Sanjoy Sen: Scottish nationalists’ new hardline stance on oil has presented the Conservatives with something of an open goal

10 Dec

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.

“It’s Scotland’s Oil” was the rallying cry that put the SNP on the political map in the 1970s. And ahead of the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign envisioned healthy offshore revenues feeding an ‘oil fund’ in an independent Scottish economy. Nicola Sturgeon even called on David Cameron to cut taxes to support the sector following a global price slump.

How things change. After 50 years of production, North Sea output is predictably in terminal decline (barely a third of the 1999 peak) with occasional new discoveries out-weighed by ageing fields dropping off their perch. But, more surprisingly, the SNP are no longer interested. Under pressure at COP26, Sturgeon finally relented, declaring her opposition to Cambo (a major development west of the Shetland Islands), casting doubt over the future over the entire sector.

In the ensuing media storm, Shell (a 30 per cent Cambo partner) announced its exit. Whilst environmentalists are naturally delighted, others fret over the consequences of an early end to North Sea oil. Industry and trades unions have warned of the impact on current jobs – and on the ability of businesses and workers to achieve the ‘just transition’ to clean energy opportunities. Even the SNP faithful are aghast, warning that the economic fallout could irreparably damage the independence campaign. A re-think appears unlikely, however, with Sturgeon now locked into a power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens.

But whilst the nationalists may have backed themselves into a corner, there’s no need for the Conservatives to do likewise. And there are sound reasons for doing so: key political, economic and environmental considerations all overlap.

What are the political implications?

Contrary to what we often hear, not everyone is fully signed up to the Thunbergian agenda. Experience from Cumbria shows that local support for new nuclear power and even coal mining can be strong as they create employment in areas where alternatives can be limited. Teesside battled in vain to save its steelworks whilst Coventry’s City of Culture celebrations paid tribute to its lost car industry. And Aberdeen remains proud of its status as the oil capital of Europe. Backing traditional industries is very far from the electoral liability that strategists fear.

With offshore oil and gas reserved to Westminster, the North Sea Transition Deal was signed earlier this year to support 40,000 (mostly Scottish) jobs. Sticking to the plan to safeguard production whilst supporting the shift to new opportunities now gives Scottish voters (especially around Aberdeen) a solid reason to get behind the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie is already at odds with his SNP partners over further extraction and has stoked controversy amongst voters with his “hard right” depiction of oil supporters. Unionists should not be slow to capitalise: any split in nationalist support impacts the case for indyref2.

Strengthening energy economics

Early cessation of production brings forward offshore decommissioning activities, a headache for the Treasury which is on the hook for some £24 billion in tax relief. And, needless to say, writing big out cheques to big oil is a PR nightmare for a government committed to net zero. Extending production defers taxpayer costs and buys time for the UK decommissioning supply chain to prepare. It could also see certain liabilities converted into assets if technology developments allow pipelines and platforms to be re-purposed for carbon dioxide storagewindfarm support and hydrogen production.

More significantly, with so much of the discussion framed around the environment, energy security has received scant attention. And past decisions are now back to haunt us, especially the unworkable price cap in combination with the closure of offshore gas storage. (If it’s any consolation, things seem even worse in Europe with ever-growing reliance on Russia.) Until we establish viable alternatives, continued North Sea production reduces our import requirements – and limits our exposure to global instability.

Tackling environmental concerns

And find alternatives we must: we will never be self-sufficient in oil and gas again. So if we’re going to extend domestic production, let’s use the time it buys us wisely. Offshore wind power generation is increasing at pace but to harness its fluctuating output, we need to take big steps in energy storage. This could be via hydrogen which is deployable across electricity, heating and transportation sectors.

Or it could be in grid technology, harnessing the ever-growing combined battery capacity of electric vehicles. (EVs clearly have some way to go but recent progress has been swift and now account for 10 per cent of UK new car sales.) Nuclear, both large-scale and small modular, also needs to be accelerated – sadly, none of these opportunities will be coming to Scotland due to the SNP’s continued opposition.

