in two Scottish voters are of like mind is not a great strike rate. But Ruth Davidson saluted Douglas Ross’s ability to equal her success. “I think this is, by some order of magnitude,” she rushed to suggest, “a far greater achievement and it belongs entirely to Douglas Ross and his team.”

In saying this, Ruth Davidson was both gracious and self-serving. In July 2020 she was instrumental in ensuring that it was her protégé, Douglas Ross, who supplanted Jackson Carlaw as party leader. Tories have Davidson to thank for Ross.

There is a historic divide in the Scottish Conservative Party in which social class and tone align. There is a “laird class” of leaders whose demeanour is more gentleman than player. Such Tories are exemplified in Boris Johnson’s choice of Alister Jack as secretary of state (an appointment to which Davidson took exception). Davidson and Ross (the son of a cattleman) have come from a different walk of life where the Queensberry rules do not apply. They think that the Nationalists’ fight dirty so they’ll give back as good as they get.

Davidson was a successful pugilist (not just metaphorically, her hobbies include kickboxing), particularly in the period when she made hitting the SNP rather than jabbing Boris Johnson her priority. But lacking Davidson’s openness of character and appearance of conviviality, the dour, unsmiling, Ross has not the personality to land a blow. Sparring with Sturgeon, Ross stings like a butterfly.

Sparring with Sturgeon, Ross stings like a butterfly

He nevertheless shares Davidson’s analysis that Scottish politics is the monopoly of Scottish politicians. In this respect, he’s as “English go home” as the staunchest Alba party loyalist. He has seen the polling that shows Scots regard Boris Johnson as an incompetent buffoon and concluded that the “Boris factor” which plays well in England’s Red Wall constituencies has no purchase north of the Tweed. This was the SNP’s theme in the closing stages of the election campaign when Sturgeon phrased the choice facing Scots as one between competent, top-of-her-game, Nicola versus incompetent, lazy and clueless English toff, Boris.

Buffoon or not, Boris is nevertheless the best prime minister the Tories have got. He is still considerably more popular in Scotland (27 percent satisfaction rating in April) than Douglas Ross (18 percent satisfaction rating). This disparity makes Ross’s determination to pretend Johnson is nothing to do with him, highly questionable. “I am the leader of the Scottish Conservatives” Ross maintains, “It is a very separate entity from the UK Conservatives.”

This sends a confused message, particularly if Ross wants to take some Tory UK-wide credit for the policies that made a success of the vaccination policy (for which most Scots imaginatively still attest was Sturgeon’s doing). Defending the cause of the United Kingdom is difficult when both the leader of the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives agree that the UK’s prime minister has no place in Scotland. Sturgeon means that constitutionally. Ross means that literally.

Boris was banished. The Scottish Conservatives chose to exclude the prime minister from campaigning in the Scottish election. Determined to run their own show and not to let the professionals from down south intrude, the Scottish Tories did not even invite up the cash-splasher, Rishi Sunak. What has Ross got against the Chancellor? Insufficiently Scottish? Overly public school?

It is tempting to wonder if the Scottish Tory high command quite understands what being a Unionist involves and the company it encourages you to keep. Yet, not even Aberdeenshire’s very own Michael Gove – the government minister charged with saving the Union from Whitehall – was brought up to the frontline, even although he can verbally give as good as he gets and could disarm Sturgeon with the hint of humour that escapes the frequently boorish Ross.

Claiming to be pleased with almost 22 percent of the vote is a measure of the Scottish Tories’ parochiality. Elsewhere in Britain, the increasing correlation between voting Tory and voting Leave is becoming one of the commonplaces of political psephology. If that applied in Scotland, The Tories could aspire to a ceiling of 38 percent of voters.

Yet, far from appealing to nearly four in ten voters, they managed just over one in five. The campaign which Davidson devised in 2016 and doggedly stuck to thereafter of treating Brexit as, at best, a damage limitation exercise has little success to show for it beyond reinforcing the SNP’s message. Brexit was no vote winner for the Scottish Conservatives. But how is shunning it – and its voters – ever going to work?

Incidentally, if we are to attribute the SNP getting 47.7 percent of constituency votes in May 2021 as partly a consequence of Brexit (rather than Sturgeon’s perceived Covid response) how is it that the party has only advanced marginally since polling 45.4 percent in May 2011 and 46.5 percent in May 2016 (which was two months before the expected ‘Remain” vote in the Brexit referendum)?

There are other benchmarks for how the Scottish Conservatives have under-performed. If being associated with Boris Johnson puts a ceiling on their vote, then that is still nine percentage points higher than they managed to achieve by pretending the prime minister is a embarrassing and distant uncle who they’re not really in touch with (but from whom regular cheques are still cashed).

Scottish Conservatives have not had an original idea since the poll tax

It is not clear where all this anti-Boris strategy is supposed to take the Scottish Tories. After all, having failed to prevent a SNP-Green pro-referendum majority in Holyrood through their own efforts, Ross’s MSPs are wholly dependent on Johnson denying such legislation the necessary section 30 consent. Ross ought to be relieved that he has got Johnson in Downing Street and not the circle of complacency that surrounded David Cameron in 2011 when a referendum was casually granted on the terms that Alex Salmond set, including votes for sixteen year olds.

It is not easy putting yourself forward as a Tory in Scotland. The courage of those that do so deserves to be acknowledged. They have stepped up to the challenge rather than leave it to others. They have shown far greater bravery and fought a tougher fight than is required by writing about their failings from a safe distance, as this article does. But that does not mean that the self-congratulation at coming a distant second needs to be applauded.

Perhaps it was well for the Scottish Tories that they had the stale fayre of another Independence referendum to reheat for this election.  After all, it is not as if their programme for government contained much to enliven supper-table conversation. Not that this is all Ross’s doing. Let’s be honest, Scottish Conservatives have not had an original idea since Douglas Mason fathered the poll tax. Ross can pretend what he likes but, intellectually and emotionally, his party’s appeal is British, not just Scottish.

And yet, if the Holyrood election was a contest for who has sound policies for wise administration would any party deserve a mandate? Personality goes a long way to explaining why – since the untimely death of Donald Dewar in 2000 – the SNP has had the clear advantage.

With the introduction of elected mayors, England has experienced a different form of constitutional adjustment to Scotland. Famously there was Boris Johnson in London. Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Andy Street in the West Midlands have more recently combined perceived administrative competence with personality and leadership skills. The role of Scotland’s First Minister is not to be confused with that of a mayor, but when voting for the Scottish parliament, the personality of what is effectively Scotland’s chief executive has naturally been to the fore in voters’ minds.

In 2007, 2011, 2016 and now 2021, Scots have voted-in the party that had the most plausible First Minister. On all four occasions that person has been the leader of the Scottish National Party. Until the Scottish Conservatives – or Scottish Labour which also made no headway in this election – offer someone who voters can identify as the best chief exec for Scotland, the SNP will continue to run the country.

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