It’s not hard to understand why Liz Truss went in studs-up on Nicola Sturgeon last night. It’s become clear that in this Tory leadership contest there’s little to be gained from a considered and measured approach. It’s more like a headbangers’ ball where you’re expected to play the hits.
The hall full of Tory members in Exeter lapped up the frontrunner’s dismissal of Scotland’s first minister as an “attention seeker”. “I think the best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is ignore her,” she added.
I hold no brief for Sturgeon, and I am as critical of the many failings of her government as anyone. Having a dig at her is not the same thing as having a dig at Scotland. She’s quite able to give it back in spades, too.
But still, Truss’s statement left me ill at ease. Perhaps this is because the Union has played so little part in the leadership debate. And on the rare occasions when Scotland is mentioned, it’s usually to have a dig at the SNP. “Your government’s crap. Oh, and won’t you stay with us?” is what Scots hear.
It’s perfectly true that the Nats are a pain for Unionists, that they seek to manipulate the relationship with Westminster to advance the cause of independence, and that their rhetoric is wearingly, monotonously, almost unthinkingly anti-Tory and anti-UK.
But my simple point is this: Westminster shouldn’t play by the SNP’s rhetorical rules. It needs to be the bigger partner, the more mature sibling in this relationship. Muscular unionism has been tried and it failed, badly.
The tone in which the UK government talks about and to Scotland matters, particularly when it emanates from unpopular Tory ministers. The better option is to be courteous, constructive, positive – leave the abuse and the cynicism to the SNP. Work with devolved ministers to reach agreement on joint projects such as the green free ports, show by your actions that the Union is still good for Scotland, aim to make the devolution settlement something to be admired and sustained over the longer term. After all, the alternative isn’t the abolition of the Scottish parliament and a return to the pre-devolution days – it’s independence.
There are plenty of people in the UK government who understand this, and Michael Gove did much to improve matters before he was sacked as levelling up secretary. My concern now is that Truss, who appears most likely to become Tory leader, will take the same approach to Scotland as she will to the EU. Her leadership campaign has been almost entirely about defining the “other”, and aggressively so. But she should understand that no one is going to stand around while their ass is repeatedly kicked by a swaggering new prime minister with a half-thought-through programme.
It’s quite something that a right-winger such as Liam Fox has a better grasp of these issues than Truss, but he does. “Whenever I hear politicians accusing other politicians of being attention seeking, I do tend to raise an eyebrow,” he said. “When it comes to the first minister of Scotland, they have a constitutional position, they have to be treated with respect.”
There is a feeling that Truss is giddy on her own unexpected success. But the things she says now can be used to hang her later. So stop and think, Liz, and, even if you don’t feel it, show some prime ministerial respect.