In the meantime, shutting down our own fields doesn’t reduce emissions. Not unless we intend to sit at home in the dark in order to meet our climate commitments. In fact, shipping in refrigerated cargoes of liquefied natural gas from around the world is far more energy-intensive than pipelining our own supplies from the North Sea. And the Transition Deal backs further improvements by the electrification of UK platforms via new offshore windfarms and subsea interconnector cables, an increasingly common feature in the Norwegian sector.

A month ago, the UK government was in the bad books of the Scottish offshore sector, backing two English carbon-capture developments (Merseyside, Humber-Tees) ahead of the much-fancied Aberdeenshire Acorn project. Since then, the nationalists’ new hardline stance on oil has presented the Conservatives with something of an open goal. If we hold our nerve and back the North Sea, it might still help the UK in its present energy crisis whilst also tackling long-term emissions. Who knows, it might even help preserve the Union.

Dave Dempsey: What can Scottish Conservative councillors look forward to in May’s local elections?

25 Sep

Cllr Dave Dempsey is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Fife Council.

Next May, Scotland re-elects its local councillors. As befits the homogenous Scottish public sector, all 1219 councillors in all 32 councils will be elected on the same day, using the same Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, with three or four from most multi-member wards. If the last couple of elections are anything to go by, a third of the new intake will be genuinely new rather than returning.

In the far north, there’s a tradition of Independents. “Council controlled by Independents” is an intriguing concept for those of us from party-dominated areas but it clearly works for them. However, come south into the central belt where the bulk of the population lives and you find something readily recognisable to those south of the border. With one exception …

Everything in Scottish politics is viewed through the lens of union v separation. Local government is no exception, even though the relevance at local level is hard to see. Discount a smattering of Greens in the biggest cities and Lib Dems in a few long-established redoubts and you have the Labour v Conservative choice available almost everywhere, plus the SNP. Last time, in 2017, the results were SNP 431 seats, Conservative 276 and Labour 262 – from roughly 32 per cent, 25 per cent, and 20 per cent of the vote.

STV, like most proportional systems, makes majority rule less likely. Of the 29 councils not controlled by Independents, 6 have minority SNP, and 6 have minority Labour administrations. It’s reasonable to assume that each of those involves an “arrangement”. The others are coalitions but it’s notable that there are no coalitions involving Conservative and SNP and none involving Conservative and Labour. Unless …

Unless you count Aberdeen City, where Labour formed a grouping with the Conservatives in 2017, a grouping that continues still. Labour rewarded its councillors by immediately suspending them. They remain suspended. When Anas Sarwar took over as Scottish Labour leader earlier this year, there were noises about reinstatement but no action so far.

So much for context and background. What can Scottish Conservative councillors look forward to after next May? We should make some gains as the gloss continues to wear off the Sturgeon government. Her authoritarian approach played well on the way into the pandemic but it’s looking less impressive as she tries to navigate the way out. In particular, parts of the media that were previously admiring almost to the point of sycophancy are turning critical, especially round problems with ambulances and the Scottish NHS more generally.

For some time, council by-elections have consistently returned good and improving Conservative votes all across Scotland. The abyss that many predicted from Boris, Brexit, and the departure of Ruth Davidson has not materialised. Instead, we’ve seen little more than a shallow dip and there’s good reason to think we’re mostly through it.

In areas, mainly the more rural, where the Scottish Conservatives lead council coalitions, we can hope for some gains and possibly even the odd outright control. Elsewhere, in the cities or the areas around about, formerly dominated by mining or heavy industry, we have a problem. These are the former Labour fiefdoms, where the vote was traditionally weighed rather than counted. Much of that vote has moved elsewhere. The SNP has done well from that but the Conservative vote has risen markedly in recent years as the voters discovered that they could vote for us without the sky falling in. It could rise higher next year to bring us close to Labour in terms of electoral success. But what might that get us?

A Conservative/SNP coalition is close to unimaginable. The ideological gulf over the fundamental question is huge. The SNP membership sees the UK Conservative Government as the final barrier to Indyref2, just as it sees an Indyref2 win as inevitable. In reality, it’s as inevitable as an Indyref1 win was – but that doesn’t worry the faithful. For them, separation is the answer and the question is whatever you want it to be. Their supporters don’t seem to notice that an SNP council is a waste of space because it has no particular policy platform at local level but waits instead for Holyrood HQ to tell it what to do (and think).

