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The Scottish Tories won’t accept Faragism

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Douglas Ross was not a game-changing leader of the Scottish Conservatives in the way Ruth Davidson was but he announces his resignation as the game is being turned on its head. North of the border the Tories are seeing their vote hold up even as the electoral fortunes of their Sassenach brethren implode. They could come out of this election with more seats than the six they went into it with. But they are not captains of their own fate and Ross’s departure will only call attention to that. 

Ross has had a tenure that at times seemed cursed and at others lucky. He had to handle the Scottish blowback from Boris Johnson and partygate, Liz Truss’s mini-Budget and mini-premiership, and Rishi Sunak’s unpopularity with Scots. Yet, his almost four years also coincided with the decline of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, the unhappy incumbency of Humza Yousaf and the SNP’s reversion to John Swinney, back for another go 20 years after his first. 

Ross’s successor might be able to rely on further SNP misfortunes but he or she will be too detained with other matters to savour them. The Scottish Conservatives are about to be tested much more strenuously than they were in 1997, when they lost all their Commons seats. The red tsunami about to crash into the electoral map will likely wash in Nigel Farage as MP for Clacton, and some on the Tory right will mount an effort to bring him over as leader of their party. Even if the Tory establishment gets its way and installs a left-winger like Penny Mordaunt or James Cleverly, Farage will set the pace for Tory policy on immigration, integration and the ECHR. Where the Tories are heading, the Scottish party will be reluctant to follow, especially if it involves Farage becoming party leader. At that point, a separate Scottish party will be back on the agenda, so that Tories north of the border reorganise as a new centre-right party with a relationship to the UK Conservatives much like the Bavarian CSU to the German CDU.

A Faragised Tory party will inevitably be a more distinctly English party, for Faragism is constructed around a concept of Britishness that is Englishness in all but name. Scottish Tory messaging is already very different from its English counterpart but Faragism would represent a bridge too far. It would make English nationalism as central to the Tory brand as fiscal restraint and law and order, not that the Tory brand has delivered either for some time. And that is going to be a problem in Scotland.

There would be other knock-on effects to having a UK party led or heavily influenced by an English nationalist. The Barnett formula, which assigns Scotland more taxpayer largesse per head than England, would be called into question, as would the Scottish government’s ambitions to attract more immigrants to work in the care and other sectors. A future Tory government that tried to ramp up deportations of failed asylum claimants would meet with committed non-cooperation from the Scottish government. 

The Scottish Tories are already out of step with the UK party. Most of their MSPs regarded the big-spending progressive Boris Johnson as beyond the pale. The Scottish outfit is really a centre-left party with more centrist instincts on crime and taxation. A lurch in a Farage direction, especially if he ends up Tory leader, would be intolerable for many of them. Whoever replaces Douglas Ross will have to manage all this and find time to take on both the SNP and Labour, all while trying to make a good impression on the voters. It’s a mighty ask, perhaps an impossible one, and there is no obvious candidate to take it on. Douglas Ross is getting out at the right time.

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