If I thought Douglas Ross was any kind of smart political operator I might suspect he was being rather sly with the comments he made in his speech to the Tory Conference. Of course, the odds favour him just being plain stupid but imagining he’s a smart political operator. Which seems to be a qualifying attribute for wannabe leader-like-things of the British Conservative & Unionist Party in Scotland (BCUPS).
Douglas Ross hasn’t exactly impressed since that fateful day Boris Johnson, on retreat at Chequers, tripped over a croquet hoop and as he stumbled lo! a new BCUPS bosslet dropped out of his arse! “Oh look!”, cried Boris, “It’s a replacement for that mouthy bitch – probably not allowed to say that nowadays, eh? – Ruth Wotsername!” At which point one of his aides who was extraordinarily well-versed in the arcane mysteries of Scottish politics pointed out that they’d already replaced Ruth Donaldson with some chap with a clearly made-up name, like an actor in a TV soap-opera – Jackman Shortstraw?
“Fuck’im!”, declared Boris with a decisiveness which left his entourage momentarily bemused before regaining their shared wit and resuming their customary befuddlement. And lo! again, Jackman Shortstraw? was fucked.
“Gosh!” said Boris flushing with child-like excitement, “Actually making stuff happen is wizard fun!”
“Time for bed!”, said Zebedee deftly sliding a hypodermic of horse sedative into a randomly selected cheek of the bum that had lately birthed the leading character in our tale. “Best not let him pursue that thought.” he muttered wisely as Boris slipped safely into unconsciousness.
And so it came to pass that Dross, as he is known in Scotland without a trace of affection, took up the second most unenviable role in Scottish politics, some way behind North Britain Office Manager, British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). In moments of stress Dross has been heard mumbling under his breath the comforting mantra, “At least I’m not Richard Lennon!”.
Not immediately, of course. I mean he didn’t take up his new role immediately. The demands of his other job took precedence. When you’re the slapstick entertainment at football matches you can’t disappoint your audience. But just as soon as he’d completed his post-match routine and polished his whistle (behave!) he consulted an atlas and set off for Scotland. Unfortunately, the coronavirus thing meant the anticipated ticker-tape parade down the Royal Mile had to be cancelled. But McTwitter fair buzzed with the messages which traditionally greet leading Tory figures when they sally forth from their metropolitan fastness on a mission to bring British civilisation to the annexed territories. Which made Dross very proud. When the Sweaties are calling after you in the street saying, “Gerrafuckyatorybastirt!”, you know you’ve risen as far as anyone with a Scotch accent can in the British Tories.
Douglas Ross had been thoroughly briefed by his London bosses. He was to make himself ‘one of them’ among the Jocks. He was to put a bit of distance between BCUPS and Boris’s regime – which they recognised wasn’t as popular as it deserved to be in North Britain. A phenomenon they explained with the observation that the Scotch are a fractious tribe who really don’t know what is in their best interests. They have to be guided – and from time to time slapped – by Britannia’s gracious hand.
The thinking among those hired to do Boris’s thinking for him was that the way for a BCUPS leaderling to make themselves popular in Scotland was to look as if they were disagreeing with head office on one or two mildly significant points. It’s a kind of crude triangulation. The key to maintaining the Conservative’s also-ran status in Scotland was to steal some of the soft anti-Tory vote from BLiS in much the same way as Ruth Donaldson had captured the bulk of the British Nationalist vote before quitting to don a Dead Stoat Cloak as (Don’t call me!) Baroness Tanksquatter and giving Jackman Shortstraw? the opportunity to be involuntarily politically martyred for the cause. ‘Martyred’ sounds better than ‘fucked’.
Dross made his mark early on. Actually, it was more of a stain. But the point is that he launched himself into the task he’d been set with grating gusto. First, he proposed a procurement policy for the Scottish Government which openly discriminated against businesses in England. Given that such a policy would be illegal under the British government’s Internal Market ploy that Dross had voted for, many people dismissed it as a bit of stupidity. Which it wasn’t. This was Dross being more Nat than the Nats by being more anti-English than they aren’t. I know that’s a bit confusing but this is politics so confusing is the name of the game. The point is that Dross was being made to look as if he was going against Papa Boris; forging his own pro-Scotland path, so to speak. Which is an appropriate way to put it as it was all totally false.