A Conservative/Labour coalition is more credible but it waits for two decisions from Labour. The first is to decide that they want to work with us. We’ll know more about that if they ever resolve the Aberdeen City question and either reinstate or expel their councillors there.

The second decision is whether Scottish Labour really is a truly unionist party. In 2014, there were three campaigns in Scotland. Yes campaigned for separation; Better Together campaigned for the Union; United with Labour campaigned for the Labour Party. Labour activists would turn out for BT and UwL on alternate days.

In the “good old days”, the UwL line made sense. Labour seen by many as the local answer to General Motors: what was good for Labour was good for Scotland. That was never true but the myth was maintained for decades. Scots are very conservative. Once they get a notion, it sticks, which explains why the SNP has stayed in power for so long.

The challenge for the Scottish Conservative & Unionist party is to maximise the benefit from the next big shift, ideally starting next May.

Profile: Michael Gove – denied a great office of state once again. But given work on which Johnson’s future now depends.

16 Sep

Part of the charm of Michael Gove is that one never quite knows what he is going to do next. He was not expected to become, as we learned yesterday afternoon, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

At first glance, this looks like a disappointment. He has not been appointed to one of the great offices of state, either the Home Office, for which he lobbied hard, or the Foreign Office.

At second glance, he has been handed a portfolio where he will have more scope for creative reform than would have been the case in either of those departments.

The perilous issue of planning, imbued with decisions taken in the late 1940s and tensions between the haves and the have-nots, falls to him to resolve.

Are the Conservatives the party of One Nation, or just of the propertied classes, who believe that aspects of the status quo which favour them must be preserved?

This question of national unity runs through other aspects of his brief, mentioned specifically in the notice of his appointment:

“He takes on cross-Government responsibility for levelling up. He retains ministerial responsibility for the Union and elections.”

One of the dangers of the reshuffle was that responsibility for the Union would be forgotten or downplayed. It has not been: it remains in the hands of a Scot who is a passionate and knowledgeable Unionist.

Gove understands the paradox, recently expounded on these pages by Paul Goodman, that the Union depends on making a success of localism.

So does levelling up: it cannot become a synonym for the tepid egalitarianism with which after the Second World War an over-mighty centre sought to justify its power.

Local prosperity, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, cannot be attained by pulling levers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.

Mayors can convene local leaders and enlist local energies in a way that ministers cannot. Westminster and the rest have long tried to do far too much, and have undermined local pride and initiative.

Levelling up must not mean imposing uniformity from Whitehall, as so often happened after 1945, with the great industries of the United Kingdom, and its great towns and cities, subjected to the dead hand of central control.

The United Kingdom will flourish best when its constituent parts are free, and no minister is more likely to rejoice in freedom, and in its corollary, variety, than Gove.

Consider this striking passage:

“An exotic background has never been a barrier to success in the Tory Party. Although it is supposedly the party of patriots, and of the family, the leaders it has selected include a Jew, a bachelor, a woman, a Canadian, an American and a clutch of unsuitable Scots.

“Of its historic hierarchy of influences and great names, Burke was in origin an Irish Whig, Disraeli a Jewish adventurer, Churchill half-American and wholly promiscuous in his party allegiance, Bonar Law and Macmillan were both of colonial stock, Heath was the unmarried son of a Broadstairs builder, Thatcher a grocer’s daughter, and John Major the son of a circus trapeze artist who faced financial ruin, and whose forebears lived in America. They may all have had hearts of oak but none was a prototypical John Bull.”

These paragraphs are taken from Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right, published in 1995 and written by Gove.

Several points at once emerge. One detects in the as yet obscure young author – he was 28, and working as a reporter on the Today programme – a certain impudent brio; a delight in the knowledge that improbable outsiders have often risen to the leadership of the Tory Party; and a willingness to take the risk of backing, in Michael Portillo, what turned out to be the wrong horse.

Not that it was by any means clear in 1995, or for many years afterwards, who was the right horse, let alone the Right horse.

