For all Ruth Davidson’s strengths, for all she achieved in returning the Scottish Conservatives to the front rank of politics, there was always a bridge she struggled, or perhaps refused, to cross. Her instinctive unionism also extended to her relationship with the Conservative Party at Westminster. It was a loyalty she could not shake off – in public, at least – even when it would arguably have been to her benefit.
There has been endless debate among Scottish Tories about whether they should cut the umbilical knot that binds them to London – set up a distinct, liberal, unionist Scottish party that would probably sit with the Conservatives in the Commons, but would retain a German-style independence to do its own thing and think its own thoughts. Davidson, having beaten the breakaway’s main advocate, Murdo Fraser, to become leader, seemed to shrink like a vampire from the prospect of that sunny freedom.
I’ve long been convinced by the arguments for a separate party, in part because day-to-day Scotland and Scottish politics now operates at such a far remove from Westminster. A right-of-centre party that spoke for Scotland robustly and that could convincingly argue it was its own master would be good for the national debate. It could be lithe, reactive, surprising and, when it needed to be, bitingly critical of the UK Conservatives. It could still be passionately in favour of the Union. This would remove a major block to some voters giving their support, be good for the party’s mental hygiene and, I think, be good for Scotland.
Evidence of how the alternative plays out was provided this week by Jackson Carlaw, Davidson’s successor as leader. If there was any question as to where Carlaw’s loyalties would lie, it was answered by his response to the saga surrounding Dominic Cummings. Mr Carlaw said: “I’ve heard what the Prime Minister has said and it is a situation for him to judge. He has reached a conclusion and we must all now focus on continuing to beat this dreadful pandemic.
“I want the Prime Minister to be able to continue his excellent work leading the country out of lockdown and I am glad he set out his plans clearly today. Here in Scotland, our focus must be on tackling the ongoing crisis in our care homes and building a robust testing and tracing system.”
Somehow both bland and infuriating, Carlaw’s statement took his party out of the game. People are raging at Cummings, and at Johnson’s arrogant response. Scots are enduring a longer lockdown than people south of the border, and are largely doing so uncomplainingly. Cummings’ behaviour, and blithe doorstep dismissal of criticism, sticks in the craw. It’s a case study in how sections of the privileged southern elite regard themselves as above the rules that apply to the rest of us – not so much “only the little people pay taxes”, as “only the little people pay heed to pandemic lockdowns.”
In one sense the Scottish Conservatives will finally have grown up when their leader, rather than curling into a defensive ball in the childish hope no one can see them, can say instead: “It’s clear that Mr Cummings broke the rules. People have made such great and heartbreaking sacrifices of their own and are understandably furious at his behaviour. It is inconceivable for Mr Cummings to continue in his role as the Prime Minister’s main adviser throughout this crisis and for the government to maintain trust and credibility. What matters is not just that we are all in this together, but that we are all seen to be in this together.”
Carlaw’s own MSPs get this. Even where they don’t favour a full breakaway, they do see the need for the Scottish party to take a more independent stance that allows them to align more closely to the views of the electorate. One speaks of his “despair” at their leader’s timidity, another of their “embarrassment”.
Ultimately the old tricky question still stands: whose side are the Scottish Conservatives actually on? If you’re putting Johnson’s toxic sidekick first, just because he’s the big boss’s pal and you don’t want to get into trouble, you’re going some way to giving the wrong answer.