There was, of course, not the remotest possibility that Dross’s discriminatory procurement policy would go anywhere. Including the BCUPS election manifesto. Because BCUPS isn’t a real party and can’t make its own policy other than to the extent that this might be permitted by HQ in relation to devolved areas. (It’s an echo of the pretence of autonomy that is part of BLiS’s schtick.) The same can be said of the next bit of pretend rebelliousness to ooze out of Dross. Stealing a policy this time from the Scottish left he suggested that all schoolchildren should be provided with breakfast and lunch paid for out of the Scottish Government’s allowance. Again, this was not a serious policy proposal. Just as with the anti-English procurement policy it was supposed to make some part of the electorate ask why the SNP weren’t doing this. Could it be because the hated Nats are too preoccupied with the constitutional issue?
That would be the constitutional issue that Dross has been told not to talk about. Tory gurus in London have reckoned that the SNP is going to try to make the 2021 Holyrood election all about independence. To counter this, the British parties have decided that they will talk about anything except the constitutional issue during the election campaign so that when people point to the SNP landslide claiming it bestows some kind of mandate to go for independence they can respond by insisting that the election wasn’t about independence at all but about the ‘bread and butter’ issues the British parties had focused on.
The triangulation may be clumsy, but this move to take the heat out of the constitutional issue is fairly clever – at least by the standards of the British parties in Scotland. Certainly cleverer than the notion of a plebiscitary election – that is to say, an election masquerading as a referendum. Look how easy it is for the British parties – aided by the very cooperative British media – to ensure that the constitutional question is relegated to the miscellaneous section of the election campaign.
All of which puts Douglas Ross’s speech to the British Tory conference into context. It was carefully contrived so that in Scotland it could be portrayed as Dross chastising the British Conservative’s while in England it could be presented as a stout defence of the Union. The headlines in Scotland have been all about how Dross “blames” his British Tory colleagues in England for the rise in support for independence. That rise isn’t because of anything the British government is doing. It isn’t because Scotland’s vote in the EU referendum was ignored. It isn’t because Brexit is being forced on us. It isn’t because of the way the British government is undermining the Scottish Parliament and ripping up the devolution settlement. It isn’t because the SNP administration has demonstrated in various ways how Scotland’s political culture has diverged in a pleasing direction from the increasingly alien political culture that prevails in England. It’s because Conservatives in England haven’t been Unionist enough. It’s not because Scotland has started fighting for itself. It’s because English Tories haven’t fought hard enough for the Union and the imagined ‘Great Britain’ that is the tarnished star followed by British Nationalists.
Dross talks the talk of ‘respect’ for the other nations of the UK, but he walks the walk of casually defining those nations in relation to England. Scotland is part of a periphery which England has failed to shape as an integral component of this imagined ‘Great Britain’. Scotland isn’t as it is because that’s the way the people of Scotland want it to be. Scotland is as it is because England hasn’t performed well enough in its duty to make Scotland ‘better’ by making it more British.
I doubt that Douglas Ross wrote that speech. I’m certain that at the very least he had lots of help from one or more of Dom Cummings’ people. I can’t believe it’s Dross’s work because it is really quite clever. While minimising the constitutional issue in Scotland Dross still had to take on at least some of the gleam that Ruth Davidson (Davidson! That’s it!) acquired by being ‘Queen of the BritNats’ in England, A latter-day ‘Hammer of the Scots’. Dross has to be a champion of the Union in England while being interested in everything but constitutional matters in Scotland. If that seems duplicitous, what were you expecting?
There’s another clever aspect to that speech. While not conceding its validity it panders to the notion of independence being inevitable. The idea that the Tories are doing the SNP’s job for it and that the Union is on the verge of collapse. This echoes much of the rhetoric from SNP politicians. Triangulation again. Dross’s puppet-masters have twigged the fact that this rhetoric can easily be reframed so as to promote complacency. In fact, it was already doing so. British propagandists are pushing at a door left open by the SNP. A door that many of us have been trying to force shut by pointing out that independence is not a foregone conclusion. It will have to be fought for against a British state that will resort to any means to preserve the ‘precious’ Union. This is no time for complacency in the Yes movement.
Which brings me to my final and rather disturbing observation on that speech. Reading it, I was struck by the way it seemed to be primarily aimed at an audience in England. Much of it can be read as preparing that audience for stringent measures to deal with the threat to the Union from democratic dissent in the annexed territories. That the speech was delivered by a nonentity like Dross makes it easy to dismiss. But the content is worthy of close examination. In that speech are hints of what the British state intends for Scotland. And if what it intends is such that people in England have to be conditioned to accept it then it’s not going to be at all pleasant for Scotland.
It pays to heed what British Nationalists are saying. By their own words shall ye know them!