The state of the Union in 2020 should give Boris Johnson cause for concern

  • Watch the full interview with Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross

The prime minister is used to criticism but it stings even more when it comes from the leader of his own party in Scotland.

Douglas Ross, who replaced Ruth Davidson at the head of the Scottish Conservatives in August, appears to be on a concerted campaign of criticism aimed at Boris Johnson.

In an exclusive interview with ITV News this week he conceded Nicola Sturgeon is a more effective communicator than Boris Johnson and that Scots were “not absolutely wrong” in their perception that Scotland’s First Minister is a better leader.

When presented with the approval ratings in Scotland for each (Boris Johnson is on -57 while Scotland’s First Minister is +49), Mr Ross gave the stark admission that Boris Johnson could be damaging the case for Scotland staying in the UK.

In fact, when asked to clarify, he doubled down.

“I’m not going to paint this more flowery than it is - you cannot get away from the current figures,” he said.

This in itself is extraordinary - no recent leader of the Tories in Scotland has turned their ire away from the SNP long enough to openly point out the shortcomings of their own boss.

Ruth Davidson hinted at dissatisfaction through the act of resignation, but even then she was far from blistering of Boris Johnson in public when offered the opportunity.

What Douglas Ross is doing has been dismissed by the more cynical among Scottish voters as mere electioneering: they believe he reads the polls and understands it is simply smart politics in Scotland just now to distance himself from an unpopular Tory PM.

And it is objectively true that the polls tell us the PM has a seriously bad image problem in Scotland.

The coronavirus pandemic has not helped. It is not a crisis of his making but his handling of it and, crucially, that the Scottish Government has been allowed to flex its devolved muscles, has created an additional problem for him.

This pandemic, with the daily briefings, lockdown decisions, and intense public scrutiny, has allowed people to see Boris Johnson in action and in direct comparison with Nicola Sturgeon.

They are both responding to the same challenges - sometimes they are even making broadly similar announcements - but, rightly or wrongly, most people in Scotland prefer what they see from their First Minister over their Prime Minister.

That’s not to say Nicola Sturgeon has had a perfect pandemic. Scotland’s excess deaths have been among the highest in Europe and the decision to send COVID-positive patients from hospitals into care homes will forever be a black mark against her performance.

But Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t need to be perfect; she just has to be seen to better than the alternative in Westminster.

Douglas Ross understands that being associated with Boris Johnson is unlikely to do him many favours in Scotland, but his criticism of the prime minister goes deeper than the pandemic and the question of who is the better communicator.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attends First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland. Credit: PA

It is his focus on the case for the Union being undermined that merits deeper consideration.

This is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives - the de facto defender of Unionism in Scotland, who is tasked with taking on Ms Sturgeon as the leader of the independence movement - accepting that Boris Johnson could be detrimental to the case he is trying to make for keeping Scotland in the UK.

He also attacks his own Tory colleagues in Boris Johnson’s government for their lack of interest in battles that must be fought beyond Westminster, and he accepts that too often the Tories are making Nicola Sturgeon’s arguments for her.

“The case for Scottish independence is now being made more effectively at Westminster than it ever could be by the SNP at Holyrood,” he said in a speech.

Douglas Ross in the Scottish Parliament. Credit: PA

Such an astonishing admission is reminiscent of his late Conservative colleague Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech, which ultimately destroyed Margaret Thatcher, in which he said her leadership was, “Rather like sending our opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find that before the first ball is bowled, their bats have been broken by the team captain.”

Whether this gains Douglas Ross extra votes in Scotland or not, he is a genuine Unionist and this is a desperate plea to his prime minister, as well as his own party.

This goes well beyond the recent row over furlough money which angered not just the SNP but also the Welsh First Minister, and forced Ross to speak out on their side against the PM.

Douglas Ross called that “a mistake,” but he believes it’s the kind of mistake that creates a perception Boris Johnson and co are too often acting as ‘little Englanders’ - running a UK Government that is really England-first or, more specifically, south-of-England-first.

He points not just to their handling of the coronavirus pandemic but also Brexit as examples of how their decision making is, in his view, too often falling short of the principles of leading for the benefit of all four nations in what is meant to be a Union of equals.

This, Douglas Ross fears, is driving a wedge between England and the rest of the UK and creating fertile ground for the Scottish independence campaign.

That the Scottish Tory leader is attacking the malaise in his Tory colleagues in England is not only to curry favour with Scots; it is a heartfelt effort to rouse them from their slumber.

He knows he needs their attention as well as their support if the United Kingdom is to remain whole and he is now demanding to know if they care about this cause as much as he does.

It is a risky strategy.

Douglas Ross with former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Credit: PA

All of the mistakes Douglas Ross points out also serve to reinforce the arguments Scotland’s independence campaigners are making: the UK is not always working for Scotland; the Tory party does not always care about Scotland; Nicola Sturgeon is a more competent leader than Boris Johnson.

Almost a dozen consecutive polls have shown a majority of Scots would now vote for independence, though. Momentum is on the side of Scottish independence, and the current UK response to separation sentiment is evidently not working, so perhaps a change in tact is understandable.

