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.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

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.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for City AM.

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Westminster always wakes up late when it comes to the Union. The alarm is ringing on a constitutional nightmare if the SNP win a majority at next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

In 2014, it took a surprising 51-49 poll in favour of Yes just before the independence referendum to stop it sleepwalking into the break-up of the United Kingdom. Since then, Westminster has hit the snooze button time and time again.

In 2015, Scotland sent 56 separatist MPs to Westminster. Unionists sent three. In 2016, the two nations most comfortable in the Union – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU and the two most restive – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain.

Between 2017 and 2019, the UK government allowed itself to be propped up by the DUP, causing lasting distrust among nationalist and unaligned communities in Northern Ireland. And so in 2020 Britain left the EU with a deal that created a border in the Irish Sea, completing the full house by alienating unionists in Northern Ireland too.

But, with nine months to go before the election in Scotland, Westminster has finally wiped the sleep from its eyes. Just as well, because it will catapult the Union back to the fore of British politics.

The fightback starts with ministerial visits and lots of them. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have all been north of the border in recent weeks. The SNP insists that it welcomes the sight of more UK ministers in Scotland, arguing that it pushes wavering voters into the Yes column.

The government must call their bluff. The SNP’s greatest strategic achievement has been using devolution to cast Scotland as inherently separate to the rest of the UK, making independence not just a logical step but crucially a less daunting prospect for uncertain No voters.

While Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are pro-devolution, the SNP are not. Devolution has always been a stepping stone towards independence.

The Scottish government has projected itself as autonomous, developing its own foreign policy through ministerial visits to Brussels, cutting across reserved responsibilities and cultivating its own relationships with allies. For too long UK-wide institutions have played into that narrative: politicians, the civil service and the media.

If Westminster is serious about ensuring the United Kingdom is a coherent, relevant and tangible concept for Scottish voters it must grasp the scale of the challenge ahead of it and change the way it talks about the Union.

Ministers with remits spanning the UK have been too reluctant to project themselves equally across all four nations. The rest have outsourced issues with the “devolved nations” to the overstretched Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. If ministers are to suddenly rediscover their interest in each nation, they need not just to normalise their visits but to normalise the way they talk about the UK. Clunky, transactional rhetoric about the value of the “precious Union” should be junked for matter-of-fact language that normalises Britishness, with the litmus test that if a minister would not say it in Dudley, they shouldn’t say it in Dundee.

The civil service in London has also been too timid about treading on toes, prioritising good working relationships with colleagues in Cardiff and Edinburgh above the central policy objective of preserving the Union, something our impartial civil service should never be indifferent about. Our cultural institutions have become balkanised, shunting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish stories to the regional editions while leading UK-wide bulletins with English-only stories that mean little to voters in the rest of the UK.

Opportunities to counter the “otherness” of Westminster are missed by UK politicians, too. Of the dozens of new peers announced this year, only Ruth Davidson and Nigel Dodds were genuine unionist big hitters. No peerage for Carwyn Jones, who spent nearly ten years as first minister of Wales, or concern over Lord Darling’s retirement.

The United Kingdom has almost unrivalled cultural, political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent the disintegration of its own state. It is time it woke-up to the value of those tools. Nationalists won’t be shy about using their own.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for The Times.