IT’S A TOUGH TIME to be a Scottish Conservative. While Brexit has not been the apocalypse many forecasted – as of today, the UK is set for an economicrebound, while Europe slumps after a stalled vaccination effort – it remains unpopular north of the border, particularly when it arrives in a package marked “Boris Johnson”. In that context, perhaps Douglas Ross has been a victim of circumstances.
But the party struggles with a more basic problem: they cannot articulate any Scottish message beyond hard unionism. Their diagnosis is that public services are failing because Nicola Sturgeon spends her time obsessing over independence. Their prognosis is that the SNP, with a motley band of Alba-ists and Greens, will plunge Scotland into a new referendum, constitutional chaos and ultimately a sort of North Atlantic Juche economy. Sturgeon, they charge, is insufficiently managerial – an ideologue and a demagogue, like her predecessor. This, in essence, remains the one and only Scottish Conservative message.
The trouble is, none of this has any emotional resonance. Formally, of course, the SNP remains committed to independence, but that marks no change since 2016, so any terror has dissipated. Middle class unionist Scotland isn’t quaking in its boots. They know there will be a halfhearted plea for a referendum; they know Boris Johnson will demur. And they expect that to be that for another five years, give or take some performative playacting.
Indeed, if anyone is obsessed with independence, it is surely the Conservatives. One eagle-eyed student noted that a Tory election leaflet mentioned a putative referendum 32 times without articulating a single policy offer. But they are playing to fears that don’t really exist. Sturgeon’s hegemonic success consists in talking up independence at party conference season, enough to keep the base onside, while being generally seen as a safely managerial figure of the status quo. Unionist Scotland more or less trusts her not to rock any boats. The Tories resonate only with a rump vote of would-be foxhunters and Union Jack diehards.
The outcome is that the Scottish Conservatives risk collapsing back into third place. They capture broadly the same vote – one in five of Scotland – as during the dearth of the Thatcher-Major-Blair era. To add to their problems, their leader Ross serves to epitomise perceptions of the party as swivel-eyed and out of touch. He is by far and away the most unpopular party leader, with the possible exception of Alex Salmond. His net satisfaction rating stands at -23.
The deeper issue is that, beyond unionism and a vague rural identity, it’s not clear what Scotland’s centre-right has to offer. They aren’t especially committed Thatcherites, railing against regulation and punishing the poor. They aren’t Brexiteers. They aren’t true populists. They aren’t talking up old Tory ideas of national identity, family values or the church: they are moderately socially conservative compared to the bloodless liberalism prevailing in Holyrood, but they rarely capitalise on this, and indeed seem rather bashful on these topics, preferring to style themselves as modern and pragmatic.
Essentially, they’ve struggled to find a role. Ruth Davidson capitalised on the anti-2014 backlash, but those fires are almost extinguished, and the new leader sounds so shrill that the Party seems tempted to relegate him from frontline campaigning. One party source said of Ross, “he needs to smile more”. So far, he’s had nothing to smile about.