Jackson Carlaw has a problem with Uncle Knobhead

Jackson Carlaw, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, giving a speech

Congratulations are due to Jackson Carlaw for being selected as the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. With the Labour party continuing to be in disarray nationally, it falls to the Scottish Tories to maintain a credible opposition to the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) in the Scottish Parliament. Governments do not function properly without a competent cohesive opposition. Scotland needs Jackson Carlaw to succeed in improving the quality of decision-making in Holyrood.

This is much the reverse of the situation in Westminster, where Labour (again, in disarray) is failing to oppose the ruling Conservative party, and largely leaving the asking-of-difficult questions to the SNP.

Since narrowly voting against Scottish Independence in 2014 there has been a shift in sentiment in Scotland. There has also been a huge upheaval in UK-wide attitudes. We have seen the English vote to leave the European Union, and a dominant Tory government start to enact social policies that are explicit in their desire to restrict freedom of movement in ways that will disproportionately affect those who most need to be able to relocate. Meanwhile, objections raised from each of the other members of the increasingly inaccurately-named United Kingdom are being outright ignored by a Westminster government hell-bent on attempting to reconstruct the country in the image of a colonialist power.

Infographic describing the distribution by region of Brexit votes
Brexit votes on a map

If only there were innocent lands left to pillage, of course.

To live in Scotland in these times feels rather like being marooned on the high seas in a rowing boat. We are cast hither and yon by the capricious waves, with the only real certainty that of being smashed against the rocks at some indeterminate future point. Britain is being ruled by an unhealthy cocktail of nest-featherers, lickspittles, malicious demigogues and the blindingly incompetent. All at a time when we need calm intelligence at the helm. Instead we have Boris, the blundering buswanker, a man whose pronouncements to camera are so astoundingly devoid of content that for at least half of the time he is not even uttering actual words.

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, unbelievably
Boris the blundering buswanker

In February 2020 we have much of England reeling from the aftereffects of successive storms. People whose homes now have a “water feature” where the ground floor used to be are cheering having “got Brexit done” whilst bemoaning the total lack of assistance that they’re getting from public services that have been systematically denuded of funding over the last decade. And of course the irony is that Brexit is most definitely not “done.”

This wider scope of blithering ineptitude can sink the Scots’ Carlaw before he even gets started. Whilst the Scottish Tories continue to be a part of the UK Tories, they will always come across as subordinate and subservient. Carlaw is hamstrung in forming any criticism of the SNP as an organisation because the retort is always an immediate “Look what your lot are doing in Westminster.” It is as if a drunk uncle were noisily trying to shag a waitress while the bridegroom is giving his speech of thanks at the wedding breakfast.

In general, the Scottish public is a tolerant, cosmopolitan bunch who are keen to be recognised as agents of their own success. While the SNP portrays this as an impetus for self-determination, the truth is potentially closer to establishing a welcoming, caring society that enables success. It is not predicated on nationalistic segregation. The English are leading a charge towards isolationism peppered with an outdated concept of their own importance on the world stage. Scots, on the other hand, are much more realistic: more understanding that success comes from collaboration, that people’s social worth is not defined by skin colour or ancestry or fiscal assets. It is a stark contrast, that Scots are expansive, open and accommodating while the English are increasingly reductive and fearful.

One of Mr Carlaw’s strongest themes upon ascending to the leadership of the Scottish chapter of his party was that he was going to challenge the SNP’s actual record of delivery while the SNP was doggedly pursuing independence. These are two separate things, and the Scottish Tories have a delicate balance to strike in the coming months. Ironically, the Scottish Tories (remember, the “Conservative and Unionist Party”) need to implement an independence of their own if they are to establish any kind of credibility north of the border. To draw attention to their Unionism is to remind the Scottish public of their ties to the immensely destructive force that is the Westminster Conservatives. Those same Westminster Conservatives who have demonstrated themselves to be at complete odds with the Scottish public on key areas of policies, from Brexit, through immigration, to austerity.

Mr Carlaw’s problem is that he needs to hold the SNP government to account in Holyrood in isolation. He will need to support the increase of powers assigned to the Scottish Parliament, otherwise he gives the SNP a “Get out of jail free” card to use whenever a failure could be rationally explained as being the result of power being retained and misused by Westminster. He needs to prevent comparisons with his English cohorts. It will be very hard for him to criticise actions being taken by the SNP on elements such as education and health when the Westminster government is very clearly doing an even worse job. He cannot criticise a government hell-bent on divorcing itself from a wider federal organisation whilst simultaneously being a part of a party whose government is in the exact same position.

The result of this is that Mr Carlaw and his Shadow Cabinet have to build their structure of opposition without a viable foundation. They cannot rely on Unionism as that is now a political poison in Scotland. They cannot cite Westminster as a powerful institution that can act as inspiration as it is palpably neither of those things. In order to have any chance of success, the only way forward is to act independently of the British Conservatives. To selectively assist the SNP in standing up for Scotland as a member of the United Kingdom. To acknowledge that the fundamental differences between England and Scotland mean that he must at times combat the party that carries the same name.

He must, in short, become independent of the UK himself if he is to lead an effective opposition in Scotland. Should there be an “IndyRef2” he can then fight (presumably against independence) with good conscience and not as a Tory lapdog.

(Credit to Damon Beesley and Iain Morris for the “buswanker” and Peter Kay for the “Uncle Knobhead” metaphors)