Scottish Tories need to save their campaign to save the Union

GUEST POST: Katie Frank is a Consultant at Portland Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Over 700 years have passed since the Scottish Wars of Independence. While ballots, not battles, is now how Scotland decides its future, one thing is for certain: nothing, not even a pandemic, can shake the insatiable appetite Scotland has to debate one topic. Independence.

Since the referendum in September 2014, the Scottish Conservatives have been beating the drum for Unionism, with one key message: ‘No, to another divisive independence referendum’.

In the elections of 2016 and 2017, the Conservatives pounded the pavements with this simple message. It resulted in an electoral renaissance. Huge swathes of Scotland turned blue, some areas for the very first time. The Conservatives scalped major nationalist names in 2017, including Alex Salmond and the Westminster Leader Angus Robertson. SNP seats in their former heartland of North East Scotland were reduced to a small speck of yellow on the map surrounded by a sea of blue.

However, the election in 2019 saw this support wane. The loss of Ruth Davidson at the spearhead of the Unionist fight has been a damaging one for the Conservatives. Her successors, Jackson Carlaw, and now Douglas Ross, have seemingly failed to mobilise support for Unionism in the same way.

The Conservatives are the most electorally successful political party in the UK, and they are still the primary force for Unionism in Scotland – but they need to save their campaign if they are to resist the march of the nationalists and save the Union. With Scottish Labour hot on their heels, the Conservatives may accidentally hand the election, and the fate of the Union, to the nationalists unless they find the spark they had under Ruth Davidson.

Personality matters. This is something that No.10 and Edinburgh are painfully aware of.

The Conservative Party machine is undeniably an efficient and sometimes brutal one. Something Jackson Carlaw quickly learned. The Party machine has now started to kick into overdrive once more after a recent decline in the Scottish polls. Ruth Davidson, despite standing down, is featuring more prominently than Douglas Ross on much of the political literature and the Westminster rumour-mill is swirling with talk of potential plans for the Prime Minister to charge northwards to save the Union. These two big personalities could eclipse Douglas Ross in an effort to save the Union and the life of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland.

Yet, personality is not everything. The Scottish Conservatives in the 2016 and 2017 elections were also not just the one-trick pony they now appear to be. They were strong on business, on education, on healthcare, and on the justice system. They seized effectively on the multiple policy failures that ran riot under the SNP’s leadership.

The recent internecine warfare in the nationalist movement between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond has damaged the post-Brexit uptick in support for independence and the reputation of the Government at Holyrood. But the Scottish Conservatives have not seized upon this opportunity or the numerous policy failures with the same vigour they would have done a mere 4 years ago.

The SNP’s PR machine is a slick one and the Scottish Labour Party have finally started to find their way out of the electoral wilderness. If the Scottish Conservatives do not revitalise their campaign and show a positive alternative future for Scotland, then they may entirely lose their place as the main party of opposition in Scotland.

Recent polls suggest that support for independence is teetering on a knife edge. But, the Scottish Conservatives must save their campaign and the life of the Party in Scotland, if they are to save the very Union itself.

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This piece was written for Portland’s newsletter Inside Holyrood 2021. Subscribe here.

Boris must find the bandwidth to take on Sturgeon

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons ClerkFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Being prime minister is not an easy job. Whether you adopt the approach of Thatcher’s four-hours-a-night, or Macmillan’s retreating to Trollope novels at moments of extreme stress, it is a position which occupies your every waking (and probably many a sleeping) moment; the situation is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of prime ministers live ‘above the shop’ in the apartment complex of 10-11 Downing Street. Time to think can be at a premium.

Boris Johnson is certainly not short of challenges to which he could devote his brain power.

Covid and Brexit are the two most obvious and pressing matters, but one could easily add the “levelling-up” agenda, HS2, the grievous state of the hospitality industry, repayment of the national debt, the examination system in schools, NHS shortages and law and order, and that would be the in-tray only half full.

Being leader of the opposition is a very different matter. The effective levers in your hands are virtually none, especially when you face a government with a healthy parliamentary majority early in the electoral cycle, and if you are not to be wholly reactive (“We think the government should have gone further…”) then thinking is one of the few things to which you can devote a lot of time.

Just before Christmas, Sir Keir Starmer made a “major” speech on devolution and the Union. 

This is the sort of parlour game into which opposition leaders are forced; those who occupy the territory willingly are political oddballs and often Liberal Democrats. The content of the speech promised a commission to examine the devolution of power, advised by former prime minister Gordon Brown.

While this is not a move which will capture the imagination on voters’ doorsteps, it is a sensible and grown-up response to the persistent popularity of the SNP in Scotland and the inexplicable perception that the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has handled the Covid crisis well.

A recent poll showed support for Scotland’s secession from the Union at 58%, which would be a comfortable plurality at a referendum. 

This is literally an existential threat to the UK: from a business point of view, secession would mean the United Kingdom losing the human capital of 5.5 million people, access to the oil and gas reserves of the North Sea, an enormous potential source of tidal and wind energy and the huge financial services sector in Edinburgh, apart from anything else. It is by no means unrealistic to imagine an independent Scotland by 2030: the government must address this.

What must worry unionists is that Boris Johnson, personally and institutionally, simply does not have the bandwidth to take the fight to the nationalists at the present time. It is often suggested that Johnson, for all his mixed heritage an ineffably English figure, is ill-suited to woo a truculent Scottish electorate.

But if not him, then who? The Labour Party lost its relevance in Scottish politics with its Westminster annihilation in 2015, and its Holyrood leader, Richard Leonard, is the sort of man who is forgettable to his own memory foam mattress. The Liberal Democrats are a harmless fringe. Faute de mieux, the battle for the Union must be an SNP/ Conservative fight.

But who is going to stand in the front line? The Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, is a landowner who looks like a refugee from a late-stage Macmillan cabinet; Baroness Davidson (as she will become) is a proven vote-winner but is only standing in at Holyrood until next May; the Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, is accident-prone and yet to find an authentic voice which resonates with the electorate north of the border.

The prime minister needs help. He needs some heavyweight unionist figures (who need not necessarily be Conservatives); he needs an ultra-smooth and highly responsive media team; and he needs some enormous brains to sit in darkened rooms and find the arguments against secession which will strike a chord with the voters.

The second and third categories should not be impossible to satisfy. The first, the cheerleaders, may prove more difficult. If anyone has any ideas, the address is 10 Downing Street, London SW1A.

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This piece was written for City AM.