Last Thursday, working-class voters in England gave a resounding vote of confidence in Boris Johnson and an incumbent Tory government. Just a few miles north, though, here in Scotland, the Scottish Tories barely managed to hold on to their seat total.
The Scottish Conservatives are valiantly trying to portray this as a win, but they’re like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, on the ground with their legs and arms cut off, saying ‘tis but a scratch. (it seems The Holy Grail is replete with go-to-metaphors for Ross and his team).
Let me make something clear: Losing two constituency seats (out of seven) is NOT a success. Almost letting the SNP get a majority is NOT a success. Keeping seats because ordinary people took it upon themselves to tactically vote, in opposition to your campaign message, is NOT a success.
I am constantly in awe of how often the Scottish Tory party manages to infuriate its supporters by ignoring the vote-winning strategies of the UK party. This election campaign was no different. Here’s my account of the dismay, anger and horror they unleashed on us this time…
1. Not deploying Boris and team to boost the benefits of the UK
Like it or not, Nicola Sturgeon is a rock star politician. She’s taken full advantage of the platform and easy treatment other politicians can only dream of: Constant media coverage of every pronouncement, COVID media briefings, and a compliant Scottish media that doesn’t challenge her scandals or her party’s narratives. All backed up by London-based journalists who wouldn’t give the time of day to English Nationalists, but are happy to talk her up as long as they can use her as a tool to bash Boris and Brexit.
A rock star politician like Nicola Sturgeon can’t be brought down by the likes of wee Douglas Ross. Fire is fought with fire; power with power. But Douglas Ross decided, in supreme arrogance, that his puny media presence was enough to cut through to voters.
Desperate not to be seen as a ‘branch office’ by the SNP, Ross and his team made the decision to keep Boris (the vote winner) and other senior Conservatives out of Scotland. In wanting to distance themselves from Westminster, The Scottish Tories distanced themselves from winning.
The truth is that, outside of Ross’s circle of weak-chinned senior Tories, Scottish Tory voters LIKE Boris. They like him because, to them, he’s a winner. He delivered Brexit and he delivered a successful vaccine rollout. But you wouldn’t know that from Ross. Like most senior Scottish Tories, he’s a Remainer, closer to a LibDem than a Tory, so he never mentions Brexit positively, and I can’t recall him talking about the vaccine rollout. And even if he did, it wasn’t his success.
However, it WAS Boris’s success and a UK success to boot, when compared to Europe’s failing rollout. But Ross didn’t let Boris talk about the vaccine, or Rishi Sunak talk about the billions of COVID funds or how the UK funds Scotland’s deficit. He didn’t bring Michael Gove up to talk about upcoming UK projects and jobs that will benefit Scotland.
Imagine, every few days, a new, provocative statement from the UK team, LEADING the media. Instead we had wee Dougie, playing second fiddle to Sturgeon, every time.
2. Not deploying tactical voting
The opposition parties had five years to make a tactical voting plan and failed. Some commentators have said, ‘But Ross offered Labour a deal, and they refused’. So let me say, ‘A deal isn’t a deal until it is made’. I can offer Angelina Jolie a great night out in Glasgow, but until she agrees I’ve got nothing. We should all be especially wary of offers made in public. Delicate negotiations are not done through public pronouncements.
So, in the end there was no pact, not even on the minimum number of seats. Couldn’t the parties have had the mental flexibility to make a one-time agreement on a few seats to break the back of the SNP for good? That would have been ten seats the SNP could have lost. Or at least feared losing.
In the end, the Tories lost Ayr by 170 VOTES! And lost Edinburgh Central (not helped by running a nobody with zero social media presence). Due to split votes, seats like East Lothian; Aberdeen South & Kincardine North; Perthshire South & Kinross-shire; Hamilton, Larkhall & Stonehouse; Aberdeenshire East and Banffshire & Buchan Coast were all lost.
I don’t get the logic that says ‘The SNP will criticise us if we form a pact’. The SNP will criticise you whatever you do. Meanwhile, you’ve won, you’re in power and can get on with fixing the mess they’ve made.
Then to cap it all, the day before the election, Ross had the cheek to boast that Labour voters were tactically voting for the Tories. Not only was that counter productive, it wasn’t even his initiative. Utterly shameless.
Part of the blame for this has to go to Scottish Labour, a party that is so cowed by fear of being called Red Tories that it won’t make a pact with the Tories to win. Sure, some Labour voters will never vote Tory under any circumstances, but enough are persuadable to make a difference in key seats so they can win and get into power, especially if the leadership educated them.
Sarwar’s strategy to woo back soft-Nationalists, based on being an alternative to the SNP’s poor governance, could maybe have worked in better times. But there wasn’t time for that. It’s not enough to be seen as a nice guy. You have to be an effective nice guy.
Instead of winning multiple seats with a pact, Labour almost lost Jackie Baillie’s constituency. A seat that was only won because ordinary Tory voters decided to vote tactically for Labour. Don’t you think Sarwar could acknowledge this and repay the favour sometime?
It could have been worse. Sarwar seemed to want to deliberately antagonise the Tories who were considering tactically voting for him. Unnecessary anti-Tory comments showed an immaturity and inflexibility, where nuance and flexibility would have won the day.
3. Making the election into a referendum
As we all know, Separation is way down the list of voters’ priorities, so why did Ross talk endlessly about it? Even Sturgeon didn’t want to talk about it. She was only forced to talk about it by Alex Salmond nipping at her heels.
