Douglas Ross’s speech to the Conservative and Unionist Party conference was uncanny for being both conservative and unionist. The Scottish Tory leader pitched up to his podium and launched into an awkward conversation with colleagues south of the border. His theme was ‘putting an end to defeatism and disinterest’ and both he blamed on the English Tories and their turn away from Unionism. Unionism, in his rendering, was a categorical imperative of British conservatism. ‘You cannot be a conservative and not be a unionist, the two values are inseparable in our politics,’ he pronounced.
However, he protested, this was not the case for ‘far too many members of our party in England’, who 'do not see support for the continuation of our United Kingdom as a core part of their politics’ or view it as ‘a nostalgic, historic value, rather than a living and integral part of our country’s modern identity’. His argument was not against English nationalism so much that English nationalism which has come adrift from a larger Unionism, practised by those who ‘do not value the importance of the Union to their own British identity’.
Scottish Unionists typically level these charges against Tory backbenchers but Ross went higher up the food chain, contending that the mindset which sees Britishness and Englishness ‘as one and the same’ extended to the government:
‘Despite bold promises, the Union too often becomes an afterthought. In successive governments, it is given warm words and lip service but sadly too often there is little action… I campaigned for three long years to win a referendum to stop independence, but I now get told that it is inevitable by people that have barely ever been to Scotland.’
Tories who ‘treat Scottish independence as a question of when and not if’ were not ‘only a small minority’; in fact, ‘talk of defeatism and disinterest towards the future of the Union is rife’. From here he went further, and further than any previous Scottish Tory leader, with 18 damning words: ‘The case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh.’ This was red meat to Scottish Tories but an ice cold slab of reality for the English wing — and the Treasury benches.
The Moray MP wasn’t done. He accused Conservatives who treat the separation of the Union as inevitable of ‘doing the SNP’s work for them’, asked whose side they were on, and told them they didn’t belong in the Conservative party. He excoriated the wider British establishment for gushing over the very people sworn to dismantle their country, noting that the Nationalists were ‘backed by a London media that falls over themselves to praise the SNP and give them an easy ride’. Scottish Unionists, longing for a standard-bearer unafraid to stick up for them and their cause, may have found their man.
The rhetoric is welcome but it’s all just nouns and adjectives, when what’s needed are verbs. The UK Government has to demonstrate the confidence to govern all of the UK, something hinted at in the Internal Market Bill but lost amid the Cabinet’s transformation into the Ocean’s Eleven of international treaties. The Conservative and Unionist Party has to return to thinking and acting like a Unionist party. Fundamental to this is devising and implementing a Conservative policy on the constitution, something which still does not exist 21 years after Holyrood and the Senedd opened for business.
I have proposed, as have others, a new Act of Union to secure the UK against separatism and prevent nationalist parties (big-N and small-N) in Scotland and Wales from using the institutions and powers of devolution to undermine the Union. There is little appetite at Westminster for these or other meaningful reforms, so what we are working with in both the UK Government and the Official Opposition are holding patterns, strategies designed to slow an inevitable break up of the UK state. There is no appetite, no stomach, for the kind of firm, swift and decisive actions required to safeguard the UK for another generation and beyond.
Devolution as currently arranged does not work. It has empowered those bent on destroying the UK and created a new cosmos of complicity filled with devocrats incentivised to protect their power base even at the expense of the Union devolution was supposed to strengthen. Devolution’s flaws are institutional, not political, and any politician who says it is enough simply to get their party into power is peddling a comforting falsehood, but a falsehood all the same. In Scotland, the orthodox philosophy of devolution — what Henry Hill calls ‘concessionary unionism’ — has meant devolutionists creating overly autonomous institutions, losing control of them to nationalists, responding by giving those institutions more autonomy, then being baffled when nationalists use it to advance full independence.
Douglas Ross has delivered one of the strongest, most pro-Union speeches seen at a Tory conference in some time. He has planted his flag firmly and said: this is who I am, this is what I stand for. What he stands for, in constitutional terms, should be the standard view not only for all Conservatives but for Labour people and Liberal Democrats, too. The Union ought to be a matter of consensus across the main parties at Westminster, as fundamental as support for the Armed Forces, the monarchy and the Commonwealth.
If you don’t begin from an unshakable belief that the existence of your country is a good thing and should continue, by what principle or in what spirit do you intend to govern it? As an overseer of demise and a facilitator for those pursuing that demise? The Union may be behind going into the fifth day but that is a reason to chase harder, not to be a good sport and down your bat before the umpire has even called ‘play’. Douglas Ross's speech is one Boris Johnson should study closely. It showed guts. The Prime Minister could do with showing some too.