The launch of a new political party can be explosive. When viewed with hindsight, such events can be seen to have defined a political era. The 1981 launch of the SDP, for example, represents a time when the UK electorate sought a halfway house between merciless Thatcherite market reform and stubborn, electorally toxic hard-left Labour ideology.
That said, the launch this week of Reform UK Scotland is unlikely to take up more than a couple of lines in the annals of Scotland’s political history. Its leader, former Conservative MSP for the South Scotland region Michelle Ballantyne, is altogether more interesting than her new party.
When appointed Social Security spokesperson by Ruth Davidson, Ballantyne was widely criticised for speaking out on the issue of jobless parents’ right to raise children, saying:
People on benefit cannot have as many children as they like while people who work and pay their way and don’t claim benefits have to make decisions about the number of children they can have.
When Davidson stepped down, Ballantyne contested the Scottish Conservative party leadership election in 2020, losing to Jackson Carlaw, who stood her down from his shadow team.
In January last year, she criticised Carlaw’s failure to win more seats in the 2019 General Election:
We had the right candidates but our party in Scotland lacked vision and ambition.
In all the time that she’s been in the shadow cabinet, Michelle is the only member of it never to have brought forward a single policy proposal or to table a single policy paper. I find that curious.
When Carlaw stepped down, she railed against what she saw as the coronation of of Douglas Ross, offering her conditional support:
I have spoken with key people (not MSPs!) about what is happening and I am now content to back Douglas. This is on the understanding that we will be a centre right Conservative, Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti-nat party.
But after Ross claimed that Brexit was ‘damaging’ and directed his MSPs to support SNP lockdowns (only Ballantine and Oliver Mundell voted against), it seems Ms Ballantyne had had enough and stood down from the party, saying that Scottish Conservatives were “no longer a good fit”.
Fast forward seven weeks, and Ms Ballantyne is back in the limelight at the (regional) helm of her new party. A party, we are told by Michelle, that is “simply the best choice for the people of these islands”. One stated Reform UK policy is a mandate to argue against lockdowns, which is unlikely to be uppermost in voters’ minds, as the daily Covid-19 death toll exceeds 1,500.
Ill-considered policies aside, there are three reasons why the creation of Reform UK Scotland is unlikely to see panic set in at Bute House any time soon.
Firstly, swapping parties is rarely a precursor to electoral success. The plain fact is, UK voters are habitually suspicious of defectors. When a candidate is elected to sit in Parliament for a political party, voters tend to take a rather dim view when their chosen representative cannot suppress the urge to find a better fitting collective.
Secondly, the leadership. The even more plain fact is Nigel Farage does not, and never will, resonate with Scottish voters. While Ms Ballantyne is unlikely to be forced by an angry mob to seek refuge in a Dumfries coffee house, her new boss will continue to be unwelcome. Mr Farage has undoubted appeal to a certain demographic. The bad news for the “architect of Brexit” is that demographic doesn’t break cover north of Ecclefechan.
Thirdly, as we have seen this week, branch offices of London-based political parties are not popular in Scotland. When Richard Leonard’s replacement is announced, the Scottish Labour and Conservative parties will both have appointed three new leaders during this Holyrood term. Again, those pesky Scottish voters do not appreciate the supposed leaders of their political parties taking their cues from UK party bosses. Invariably, these “regional office” leadership roles are not made to last.
Ruth Davidson found the prospect of working for Boris Johnson unpalatable and quit. Jackson Carlaw was simply too decent to counter Nicola Sturgeon’s sneers. Douglas Ross is talented but he seems happiest when running the line at an SPL football match. And the question has yet to be asked to which the answer was Richard Leonard. Can Michelle Ballantyne break the cycle and deliver Scottish votes by the barrowload to Nigel Farage? Don’t put next month’s furlough paycheck on it.
An accusation that is sometimes, rather unkindly, levelled at Scotland, is that there is something of a limited talent pool. The same names and faces keep appearing, is the cry. The Scottish political scene is no different. The Holyrood opposition parties cannot muster up a single MSP, the outgoing Ms Davidson notwithstanding, to land a meaningful blow on the most dismal administration in its short and undistinguished history.
The SNP’s record in office is unquestionably deplorable. New depths of sheer incompetence are plumbed every day by Scotland’s party of government, which is meanwhile tearing itself apart with factional disputes, a hamstrung inquiry into the botched Salmond sexual misconduct investigation and the inability to take one meaningful step closer to the delivery of a second referendum.
Despite this lamentable list of SNP failures, Scotland lacks a credible Holyrood Opposition. Every day, the same faces plod wearily through their interminable rituals as they await the blessed relief of electoral defeat in May. The public has seen enough. Change must come.
Scottish politics desperately needs an infusion of new blood. It doesn’t, however, need Nigel Farage in this year’s costume and it doesn’t need Reform UK Scotland. Neither does Michelle Ballantyne.
David Griffiths is the Constitution spokesperson and lead candidate for West Scotland, for Alliance For Unity. Follow him @Erudite4Unity
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