Yesterday, in my piece on the fallout from the Welsh Conservatives’ performance, I wrote about the emotional journey involved in watching them miss almost all their target seats only to return their best-ever haul of MSs via the lists.
But fraught as that was, it did not take half so many years off my life as tracking the Scottish results.
Whilst the Prime Minister had (rightly) set his face against granting a referendum either way, it really mattered whether or not Nicola Sturgeon could secure an overall majority for the SNP.
First, because polls suggested that voters’ attitudes towards demands for a second plebiscite would be materially affected by this achievement, versus merely the return of a separatist majority secured by Green MSPs.
Second, because the Scottish Conservatives had spent the campaign telling people that such an outcome was a “guarantee” of another referendum.
I was scathing about this at the time, as were senior Scottish Tories (both there and in London) who got in touch with me. And the fact that Sturgeon missed out on a majority by a single seat should not retroactively blind us to how dangerous this strategy was.
However, it is a fact that she missed out on that majority. And she missed it in large part due to what was, in extremely unfavourable circumstances, a pretty remarkable result for Douglas Ross.
Imagine going back to 2016, when Ruth Davidson had just seized Edinburgh Central on the way to more than doubling the Conservatives’ previous total of 15 seats. You have some bad news for her. (You may or may not be dressed like the man from this video as you deliver it.)
Next month, contrary to overwhelming expectation and despite her high-profile campaigning for the other side, Britain is going to vote to leave the EU. Although she will finally see a decent haul of Tory MPs returned to Westminster from Scotland in 2017, in 2019 half of them will be out again as the SNP rebound whilst Boris Johnson (who, by the way, is already Prime Minister and set on what people will be calling a ‘hard Brexit’) secures a thumping majority on a promise to ‘get Brexit done’.
He then gets Brexit done by agreeing to a border in the Irish Sea, despite your dire warnings about the impact this might have on the Union, and proceeds to offer an unflattering contrast to the First Minister for much of the Covid-19 pandemic (which you’ll explain in a minute.)
Then the punchline:
“But actually, support for independence doesn’t bounce in the years after Brexit. It does somewhat during the pandemic, although that was in part an illusion created by a systemic polling error, but then it fell back below 50 per cent before the Holyrood elections, at which Sturgeon fails to regain Salmond’s majority from 2011 and the Conservatives return exactly the same number of MSPs as before.”
Such is the weird dual nature of the state of Scottish politics. On the one hand, the SNP retaining their position of extraordinary dominance after so many years in government is a significant achievement, especially in light of the torrid time they had over the Salmond inquiry.
But significant too is their failure to advance the cause of their hearts over five years positively littered with landmines for the Union.
It’s a result which challenges some common notions, not least of which is the idea that Davidson herself was the magic key to the 2016 result. Whilst she did campaign, she is on the record as downplaying her role in overseeing the strategy. The immediate credit therefore goes to Ross. But it also reflects much better on Davidson to have built a machine that is, at least, no less able to exploit the polarisation of Scottish politics than when she were in charge, than one which fell apart without her.
The broader story also highlights the point I made in 2017 about ‘the myth of the fragile Union‘. Whilst there is no denying that the fight for the UK is very much on, the past few years have shown that its survival does not hinge nearly so closely on giving progressives and nationalists everything they want as they would have us believe. Important to know, if the Government is going to strike out on a more ‘muscular’ course.
For Ross, the question is where can he go from here? Does holding on to 31 MSPs merely tell us that Scottish politics remains as polarised as it was in 2016? If so, we might expect stasis. But if Scotland does ever move on, it remains an open question whether this would allow the Tories to expand their coalition by reaching out to centre-right SNP voters, or start shedding voters who lent them their support to protect the Union back to Labour and the Liberal Democrats (or, indeed, the SNP).
To date, the revival of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has hinged on the Unionist part. But if he ever wants to be First Minister, or thrive in a Scotland with more ‘British’ politics, Ross needs to take the longer, harder step of selling Scots on Conservativism too.