Gove himself ran, in the Conservative leadership elections of 2016 and 2019, as one of the Right horses, and on both occasions finished third.

The term “obscure” had long since ceased to apply. The nation has recently rejoiced to see some grainy footage of him dancing in an Aberdeen night club.

He has served longer in the Cabinet than any other minister, and since the summer of 2019 has been responsible, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, for a bewildering range of important tasks.

Whenever a tricky problem was in the news, Gove was as likely as not to be asked to tackle it. On Tuesday of this week, he was put in charge of the task force charged with sorting out problems in the supply chain.

An old friend says of him:

“He is now a true man of affairs – a man of business, more than ideology. He is now unfazeable – there is nothing anyone in the blob can do to faze him. He is wiser, but also sadder.”

No parliamentarian has a more abundant gift for raising Tory spirits. His winding-up speech on 19th January 2019, delivered at a low point in the fortunes of the Theresa May government, still provokes a kind of incredulous laughter at the sheer rudeness, and accuracy, of the ridicule he poured on Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

Gove put fresh heart into despondent Tory footsoldiers by showing them that despite the disconcerting processes of modernisation, despite every concession made by their party to the spirit of the age, an old-fashioned Oxford Union speech still has its place in the Tory armoury.

A ministerial colleague says of him:

“He is very brilliant, kind, thoughtful and intelligent – one of the most amusing people in politics, and one of the politest. From what I’ve been saying, you’d think he was a saint. The flaw is that he is still at heart a student politician – he loves the mechanisms of power, which stops him being able to do the great things he might do.”

During the Conservative leadership election of 2016, Gove knifed Boris Johnson: an act which in a student election might have enabled the assassin to seize the crown, but which in the glare of national publicity looked unforgiveable.

And yet he was soon forgiven; was brought back by May as Environment Secretary to strengthen the Government after the debacle of the 2017 general election; and has been treated by Johnson with magnanimity.

David Cameron could not find it in himself, when he published his memoirs, to be magnanimous about Gove’s decision to back the Leave side in the EU Referendum:

“One quality shone through, disloyalty. Disloyalty to me and, later, disloyalty to Boris.”

A friend of Gove says:

“Cameron treated him more harshly than Boris Johnson. There was a class element – Michael owes so much to us, we made him. But they didn’t make him. He’s a bloody talented bloke. And it’s a myth that he lied to Cameron. Michael always was a Brexiteer. He didn’t fess up because he knew it would be an unbearable clash.”

Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, from whom recently to his sorrow he has parted, had become good friends of David and Samantha Cameron.

Yet in many ways, Gove has more in common with Johnson. Both of them delight in using humour to subversive effect, and both have a gift for spotting and encouraging talented people.

They like being surrounded by very clever advisers, and have known each other for a long time. Dominic Cummings was Gove’s accomplice long before he came to work for Johnson, and the same is true of such figures as Simone Finn and Henry Newman, still at the heart of the Downing Street machine.

Gove was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, taken into care, and adopted at the age of four months by Ernest and Christine Gove. They sent him to Robert Gordon’s College, where he blossomed into an accomplished debater, and from which he won a place to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

He at once recognised the brilliance of Johnson, three years older than him, and backed him to become President of the Oxford Union. Gove went on to win that distinction himself, and proceeded to make his way in journalism, ascending to a high level on The Times and winning the esteem of Rupert Murdoch.

In 2005, he entered the Commons as MP for Surrey Heath and a member of the gilded Notting Hill set, clustered round the new leader of the party, David Cameron.

He became shadow Minister for Housing, and soon afterward shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the somewhat authoritarian title conferred by Gordon Brown on Ed Balls.

Gove was now senior to Johnson, who had entered the Commons in 2001, but had suffered various disasters at the end of 2004, realised he was going to get nowhere much at Westminster as long as Cameron was leader, and went off to run for Mayor of London.

Cameron protected Gove during the expenses scandal of 2009 (when Gove was found to have ordered a number of expensive items from a shop owned by the Tory leader’s mother in law), and after the election victory of 2010 made him Education Secretary.

In that post Gove won his spurs by taking on and defeating the educational Establishment, but by 2014 he had become so unpopular with teachers that Cameron moved him to the post of Chief Whip.

