What would you do if you were Prime Minister for a day? It’s not a bad question to get a sense of someone’s character and creativity. Douglas Ross, hotly tipped to be the next Scottish Tory leader after Jackson’s Carlaw’s shock departure yesterday, was once asked this in an interview, and, quick as flash, without a moment’s hesitation, came out with: “Tougher enforcement against gypsy travellers”.
That’s the calibre of the person we’re talking about here to probably be leader of the opposition by the start of the next Scottish Parliament. Maybe it’s a good fit for the Scottish Tories: everything about them screams small-minded and reactionary. Just look at Jackson Carlaw’s resignation statement (you can read it in full here). Second sentence in, the one after saying he’s resigning: “Nothing is more important to me than making the case for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.”
“Nothing,” Jackson, really? Your political ambitions don’t stretch beyond being a spokesperson for maintaining the present constitutional settlement? We are going through one of the sharpest health and economic crises that Scotland has ever experienced, and the main opposition party is a single-issue campaign for the Union. There’s something slightly disturbing about just how low the quality of Scottish political opposition is: in historic times where path-breakers are required, we have jobsworths.
It’s not just the Scottish Tories that are failing. Scottish Labour appear once again to be getting geared up to dump another leader, with Richard Leonard getting kicked from pillar to post in the press by Labour figures Lord Foulkes and – somewhat oddly – Archie Macpherson, with few voices coming to his aid. To be sure, Leonard has been largely ineffectual, but if Scottish Labour think yet another new leader will, this time, finally, recover its fortunes of old, they are still in denial. Six years after indyref, Slab are further away from knowing what they stand for now than on 19 September 2014. Keir Starmer has offered yet more meaningless sound-bites about “radical federalism” while linking arms with the Tories in opposition to the Scottish Parliament’s right to decide on indyref. The Scottish party was supposed to have autonomy to make its own decisions on constitutional policy, but there’s no sign it has any big ideas anyway.
All politics is relative. The SNP is only as strong as the weakness of its political rivals. One sign of that is the fact that polls have shown declining confidence for the Scottish Government’s handling of key public services, but that hasn’t put a dent in its election polling. The Scottish Government should have been under severe pressure yesterday over new ONS data showing Scotland has the third worst Covid-19 mortality rate in Europe after England and Spain, but instead the news was vanquished by the Tory leadership farce. Nicola Sturgeon’s performance on tackling the pandemic has largely been compared relative to the clownish Boris Johnson, rather than contrasted to the rest of Europe.
Neither the Tories nor Labour have been able to lay a glove on Sturgeon in this crisis because they are so far down the British nationalist rabbit hole that they think the most important critique of the First Minister is that she hasn’t been lined up behind the UK Government enough. Any clear-thinking political rival would have seen that Sturgeon was far too dedicated to the “four nations approach” early on in this crisis, but Carlaw and Leonard can’t bring themselves to think beyond a British nationalist framework. The perverse, doctrinal politics of unionism was in full show in what turned out to be Carlaw’s final appearance at FMQs yesterday, as he sought to criticise the First Minister not for too many excess deaths in Scotland, but in using statistics which apparently slightly exaggerate the difference in Covid-19 mortality between Scotland and England. Tawdry stuff.
Something or someone has to change the terms of the debate in Scotland, but I’d bet everything I’ve got that person won’t be Douglas Ross.
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