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.