After the Conservative victory of 2015 Gove was appointed Justice Secretary, a role in which he won golden opinions. The following year he broke with Cameron by backing Vote Leave, a decision which paved the way for Johnson to come out as a Leaver.

Perhaps someone will one day write a joint biography of these two statesmen. For the success of Johnson’s domestic agenda, his ability to demonstrate progress in the fields of housing, levelling up and defending the Union, now depends to a great extent on Gove.

Laura Sandys: The six key shifts we need for a fairer society and greener future

15 Jul

Laura Sandys is a former Conservative MP, co-chair of the cross-party IPPR Environmental Justice Commission and chair of both the Energy Digitalisation Taskforce and the Food Foundation.

The UK has been at the forefront of most recent industrial and economic system changes from the spinning jenny through railways to a very vibrant tech sector. In climate policies under all governments we have continued this tradition of leading on the challenges and opportunities for a climate-safe and prosperous future. 

However, in the past, we have gone about “transforming” our economies without considering the long-term impacts and sustained damage for parts of our country – geographically, socially and to communities. For climate change transformation we can and must do things differently – and deliver on other goals also crucial to the success of the Conservative government. 

The IPPR Environmental Justice Commission, of which I am co-chair, today sets out a plan for a transition to a fairer, greener economy, that is full of opportunity – combining climate action and nature regeneration with fairness and levelling up – and in many instances “pushing on”. 

There are plenty of opportunities at the heart of the new climate-safe, nature-rich, future-fit economy and society that we propose. By moving fast we will mitigate some of the cost of extreme climate change that will impact our economy and community, with profound implications for life as we know it.

In addition, the economic gains should place the UK at the forefront of new business sectors, with SMEs delivering local and then exported technologies, new jobs across the country in future-facing companies and roles that will be sustainable for decades. Meanwhile, healthier diets, better air, clean travel, lower energy bills and greater self generation of energy will deliver tangible dividends to ordinary families.

However we all recognise that to transition to a more ecologically-balanced tomorrow, investment will be required; and, as with all change, there will be winners and losers. 

This challenge of maximising opportunities while supporting those most affected is the focus of our report. This cannot be a transformation that makes life worse for those already “left behind” – or create a new generation of discarded communities. Let us be very aware that citizens have a veto on Net Zero, so that “how” we implement the necessary measures is as important as “what” we develop.

So we asked communities that might lose out how to ensure we create the right “bridges” to where we all need to be tomorrow. We asked the people in Thurrock, with its large shipping and haulage economy; South Wales, dominated by intensive energy sectors and disconnected rural communities; Tees Valley and County Durham, with chemicals and gas industries; and Aberdeen, with its economy rooted in North Sea oil and gas: what did they think we need to do?  

As always, local people who see policy in terms of real life impacts not Whitehall spreadsheets had much to tell us. They were clear we needed to go faster and deeper – surprising, as their communities are among those most invested in the current fossil fuel economy.   

Their views are reflected in this report, and they proposed six key shifts in policy making. 

First, from a mindset of doom and gloom to one of optimism and opportunities. The benefits of ambitious action are substantial, from the creation of decent jobs to lower energy bills and public health benefits, to burgeoning wildlife and a healthier planet.  

The commission proposes a “people’s dividend”: direct green dividend payments to the public from revenue raised from carbon pricing. A similar scheme redirecting carbon taxation has been successful in Canada and elsewhere, building greater acceptance of carbon measures.

Second, fairness must be a foundation not an afterthought. The impact of the French “gilets jaunes” shows why delivering the transition fairly is crucial to securing it, by building enduring public support.

We have the capacity to mitigate changes and create bridges for those impacted. The commission proposes a “fairness lock” on every climate policy, to ensure this principle is at the heart of everything we do. 

Third, we heard clearly that the public must be part of this transition, not simply have it “done to” them. This matters most now we’re moving beyond decarbonising our energy grid – largely unnoticed by many – to a changes that will touch on people’s everyday lives. This stage will affect how we heat our homes and get around, what we eat and, for many, the jobs we do.

The commission proposes a people-first approach, providing “one stop shops” for support, information and guidance. We also call for the the public to have a clear role in creating plans – including through permanent, national and local citizens’ climate and nature assemblies.

Fourth, move away from “Whitehall knows best”, recognising that one size does not fit all. Our jurors proposed smart solutions, specific to their areas. Policies must be designed to be locally tailored, with government passing powers and money down to local authorities and communities, to achieve better and fairer outcomes. This will deliver more ambition, policy innovation and popular support.

Fifth, we need a coordinated whole-economy and all-society approach rejecting today’s silos. Government must work closely with great British businesses large and small, trade unions and workers, and civil society. New, overarching net-zero and nature-compliant rules must shape government spending and policy decisions – supported through tax incentives, small business loans and regulation.

Sixth, conserving nature has always been at the heart of my Conservatism. But even I was struck by the value our jurors placed on this as they proposed that nature be put on the same footing as climate.

We call for the creation of a Nature Recovery Committee, with legally binding targets for the environment, and a new National Nature Service – that some jurors suggested be called “The Attenborough Service”.

Our report has involved massive effort by many people, but that’s what is needed to deliver the huge systemic and societal change we need. An exciting change, an essential path but one that can deliver both deeper fairness and tackle the biggest challenges of our time – the climate crisis, and the need for restoration of our nature.

Interview with Douglas Ross: Sturgeon is not in the clear, and is part of a “conspiracy against getting out the truth”

24 Mar

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin.” So says Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the start of this interview.

He goes on to condemn “the conspiracy against getting out the truth” which runs through the Sturgeon-Salmond feud, with the SNP Government promoting “a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability”.

Ross discusses how the Scottish Nationalists can be beaten in the forthcoming Holyrood elections, the need for the Union to be defended “as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border”, and the case for devolution from Holyrood to local councils.

He says he is looking forward to campaigning with Boris Johnson in the Holyrood elections, but points out that contrary to the Nationalists’ propaganda, he, not Johnson, is the Conservative leader in Scotland.

ConHome: “James Hamilton has cleared the First Minister of breaking the ministerial code, but the Salmond Inquiry Committee says its work was severely hindered by the Scottish Government’s reluctance to produce key documents. What’s your reaction to these verdicts?”

Ross: “James Hamilton has expressed frustration that redacted information risked an ‘incomplete and at times misleading version of what happened’.

“And the Salmond Inquiry Committee confirms that Nicola Sturgeon’s government hindered their work by withholding key documents and only willingly giving documents ‘that would advance a particular position’.

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin. The findings of this parliamentary committee are damning of her and her government and expose a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability.  And at the heart of this, women who came forward with serious allegations have been completely let down by the whole process.

“The thought that no one should take any responsibility for the many failings in this process is unbelievable.”

ConHome: “The Salmond-Sturgeon quarrel is surely unintelligible to many people who don’t follow politics. Their sense will be of a row about the former’s private life and who knew what when. Why is it important?”

Ross: “Well first of all it is really difficult for people to follow. It’s been ongoing now for several years, since the allegations first arose.

“Then there was the launch of the Scottish Government’s harassment procedure, and then the response from Alex Salmond, who challenged that.

“And since then we’ve had accusation and counter-accusation from Team Salmond and Team Sturgeon.

“And I’m not supporting one over the other. I’m just trying to get to the truth in all this.

“And it’s very difficult to get through to the truth when an inquiry that Nicola Sturgeon agreed would be set up, a cross-party inquiry, chaired by an SNP MSP, where the Scottish Government agreed the remit, the membership, and all aspects of how the committee could go about their business.

“It has been baulked on I think now more than 50 occasions by the Scottish Government, in terms of getting crucial information out there.

“And I think where we’ve got to now is a committee report that’s published, that believes Nicola Sturgeon did mislead Parliament. I believe on numerous occasions she’s misled the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people.

“At the heart of this, two women have been let down by a procedure that did not allow their complaints to be fully investigated and heard.

“The people of Scotland have been let down by a First Minister who’s not been truthful.

“And the people of Scotland have also been let down by a First Minister who has continued with action against the advice of her own lawyers that has cost in excess of half a million pounds.

