Scottish opinion polling seems to hold little cheer for those who favour holding together this barely united kingdom. Despite a torrid few months for Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP is still riding high, apparently invincible in its quest for another majority government in 2021 to match that of 2011. Another independence referendum is the boldly asserted implication of such a result.
So how has the under-fire First Minister not just survived but seemingly thrived up to this point? One reason is that her primary opposition, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, has chosen almost exclusively to oppose her on her safest and surest ground. Its leader Douglas Ross, and his temporary representative on Earth Ruth Davidson, ask precisely the questions Sturgeon wants to answer and very few of the ones she doesn’t.
Enter Anas Sarwar, newly elected leader of Scottish Labour and already breathing life into its erstwhile corpse through sharp wit and smart strategy. By consistently focusing on thought-through plans for a national recovery following the pandemic, and referring to constitutional matters merely as ‘the arguments of the past’, he has set out a path far more likely to offer a serious challenge to the SNP’s 14-year hegemony than the Tory dead-end of simply stopping a second referendum. People need to know what happens after that. The Scottish Tories appear to have no answer.
The difference between the two approaches was summed up by former Better Together chief Blair McDougall in his excellent ‘Notes on Nationalism’ Substack. He explained that Sarwar wants to turn people away from nationalism, while Douglas Ross just wants to fight nationalists. In other words Sarwar wants to break what has been called the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics, while Ross simply wants to monopolise the Unionist side in it.
Despite the top-line polling, Sarwar’s efforts do seem to be quietly and gradually bearing fruit. For a man who only became leader six weeks ago he has delivered an almost miraculous turnaround in levels of trust in both the Scottish Labour Party and its leadership. In the latest Ipsos-MORI Scotland poll he has a net 26 per cent satisfaction rating, compared to his predecessor’s net -25 at the end of last year, and Douglas Ross’s current -23. The same poll also showed marked improvements in levels of trust in Labour in key policy areas like the economy, health and education. Of course the challenge is that he has only four more weeks before the election to turn this positive sentiment into votes. It remains a tall order.
But Sarwar is by far the better champion for Unionists to rally behind than Ross, for a range of reasons beyond smarter political positioning. Primary among them is Ross’s Boris problem. The Prime Minister is even more unpopular in Scotland than the Scottish Tory leader, and no effective mechanism has been found to put clear blue water between them in time for this election. That matters because it makes Ross the apologist for the UK Government in Scotland, and easily defuses any criticisms he might make of Sturgeon’s pandemic performance or her myriad failings on policy.
It also undermines the fear factor in the Conservative leaflets coming through our doors, still with Ruth Davidson’s face on them, by the way, because Douglas can read his personal polling too. These missives tell us we have to vote Tory to stop an SNP majority, otherwise we’ll face a second referendum. But hang on, hasn’t Boris ruled out allowing a second independence vote, even if the SNP get a majority? To make their case the Scottish Tories ultimately have to say that you can’t trust the Tory Prime Minister. That seems a task which would be far less difficult for Sarwar.
Ross’s flat-footedness is a liability for the pro-UK cause. His vote of no confidence stunt ended up handing Sturgeon a get-out-of-jail-free card after the Salmond fiasco, and his thinly disguised attempt to ambush the Labour leadership contenders with a bad faith offer of electoral collaboration didn’t fool many people. Bottom line: Douglas Ross is not Ruth Davidson, however often he holds her up as a human shield.
The pro-UK cause in Scotland has a new, smart, young champion. Anas Sarwar led Scottish Labour’s campaign for a No vote in 2014. His pro-Union credentials are unchallengeable. He’s free to be as critical as he likes about Boris Johnson, thereby reinforcing that there’s a big difference between supporting the Union and supporting the current UK Government. He’s poised to turn the Scottish Labour Party back into a credible force, and he has the nous to know that you don’t defeat nationalism by playing on its terms.
This election isn’t a binary choice about whether or not we have a second independence referendum, however much the SNP and the Tories want to paint it as such. But for those whose primary concern is to break the nationalist hegemony in Scottish politics and move Scotland on from endless constitutional wrangling to a settled place in our United Kingdom, it’s becoming clearer by the day that the best bet is a vote for Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour.