For a party that boasts of its commitment to preserving the “precious” Union of nations that is the United Kingdom, the Conservatives have won more plaudits from the SNP than from Unionists this week.
The humiliating description of Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, as lacking in substance, following the former’s public demand that Boris Johnson resigns over the ongoing “Partygate” scandal, was yet another unforced error in what is becoming a never ending series of them for the Government. But could Rees-Mogg’s ill-mannered put down of Ross hold a key to future Scottish Tory success?
Bear with me.
Our history lesson for today is based not on events in the Tory party, but those that took place in Labour in the immediate aftermath of devolution. It is frequently forgotten that in Wales, Tony Blair insisted on a clumsy contrivance of party rules to impose his preferred candidate, Alun Michael, for first minister over the more popular Rhodri Morgan.
It all ended in tears, and after Michael was forced to resign as first minister less than a year later, Morgan was formally appointed in his place. It was an important milestone for a devolved party that was flexing its muscles for the first time and demanding that its members’ views must take precedence over those of the UK leadership.
Note the difference in fortunes of Welsh Labour and their comrades in the similarly devolved Scottish Labour, where the party has fallen to third party status with a single MP returned to Westminster. At Holyrood, with former secretary of state for Scotland, Donald Dewar, as first minister, the new Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition Scottish Executive bent over backwards to accommodate the UK government, as if believing that devolved and Westminster ministers had a duty to maintain some kind of collective ministerial responsibility, with the agenda set by the prime minister.
Departing Scottish leader Johann Lamont effectively condemned her own party to long-term irrelevance when, in 2014, she described it, infamously, as no more than a branch office of the UK party. She should not have said it (especially since a general election was looming) but she was probably right.
Scottish Labour’s demise, while remarkably short in terms of time, is complex, and the extent to which its reluctance to define itself against its UK counterpart plays a role in that downwards trajectory remains a matter for conjecture. Still, the difference in the party’s fortunes in Wales should give party leaders some food for thought.
Like Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservatives have been the subject of an ongoing debate as to whether it should split from the UK party and set itself up as a solely Scottish entity, whose rules, candidate selection and funding would all be decided north of the border without reference to the national HQ. Such a prospect has been resisted by the membership but no doubt the recent drinks-based shenanigans in Downing Street and the troubled waters threatening to overwhelm Boris Johnson’s leadership will restart the debate about cutting the Scottish party off from its “toxic” sibling.
Rees-Mogg’s comments about Ross will have crystallised the problem for many.
But perhaps, unwittingly, the leader of the House has provided Ross and his colleagues with a helpful jumping off point for a reinvigorated Scottish Conservative Party. If the Rhodri Morgan experience allowed Welsh Labour to carve out its own identity and autonomy, then perhaps this week will allow Ross to follow that example in a way that Scottish Labour failed to do.
There would be no need to set up separate, independent structures or rebrand the party; in fact, doing so would be an outright capitulation to nationalism and would benefit the independence cause far more than the Union. Welsh Labour remains part of UK Labour yet is seen as feisty and independent-minded and, crucially, is trusted to stand up for Wales against a UK government of whatever political colour. This is at least partly due to its initial belligerence towards London interference at the very start of the devolution experiment.
If the timing of the Rhodri Revolution was key, then Douglas Ross’s own small act of rebellion against Boris Johnson may have come too late. But there’s nothing he can do about that, and his high-profile stand will at least earn him the respect of middle ground Scottish voters who would not vote for a Scottish Conservative Party that was seen to be under Boris Johnson’s influence.
We often commend politicians for their willingness to state publicly their differences with the official line promoted by their party. By such measures are they judged to be heavyweights or lightweights, so Rees-Mogg was wholly wrong about the Scottish Conservative leader, whether he was right or wrong to call for the prime minister’s head.
Ross has decided to put what he sees as the good of his country over loyalty to his party. However his opponents, internal and external, want to paint it, that is to be commended. And it could be the start of something bigger.