“Whether it’s by coronation or a competition, it is up to the Scottish Conservative membership to decide,” said Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne of leadership-hopeful, Douglas Ross, on the day of Jackson Carlaw’s resignation. “I want to know what he’s committing to.”
And yet five days later, and with little by way of commitments, Douglas Ross was made leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party.
The most immediate aspect of Ross’s leadership will be the sheer length of time he will remain outside of Holyrood. Until next year’s Scottish elections—a full ten months away—Ross will be unable to ask questions at FMQs, delegating this work instead to Ruth Davidson (his predecessor but one). He will not be able to table, vote, amend, or debate on any bills that go through the Scottish parliament. Like Jim Murphy of the Labour Party before him, he will depend solely on the whims of the media to grant him opportunities to debate directly with any of the other Scottish party leaders.
In other words, for close to a year Ross, a qualified ref, will take the helm of the Scottish Conservatives less as leader and more as training coach: working in the background but decisively absent when and where it actually matters, on the playing field.
Unfortunately—for those of us grinding our gears over this anyway—the nature of the regional list within the Additional Member System means it is all but certain that Ross will be spared the ultimate crowning embarrassment of being the first party leader to subsequently fail to win a seat at Holyrood. So, does this period of no-show really matter? If anything, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us all that remote working can be a welcome tonic from at-work presenteeism. And in politics, where the party whip is more important than individual principle, what are committee hearings, debates and votes for if not the grandest kind of presenteeism, that of making a show of democracy without, in truth, permitting it?
Then again, if we merely accept that political capital today is measured more by optics than actions, we cannot really fault Ross in this regard: his remarkably swift appointment is full of it. Here we pay witness to an illustrious career trajectory—of local councillor, MSP, MP and then government minister—coming back in on itself. We watch as he returns to Edinburgh in order to salvage the mess that has been made in his absence.
Already his rebranding from erstwhile government flunkey to spritely young underdog is well underway; he will be a leader for “all of Scotland”, he says, and not just this “Central Belt-centric” government we are currently stuck with. Never mind the reality that, combined with the newly reincarnated Baroness-in-waiting Davidson at FMQs, we will be faced with the most Establishment opposition we have ever seen in Holyrood. This is the party that will save the Union and speak truth to power, we’re told, when the best its leader has done to date has been to resign from power—a short-lived gesture of principle, as it’s turned out.
More importantly, at the core of this spectacle is the recognition, whether conscious or not, that the current Holyrood stock has failed to produce a potential leader of the same stature, capability—and loyalty—as a Westminster MP. This does the poor reputation of Holyrood in some quarters as a “pretendy wee parliament” for “jumped-up cooncillors” no favours. That the remedy to this mediocrity should be to bring in a bit of Westminster, however, is highly questionable—if not demeaning.
Unionism at all cost
The idea is not new: it has existed ever since Davidson’s appointment of a ‘shadow cabinet’ and self-styling as ‘leader of the opposition’ when no such roles or title exist. As such, Ross is just a logical next step in the Conservatives’ line of thought. But it should be apparent that this inability to see a different kind of politics from Westminster points to a chronic lack of imagination, not to mention little self-confidence in what devolution can do. Arguably we have already witnessed this attitude in the almost total side-lining of the Joint Ministerial Committee during Brexit talks and the pandemic. At its worst, it is the re-imposition of a once-centralised Union betraying signs of insecurity about its place and relevance in the way Scotland is—or should be—governed. In this sense, perhaps ‘Westminsterisation’ has less to do with bringing in experience and reform and is more a reflection on where many of our MSPs want to be.
According to academics Michael Keating and Paul Cairney, the percentage of MSPs who come from ‘politics-facilitating’ professions (councillors, public relation officers and so on) has steadily increased since the first Scottish elections in 1999—incidentally, it now sits at the same level as Westminster, between a third and a half of all those elected. As the Scottish Parliament became normalised it was inevitable that this would increase, but parity here can only be a zero-sum game. The reality of more supposed careerists at Holyrood—and so long as Westminster remains the paramount sovereign entity—is that many pro-Union MSPs will look at the chamber as little more than another convenient rung on the ladder of their public service careers. It should be noted that Ross himself lasted just one year in Holyrood before heading south, joining fellow Tories Ross Thomson (another one-year MSP) and John Lamont (MSP since 2007). So far Ross has made no suggestion that he is willing to give up his seat as an MP come next May. It seems the SNP, who recently ruled out dual mandates within their own ranks, are the only party that seriously thinks a seat at Holyrood is a full-time occupation.
This careerist attitude is also at odds with the way a vast majority of the Scottish electorate feel about Holyrood. In 2016, 75% of Scots believed that the Scottish Government should have the most influence over the way Scotland is run; 65% trusted it to work in their best interests, compared to just 25% for the UK; and, contrary to those who think the Scottish Parliament is an obstacle to constitutional preservation, 71% believed the chamber gave Scotland a stronger voice within the UK.
Douglas Ross’s challenge as leader then is clear. He will have to convince the electorate that he looks at Holyrood in the same way as they do: as a place where things can and should be achieved and decided, rather than a pitstop on the way to something better. It’s just a shame he’ll have to wait until after the election before he can even make a start.