Scottish independence: Has Tory leader Douglas Ross been too honest for his own good? – Ian Swanson
English Tories don't care about Scottish interests, they think Britishness and Englishness are the same thing and they don't really believe in the Union.
That's not the rantings of an angry Nationalist, but the thrust of the first speech of new Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross at the party’s UK conference.
“The case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh,” he said.
“Defeatism and disinterest towards the future of the Union is rife. Too many treat Scottish independence as a question of when, not if. Many, including some who govern our country, want to see a UK Government focused on England. We pretend these are the views of only a small minority, but I hear them far too often.”
Too many Conservatives in England had forgotten that unionism was in the party’s DNA, he told delegates. “If you stop believing in the future of our United Kingdom, then you are doing the SNP’s work for them.”
His words will have a ring of truth for many of his colleagues as well as party activists, political opponents, commentators and the public.
But is he being too honest for his own good?
Independence is likely to be top of the agenda at next year’s Holyrood elections as the SNP seeks a fresh mandate from the voters for a second referendum, which Boris Johnson has set his face against.
Tories always argued confidently about the evils of separation and the benefits of the Union.
But seven months out from his first Holyrood election as a leader, Mr Ross is acknowledging a serious flaw in the party’s core message – that a large swathe of the party down south no longer believes in it.
His predecessor, Ruth Davidson, achieved a remarkable result for the Tories at the last Holyrood election, supplanting Labour as the second party, partly through the appeal of her refreshingly down-to-earth personality but also because of the pledge of determined opposition to the SNP and its drive for independence.
There seemed little reason to doubt the Conservatives’ commitment to the Union north and south of the border. But since then Brexit has reshaped key features of the political landscape and polling last year found three-quarters of Tory Leave supporters were prepared to see Scotland go independent if that was the price for securing Brexit.
Boris Johnson's election as UK Tory leader, Ruth Davidson's decision to stand down and the SNP’s continuing popularity have made significant Tory progress in Scotland less likely.
If Mr Ross was already facing an uphill task, the recognition that the UK party is far from solid on the key issue will make it even more difficult.
The speech has echoes of Theresa May’s address to the 2002 Conservative Party conference, when as party chair she sought to shock her audience, asking them: "You know what some people call us? The nasty party."
It was intended as.a wake-up call to get the party to change its ways, but is remembered as a startling admission of a defining truth which arguably has still not been tackled.
Mr Ross has highlighted a major problem at the heart of the party’s main message. Sadly for him, his bold decision to talk about it frankly is unlikely to make it go away.
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