Sarwar had the correct idea; talk about ANYTHING ELSE. But Ross could have gone one further he could have talked about ANYTHING ELSE while saying THEY DON’T HAVE THE POWER. The law and public sentiment is quite clear. There can be no referendum. Let’s talk about real issues.
It’s not as though there isn’t material to work with. 14 years of failure (soon to be updated to 15, 16, 17 and 18 years of failure), 200 scandals, an untrustworthy First Minister and a party in civil war. For the love of God, what more do you need?
But did Ross break through on any of this, or JOBS or RECOVERY or ECONOMY? Did he talk about what would happen after the pandemic? Did he get Boris or Sunak or Gove or other heavy hitters to talk about what would happen after the pandemic?
Caught in his own trap, he couldn’t even answer the most basic questions about the constitution: Is this a voluntary Union? (No, because the UK isn’t a union). Or on whether the SNP have a mandate?
Frankly, that was embarrassing. All he needed to say at all times was:
Why are we talking about this? This election is for a devolved Scottish government, whose purpose is to improve the lives of Scots. We will provide XXX number of vaccines, XXX number of jobs and stability.
If Ross had done this, he and Sarwar could have placed the main parties as those talking about the issues people actually care about, while Sturgeon was forced to talk about the referendum by Alex Salmond. Instead Ross did Salmond’s job.
4. Guaranteeing a referendum
But, in a fit of insanity, Ross went beyond setting the Tories up to be the party that would not only stop a referendum that the SNP have no power to hold, but said that if Nationalists got a majority, it would guarantee a referendum. And oh, how close we came. He gambled unnecessarily and we nearly lost.
This instantly angered and demoralised anti-Nationalists, while energising Nationalists, who were now given a target to work to. There were hundreds of tweets like these:
And this from Humza Yousaf:
Many people begged the Tory social media team to take this post down. But they doubled down, claiming that they would stop the SNP holding a wildcat referendum. A wildcat referendum that would be illegal anyway, so you wouldn’t even need to vote Tory to stop it.
Whoever thought this was a good idea should be fired, and if it was you Mr Ross, you should go. The person who did this put the UK on a knife edge completely unnecessarily. I wonder if this policy was talked through with the UK party. If not, why not, and if it was agreed as a strategy, then whoever signed off on it should be fired or step down too.
As it was, through tactical voting, the SNP narrowly missed their majority BY ONE SEAT. A few more seats and we’d now be in the situation where the SNP would be backing up their demands for a referendum with Ross’s promise. You can be guaranteed they’ll use it anyway.
So, Mr Ross, stop enabling Nationalists. All you ever had to say was: even if they get a majority, breaking up the UK is a matter reserved to the UK Government.
5. Weak and insipid marketing
I have seldom seen a marketing campaign for any product that had so little imagination, not to mention coverage. In Glasgow, I saw SNP, Labour, LibDem, Green and All for Unity billboards. I saw ones from The National and from Scottish Business UK. While Scotland Matters put out incredible cartoon billboards, and we were pushing tactical voting and 14 YEARS OF FAILURE billboards, ad vans and even a #ResignSturgeon banner flying over Holyrood, I didn’t see a single Tory billboard. Why was it left to our donors — ordinary people — to do the job that the Tory party wouldn’t do?
Beyond billboards, I didn’t see any social media ads. I didn’t see any single, strong consistent message. The only outdoor media I saw was the crappy A-frame in the ‘guaranteed referendum’ tweet, that said HOW TO STOP INDY and #Peach votes Tory.
Peach votes Tory. Was that the best you could come up with? Do you think so little of the public that you won’t even try to reach out to them with a decent message.
I did see a wrecking ball post on social media. Here’s how it was reported:
There we go again. Note that the message isn’t: ‘Tories gave you a vaccine and will lead the recovery’. It’s ‘stop their referendum’. The SNP have no power to call a referendum. Stop enabling them.
A special mention must be made for Scottish Labour’s ‘Vote for a better opposition’ campaign. Sure, vote for us to get second place! No thanks, says the man in the street, I’d rather vote for a winner.
Marketing is about creating a winning image. Telling people you’re going to be second is obviously a losing proposition. Vote for us, we’re not as good as the other guys. Instead you should be telling people that you’re the winner. Fake it ‘til you make it.
Taken all together, these points can be condensed into a single theme: The opposition, and in particular, the Scottish Tories, are always fighting the SNP on the SNP’s terms:
- They call you a branch office: So you don’t deploy UK resources. In fact, you criticise the UK party. They win.
- They call Boris bad. They make you ashamed of him. You don’t deploy him. Your base is demoralised. You don’t get on the TV. They win.
- They want a referendum, so you talk about that, instead of 14 years of failure. They win.
- They’ll criticise you if you make a pact. So you don’t make a pact. They win.
- They criticise you if you ‘talk down Scotland’. So you talk about Four Nations and The Union. They win.
- They call it ‘independence’. But it’s actually ‘separation’ and ‘breaking up the UK’. Yet, you still use their words. You call it ‘independence’. They win.
The pattern is clear. They’re so scared of SNP criticism, they keep doing the things the SNP want them to do, in the language the SNP want them to use. That’s not leadership, it’s capitulation.
Nothing will change until tthe Scottish Tory Party changes the narrative; until they realise that it has the moral, political, legal, cultural and media power to dictate terms to a minority of separatists, not the other way around.
You can never win when you play by Separatist rules. Wake up and start winning and if you can’t, disband, because the Black Knights of the Scottish Tories are not just scratched. they’re bleeding out.
Mark Devlin is the publisher of The Majority.