Liz Truss, in case you’ve somehow managed to miss it, went to primary school in Paisley. She was also born in Oxford and attended secondary school in Leeds. This much-recited life story has allowed the Foreign Secretary to sell herself as a sort of patchwork of Britishness, running from south to north. One nation in one person – not a bad slogan for the next Queen Elizabeth.
It’s becoming ever harder to see how Truss will fail to become Tory leader and prime minister. What had initially seemed like a populist, erratic and risky economic platform is being embraced by Tory members as a challenge to stale, elite ways of thinking. It’s similar to the Brexit urge – time for change; two fingers to the establishment; what’s the worst that could happen? You can see initially sceptical Conservative commentators falling into line in real time. Is Truss actually a Thatcher figure, someone who will flout the orthodoxy and turn out to be right? If so, you don’t want to miss that bus. Alternatively, she may simply be the kind of minor, ill-suited oddball that sometimes pops up towards the end of exhausted governments. We shall see.
Truss should be an unconvincing rebel, having served in cabinet under the last three prime ministers, but her schtick is working. She has been helped immeasurably by the performance of Rishi Sunak, who appeared the more prime ministerial candidate at the outset but who has been wooden and underpowered throughout the campaign. The members’ calculation is understandable: if everything’s broken, why choose more of the same – yet another slick, rich banker boy in an expensive suit and toting a platinum parachute?
Scots look on with a sense that they have almost no skin in the game. This is untrue, of course. But a few years learning your sums and letters in Paisley several decades ago isn’t really going to cut it, and nor is the noblesse oblige of a near billionaire. Neither Truss nor Sunak is what you might call a Scottish type. The kind of policies that win you the support of Tories in the shires are almost guaranteed to have the majority of voters north of the border hissing in horror. Gambling on huge tax cuts based on abstruse academic theories can be offensive at a time when public services are close to falling over. The rush to claim the deathless Thatcherite mantle only feeds a narrative that the Conservatives remain stubbornly indifferent to the sensitivities of Scots. Ongoing provocation of the EU and mishandling of the Northern Ireland situation drives anti-Tory sentiment.
There has been little discussion in this campaign about the future of the Union, which these days is a second-order issue at best for English Tory voters. Whoever wins the race will inherit a poised, complex situation in which the SNP is waiting for the Supreme Court to decide whether Holyrood can hold an independence referendum under its own steam, or whether the party will go into the next general election with a plan to use its votes as a battering ram to begin separation negotiations. It is not a situation that any new leader would choose, and could yet entirely disrupt British politics, but it must be faced.
One upside: for all the erstwhile chaos under Boris Johnson, Westminster has actually improved its handling of Scotland in recent months. The vote-losing mantra of “muscular unionism” has thankfully been abandoned for something more constructive and considered, in tone as much as in practice. But because this maturing was led by the now-ejected Michael Gove’s levelling-up department, it is unclear whether the approach will survive the changes at the top.
But it should. There are two main things Scots look for from the British government: first, that it discharges reserved powers in a fashion that is at least tolerable to Scottish opinion; and second, that it treats Scotland and its devolved parliament with respect. Most Scots are grown up enough to accept that a Tory administration in London will not have much in common with an SNP government in Edinburgh. The preferred option among ordinary people is therefore that both sides play together as nicely as possible.
This is not always the case in practice, of course – the nationalists need ongoing friction between the two to justify their scramble for independence and are hardly innocent of deliberately stoking the flames. And Westminster and Whitehall have too often relegated the Scottish voice, either treating Holyrood with contempt or ignoring it completely.
The better option is to work together positively whenever possible. Indeed, Scottish ministers increasingly report good relations with their equivalents at Westminster. Personal bonds have been built to ensure that where there are political differences, they might be resolved to both parties’ satisfaction. Most recently, agreement was reached over the situation of two post-Brexit “green free ports” in Scotland, a deal that Kate Forbes, Scotland’s economy minister, said “respects the devolution settlement”. More of this, rather than less, would be wise.
The danger is if a victorious Truss, somewhat full of herself, decides to apply her punk radicalism to the Scottish issue. She may want to pursue a more aggressive approach to devolution – there are misguided souls on the right, including in Scotland, who believe Holyrood should be strongly reined in by London, which is one sure way to push the electorate towards independence. She should ignore these voices. If a family must share a house, each member needs to treat the others with respect and understanding. The parent – in this case, Westminster – must be especially flexible and tolerant.
As a political commentator, there is of course something quite exciting about the prospect of Truss going up against Nicola Sturgeon. Both are robust individuals with strong opinions and who expect to get their way. Sparks will fly. SNP sources have been impressed by how Truss has handled herself so far.
Most immediately, Truss’s proposed tax cuts would present the First Minister with a challenge: should she maintain Scotland’s current position, at the risk of damaging national competitiveness, or should she match Westminster’s moves, in which case she could be accused of betraying her principles? Truss also has a policy background in education, which might embolden her to critique the SNP’s woeful performance in that area. She may yet teach Sturgeon some lessons on the benefits of boldness.
But while Truss may strap on her Dr Martens for the battles that lie ahead with Treasury Man, she must not approach Scotland in the same way. If there’s any of Paisley left in her, now’s the time to access it.