“Westminster needs to stop just using ‘devolve and forget’ as a way of trying to deal with the case for separation,” Ross has said in his two most high profile public speeches since taking over as Scottish Tory leader.

He also criticises UK governments, both past and present, for simply throwing money across the border in the hope it’ll somehow extinguish nationalist sentiments.

What Douglas Ross is raising here, deliberately or not, is an existential crisis for the UK: what, exactly, is the point of the Union in 2020?

Is it little more than an ATM for the devolved nations to withdraw both cash and powers to then use as they see fit?

The furlough scheme is a prime example of this: the UK Treasury has borrowed and spent on a truly eye-watering scale so thousands of jobs across the country, including in Scotland, could be saved. In return, there has been a surge in Scots who benefited from this scheme now apparently wanting to leave the Union.

Pooled resources will matter if there is another referendum: currency, pension, and deficit reduction were obstacles to the Scottish independence movement in 2014 that have not magically disappeared.

This time, however, polls suggest the majority of Scots are already buying into the idea of independence.

For the UK to win them back by threatening that independence will make them poorer might well be an effective tactic again, but it’s a poor foundation for nationhood. Essentially scaring people out of leaving is hardly the most positive argument for a happy marriage in the long-term.

If Unionists are to outmanoeuvre the SNP it will need to be built on much more than financial convenience.

Nicola Sturgeon wants another referendum on Scottish independence. Credit: Jane Barlow/PA

There is, of course, a shared history between our nations, but people like Douglas Ross are trying to make a case for the UK looking forward, not backwards.

It brings us back to that basic question of what, and who, is the Union for? If it is indeed worth keeping together, this will need to be explained to voters.

Is there a still common identity that people in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can all agree on?

Is emotional attachment to the UK still strong enough to get people out knocking doors and arguing the kind of case that will ultimately slow the SNP juggernaut to a halt?

The identity of an independent Scotland that the SNP is trying to sell is not perfectly framed either. Not everyone is in agreement on every issue, but the independence side is far more in-tune and, generally, people understand what being Scottish roughly means.

There are Scottish national sports teams for people to rally behind, the unmistakable Scottish accent, and, with the help of Scotland’s art scene being sympathetic toward independence, there is a concept of modern Scottish culture as well as all the old traditions.

In practice, they also have an idea to pitch that Scots making their own decisions is better than being out-numbered and therefore overruled by England. This was argued in the Scottish referendum six years ago as well, but a Brexit that the majority of Scots didn’t vote for and still don’t want is really helping to drive it home.

What is the UK offering in this regard? There are such different ideas of what a UK identity is, or should be, depending on where you go that it rather suggests a lack of any real identity at all. At best it is ill-defined.

Northern Ireland is one part of our United Kingdom where people are quite used to talking about a ‘British identity.’

For decades, Unionists there have had to live that identity and defend their right to uphold it alongside - and sometimes against - those who identify as Irish.

Northern Ireland’s Unionists do not put themselves through this just because of the convenient financial support the UK Treasury sends across the Irish Sea - identifying as British comes as naturally to them as being French, Spanish, or German.

Of course, this brand of Unionism does not always sit easy with Unionists in other parts of the UK - too extreme and too nationalist - but is who they are and, like any nation, they believe that’s worth preserving.

Yet the Unionists of Northern Ireland are being rewarded with a Conservative UK government proposing to sign a Brexit deal that will create a border between them and mainland Britain.

The practicalities of the sea border rather than a land border might make sense to Boris Johnson - it certainly smooths the path to Brexit for him - but the principle is completely anathema to people who grew up within a culture that wrapped itself in the Union flag.

Ask around in certain areas of Belfast or Londonderry now and you won’t be hard pressed to find Unionists concerned that the UK no longer returns the love and loyalty they and their ancestors have shown.

Wales has so far been relatively immune to the nationalist movements that are gaining ground in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but this pandemic has given the Senedd a opportunity to show the Welsh people what it can do.

The Welsh First Minister is from the Labour Party and so, unlike Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford is not advocating for independence.

However, over the last year he has spoken out passionately about what is right for Wales and had the ability to set himself apart from Westminster.

People have had a chance to see what is possible when deviating from the UK Government and they are not dissatisfied.

There is also the somewhat emasculating fact that a ‘national address’ from this UK prime minister is no longer an address to the whole nation.

Devolved powers for health mean almost all of Boris Johnson’s big coronavirus announcements have been relevant only to England, which does him no favours fighting the perception he’s an England-only Prime Minister.

Having people in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland told to largely ignore what their UK prime minister is telling them and instead pay attention to their own leaders has created a new awakening in our country.

People are suddenly considering the very question Douglas Ross is asking his own party: what is the point of our Union, who does it benefit, and do we still need it?

This is supposed to be an easy one for the Conservative and Unionist Party to answer, but Douglas believes they are in fact struggling.

He will have to make that case to the electorate sooner rather than later, though. There is a Scottish parliamentary election in just six months’ time, and independence via a second referendum is going to dominate the SNP manifesto as well as the debate.

Ross, in his own words, is “calling out complacency.”

Unionists might hope Westminster is listening; campaigners for independence are most certainly banking on Westminster carrying on regardless.