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29 October 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 5:18am

How Douglas Ross is distancing the Scottish Conservatives from the toxic Boris Johnson

The Scottish Tory leader has already diverged from the Prime Minister on tuition fees, free school meals and the Union. 

By Chris Deerin

We might call it the Ross paradox: how does the leader of the Scottish Conservatives put an ocean of clear blue water between his party’s plucky little puffer and Boris Johnson’s listing superyacht without sinking the Union? This is an urgent question to which Douglas Ross must find a convincing answer before Scots go to the polls next May. Failure will have consequences both local and cosmic.

Johnson is not popular in Scotland. A YouGov poll in August put the Prime Minister’s approval rating at minus 50 points, compared to plus 50 for Nicola Sturgeon. Any number of surveys have revealed a Grand Canyon between levels of trust in the two leaders.

But then Johnson is not especially popular anywhere. Sturgeon is even beating him in what might be regarded as unpromising territory for a separatist: a poll last week gave the SNP leader a positive approval rating of 11 points in London to Johnson’s minus 39, and a score of four in the Midlands and Wales to the PM’s minus 36. In the Red Wall communities of northern England, Sturgeon had a rating of five, with Johnson on minus 23. The message is almost comical: if you’re going, can we come too?

This Downing Street could be lab-designed to lose Scotland: it appears privileged and insubstantial, self-regarding yet incompetent, weak-chinned and shameless. It flirts nihilistically with a no-deal Brexit, and has managed the Covid-19 pandemic with all the aplomb of a Norman Wisdom skit.

Timid loyalty and ideological fervour are prized above ability, a serious no-no in meritocratic Scotland. Those who represent the stern but liberal Conservatism that Scots respect – and perhaps, in their more introspective moments, quite like – have been banished. There is room for Priti Patel but not Rory Stewart; Gavin Williamson but not Justine Greening; Jacob Rees-Mogg but not Dominic Grieve. Ordinary English party members give every impression they would be happy to see the back of their whining, seemingly unplacatable northern neighbour. 

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[See also: Scotland has never been closer to independence – and Boris Johnson is to blame

There is also the fact that, on wealth and privilege, Scottish politics leans towards the progressive side of the debate. As John Curtice points out, Scots have marginally stronger egalitarian views than the English, although this is perhaps more a sensibility honoured in the abstract than a hard commitment.

It all amounts to a hell of an obstacle. As the Holyrood election draws ever nearer, Ross must feel like a guy arriving at a house party with an obnoxious friend who drinks everyone else’s carry-out, steals their cigarettes and makes moves on their dates. Before long, the majority have gravitated towards the kitchen, where they nod along with the woman knocking out a decent version of “Caledonia” on a battered guitar. 

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There is no doubt the Scots Tory leader understands the need to loosen, if not sever, the barbed-wire cord that currently ties him to Westminster. He can see the problem every bit as clearly as the rest of us, and knows he badly needs to show independence of thought and action, and make a virtue of legitimate cultural difference. 

His Tory colleagues believe he has the necessary iron in the soul. Ross was the only minister to quit the Johnson administration over Dominic Cummings’s breach of the lockdown laws, indicating a pleasingly Presbyterian moral firmness. His sideline as a football referee supports this image of someone who expects to see the rules observed and will meet prima donna nonsense with a cold stare and a red card. He has surrounded himself with staff who are similarly blunt and unimpressed.

[See also: Can Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross thwart an SNP majority?

Separation from the mothership has already begun. In his debut speech at the Conservative conference last month, Ross gave London a kicking, rounding on his southern colleagues for their “defeatism and disinterest” towards the survival of the Union. He has done away (wrongly, in my view, but still…) with opposition at Holyrood to free university tuition. And this week he backed the campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford to provide school meals for disadvantaged children during the school holidays, against the UK cabinet line. Sources say there will be more of this in the coming months.

Up to a point, Ruth Davidson set the template. She and Ross share a rootsy, Church of Scotland Conservatism that is pragmatic and avoids the ideological obsessions and moonshots that are doing so much damage at Westminster. Theirs would be a quiet Unionism were it not for the existential threat posed by the SNP.

Davidson was the first to go against the London line while Scottish Conservative leader, criticising the decision to lower flags on public buildings following the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, and making no secret of her scepticism about Johnson’s fitness for office. She publicly criticised the PM for the way he treated Tory Brexit rebels.

But it sometimes felt that Davidson remained tied too tightly to the apron strings – that her instinctively loyal Unionism too often stayed her hand or her tongue. Modern Scottish Conservatism requires a fearless self-confidence that no longer looks over its shoulder to Downing Street – particularly this Downing Street – and that ruthlessly follows its own values in the context of a modern Scotland. The more individuality Ross shows, the more he accepts national differences of culture and preference, the more he acts like the leader of a separate, autonomous party in what is a distinctive polity, the more convincing he is likely to be in arguing that the Scottish Tories are a thing apart, and worth consideration on their own merits.

The question of how this is achieved without flagrant, repeated denial of London and the sound of cocks crowing, or without adding to the argument that England and Scotland have become so different that a parting of the ways is inevitable, is a live one. But Scottish Conservatism needs to be its own offer, rather than an apologetic tartan yin to Johnson’s Brexity, tweedy yang.

So, the Ross paradox: how to put an ocean of clear blue water between the two without sailing irrevocably beyond the far horizon.

[See also: The twlight of the Union]