Monday 2 November 2020

Red card for Ross


Back in March when the British Government introduced lockdown and Rishi Sunak unveiled his furlough scheme, we were all in it together. But when Boris Johnson wanted to ease the lockdown restrictions in May Nicola Sturgeon and the other devolved leaders decided they wanted to have their own policies.  

When devolution was established in the 1990s no one thought that it might apply to a national emergency. We thought that the Scottish Parliament would have day to day control over hospitals and GPs. We didn’t imagine that the Scottish Parliament would have the power to tell us who we could meet, whether we could work or who we could sleep with. But for good or ill Nicola Sturgeon has interpreted her powers to mean she can differ from the UK Government on the emergency measures introduced because of Covid. But this cannot give her the right to demand money from the Treasury. It is the British Chancellor’s job to decide who gets furloughed and who does not.

In principle it is right that all British citizens are treated equally. But the Scottish Government chose to use the fact that education was devolved to charge English, Welsh and Northern Irish students fees to attend Scottish universities while Scots could study for free. If devolution of education leads to different results for British citizens, then devolution of health may lead to different treatment also.

Sturgeon obviously cannot say that Scotland will remain locked down for the next five years, but Sunak must pay our wages. The choice of locking down is her responsibility but the choice of how this lockdown is funded is reserved to the Chancellor.

I would hope that the Chancellor treats Scots just as well as any other British citizen, but I would also prefer that it was the UK Government that we all elected that decided the emergency matters during the Covid crisis. The reason for this is that only the UK Government can take into account the whole financial situation that Britain faces.

The present situation is untenable. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot expect to make their own decisions about lockdown, but also expect for someone else to pick up the tab. That is power without responsibility.

So long as Sturgeon demands UK money to pay for furlough in Scotland, she must be guided by the Treasury’s understanding of how much it is able to spend. She cannot simply be given a blank cheque.

There is a misunderstanding that the UK Government is ruling England. The truth is that it is ruling the whole of the UK apart from those areas which the devolved administrations control. It is one thing for the UK Government to introduce lockdown, because that decision is backed by the Treasury, it is another thing again for Wales to have a two-week firebreak or Scotland to introduce five tiers, because this isn’t backed by anything. This above all shows the folly of such decisions.

It would be helpful if the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross pointed out that not only is Nicola Sturgeon demanding still more money from the Treasury to fund lockdown in Scotland whenever and wherever she wants to impose it, but she doesn’t intend to pay any of this money back. Mr Ross surely must know that the SNP’s last plan for independence involved it refusing to accept a proportional share of the UK’s national debt. Scotland would pay a token 2.5% of GDP per year while the former UK would pay more than 100% of GDP. Is that fair?

But Mr Ross appears to think that to revive Conservative fortunes in Scotland and to encourage support for Britain above all else he must be nice to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. He also thinks that the Scottish Conservatives must differ as much as possible from the party as a whole. He even thinks Scottish Conservatives must not vote on matters that apply only to England at Westminster. This rather fails to take into account what would happen to Government policy if those few Scottish Conservative MPs happened to make up the balance of power. Would Ross allow Conservative Government policy on health and education to be voted down by Labour and the SNP just to prove a rather odd and somewhat nationalistic point? We’re Scottish Conservatives we don’t vote about England.

Ross is making the same mistake that Ruth Davidson made over Remain. He thinks that the more that he sides with the SNP the more Scots will vote for him. But trying to be the same as other Scottish parties is a terrible strategy. All you end up with is politicians saying the same thing and agreeing with each other.

The success of a party depends on it having a distinct vision and different policies from the others. Davidson and Ross were Remainers, but they forget that 38% of Scots voted for Leave. These voters are represented by nobody in the Scottish Parliament.

Ross goes along with Sturgeon not merely in demanding more money from the Treasury he also agrees with her central argument that Scotland was hard done by in the 2016 EU referendum, because we voted Remain. Sorry Mr Ross, but this is a nationalist argument. The Pro UK argument is that it was a UK vote and it was the UK as a whole that decided the matter.  

He complains about a winner takes all approach, which either means he thinks Scotland should have had a veto, in which case he should join the SNP, or it means that we should have consulted with Nicola Sturgeon and done what she wanted with Brexit, in which case he should still more join the SNP.

There are Scots who are angry about Brexit. Some of them have been flirting with Scottish Nationalism. The task is to win them back to the Pro UK argument. But we are leaving the EU. We may even be leaving with a deal. The task for Mr Ross is to argue how this will benefit Britain and make the SNP’s task of independence still harder. There is a very good argument that in the medium-term Brexit will be financially beneficial to Britain. Why else is the EU scared of us undercutting them? But Ross doesn’t even care to make the argument. He just continues his Remainer sulk.

The Scottish Conservatives made a strategic mistake after the 2016 Referendum. They remained Remainers and lent their support to Sturgeon’s grievance about Scotland voting Remain but being forced to leave the EU against our will. It is the argument of someone who loves the EU more than the UK. It is the argument of someone who is just about to leap into Nicola Sturgeon’s arms.

I fear there isn’t a genuine Conservative bone in any of Scotland’s Conservatives. It’s all rather limp and wet. If Nicola Sturgeon huffs and puffs, she will blow Mr Ross’s party away.

When Mr Ross chose to resign over Dominic Cummings journey to Durham, when Mr Ross himself had driven from Moray to London and back again to get better wi-fi, I worried  whether he would be able to take the fight to Nicola Sturgeon. It seems his method of fighting, if it can be called that, is to agree with her.

The only argument he has is that England gives us lots of money and independence would be costly, which is the same Better Together mindset that nearly lost in 2014. This I’m afraid is weak and rather dim. If the Scottish Conservatives can’t do better than this, they don’t need a new leader, but rather need to disband and start again. At least try to be Conservative otherwise what’s the point.