The Scottish leader of the Conservative party on Monday issued a bold call for sweeping change to the way the UK government deals with Scotland, including an arbitration system to resolve disputes and formal representation in the House of Lords.
In a speech to the Policy Exchange think-tank in London, Douglas Ross, who became Scottish Tory leader in August, was also sharply critical of the UK Conservative government’s “winner takes all” handling of Brexit and its treatment of the devolved nations during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Ross’s comments were the broadest challenge yet to UK Tory policy by a Scottish Conservative leader and highlight deep concern within the unionist party over polls this year that suggest for the first time a sustained majority of voters in Scotland would back independence.
Mr Ross aims to distance himself and Scottish Conservatives from the party’s Westminster leadership — particularly prime minister Boris Johnson, who is deeply unpopular in Scotland.
By delivering a lightly coded critique of Mr Johnson on policy and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove on engagement with the devolved administrations, Mr Ross is seeking to make his reputation as an independent pro-union voice.
A senior Scottish Tory figure said it was Mr Ross’s job to hold the Johnson government to account on the union. “Their feet have to be held to the fire because they’re making a mess of it on their own,” the individual said.
In calling for reform of the Lords, a new mechanism for relations between Westminster and the UK’s devolved governments, and even for a role for Edinburgh in immigration policy and trade negotiations, Mr Ross made clear that tinkering with policy would not stem the independence tide.
And in remarks that will upset many Tory Brexit supporters, he said the handling of the UK’s departure from the EU had alienated some among the 55 per cent of voters in Scotland who rejected independence in the 2014 referendum.
“We failed to bring our country back together again after the [Brexit] vote,” Mr Ross said. “We did not build a consensus around delivering Brexit. Instead there has been a ‘winner takes it all’ approach,” he added in what may be seen as a reference to those in the party who favour the sort of hard Brexit deal Mr Johnson is hoping to secure with Brussels.
The new Scottish Tory leader, a former dairyman who works part-time as a senior football linesman, took aim at Westminster’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Devolved administrations, responsible for managing the virus in their nations, have been forced to look for detail on [UK government] announcements from publicly available press releases,” Mr Ross said.
The Scottish public blamed Westminster rather than Edinburgh for friction between the two, so a formal framework should be created to govern interactions between them, with regular engagement and “a clear arbitration process” to manage disagreements, Mr Ross said.
Mr Johnson’s government has so far shown no appetite for giving Edinburgh more influence or accepting curbs on its own power.
But another senior Conservative figure said it was a reflection of devolution that different parts of the Tory party would take different approaches, adding: “The penny may be dropping in London that Scottish Conservatives stand up for Scotland.”
Mr Ross also called for reform of the House of Lords, to give “formal representation” for UK nations and regions in the UK parliament’s second chamber. “It is ridiculous that the Church of England and hereditary peers are better represented in the UK legislative process than the Scottish government,” he said.
Many Conservatives will fear that increasing the influence of the SNP government in Edinburgh could help it to stymie UK policies, but Mr Ross made clear that allowing different approaches was key to making devolution work.
In a direct challenge to the UK government’s insistence that it will not devolve any aspect of immigration policy to Scotland, Mr Ross said the devolved administrations were “well-placed” to ensure that the system was flexible enough to meet the needs of different parts of the country.
And he called for the Scottish government and other devolved administrations to be given a role in post-Brexit trade negotiations. “They will have to implement trade deals so should have a role in producing their terms,” Mr Ross said.
But Mr Ross made no mention in his speech of his support for the internal market bill, a piece of legislation that the government says is essential to preserving economic exchanges but which is fiercely opposed by Edinburgh and Cardiff and which constitutional experts say gives Westminster control over a number of devolved policy areas.
While many Tory opponents of Scottish independence have mainly focused on improving presentation of what they believe are the manifest benefits of remaining in the union, Mr Ross made clear the UK had to change to win back doubters.
The “single most important thing” that the UK government could do to strengthen the union would be to restate its commitment to the “shared values of openness and inclusion”, he said.
John Lamont, a Scottish Tory MP and early supporter of Mr Ross’s leadership bid, said his more combative public approach was “a recognition of the challenges we’re currently facing in Scotland”.
“He is drawing attention to the point that it’s now or never in terms of the union,” Mr Lamont said. “If the government wants to continue being the government for the UK as one country, it has to wake up to that challenge.”