“So these are all reasons why Scottish Conservatives believe Nicola Sturgeon’s position is untenable.”

ConHome: “Just leaving aside the money, the denial of information to MSPs, the Scottish Government going after publications like The Spectator that put up the reports, do you believe Salmond’s claim that there’s a conspiracy against him in which Sturgeon is implicated?”

Ross: “No I don’t. I believe there’s a conspiracy against getting out the truth. Everything seems to revolve around secrecy. The Scottish Government have been forced, after votes in Parliament which they ignored, with other measures we forced them to release some of the legal advice they’d received, but my conspiracy is more focussed on why can’t we just get the truth, rather than Salmond saying he was stitched up, or Sturgeon saying don’t believe him.”

ConHome: “Like many others, we’re concerned that the SNP may win a majority in this year’s Holyrood elections. How likely do you think this is to happen?”

Ross: “Well I’ve said since August, since I became Scottish Conservative leader, I didn’t think an SNP majority was inevitable, and I didn’t think another independence referendum was inevitable.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge we face in Scotland. The SNP have significant support among those who will vote for the party they think has the best chance to deliver them independence.

“We know back in 2014 45 per cent of Scotland wanted to separate from the rest of the UK. Therefore they see the SNP, for all their other failures, as being the party that could best deliver that.

“So it’s always going to be a challenge against them. But we have seen in recent weeks a shift away from the SNP.

“This image of them being no better than any other political party, having been in government for too long, and being shrouded in secrecy and sleaze, is having an impact.

“And I think at a time, particularly during a global pandemic, when we still need the trust of the public to follow the advice the Government are issuing, it not only is so damaging for Scottish politics as a whole, it could have an impact on our recovery out of this pandemic, if people don’t feel they can trust the First Minister.”

ConHome: “We’re not only worried the SNP may win a majority. We’re also worried about what will happen if they don’t. Down here in London, in Westminster, the UK Government will go ‘Phew, that’s all right then! They haven’t won a majority – we can stop worrying about the Union and think about something else.’

“Are we right to be worried?”

Ross: “I think it’s a genuine concern. I think there’s been a real shift in the emphasis from the UK Government. We’ve seen it in recent weeks and months – more focus on the Union, and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

“I again have been beating this drum since I became leader. I gave the controversial speech at my first Scottish fringe event at the party conference, saying you know, we really had to wake up to the challenges.

“And when I say we, I mean the Conservative MPs, supporters and people across the rest of the United Kingdom who in some form or other didn’t think that Scotland leaving the UK would have a big impact on them.

“Of course it would. It would affect the whole of the United Kingdom. That fabric of our Union weaves through us all whether we’re Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

“But I do think the case for remaining a strong part of the United Kingdom has to be made as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border, and I’m seeing promising signs with that, in terms of the Government wanting to invest directly into Scotland through local councils.

“The SNP throw up their arms and say this is disrespecting devolution. But devolution is having two Parliaments, and both Parliaments and both Governments should work together to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

“It’s typical of the SNP, who claim to speak for the whole of Scotland, which they absolutely don’t, to decry any attempt of the UK Government to show where they invest in Scotland, and I just want to see more of that, and certainly from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and everyone in the Cabinet I get the reassurance that they’re up for this fight.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that the Conservatives, the Conservative and Unionist Party, can’t save the Union on its own. It’s going to have to work with other Unionist parties, in particular with Labour.

“Is that right, and how easy is it to work with Labour given their difference on what the political solution should be?”

Ross: “Well I think it’s absolutely right. We saw in the 2014 referendum that the parties put down their political differences and worked together to achieve success, with 55 per cent of the population voting to remain in the United Kingdom.

“However, since then we’ve seen a Labour Party in Scotland that’s been decimated, that’s a shadow of its former self. And sadly I think their response has been to out-Nat the Scottish Nationalists.

“And that is never going to win them back the support they need. So I’ve made the offer and I made the offer to Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader at the time, that I would work with him if we could kick the SNP out of power.

“And he turned that offer down. When his replacements were standing as the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party I said to Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar, would they work with me to get rid of this tired and failing SNP Government, and they both turned that down within 30 seconds.

“So I’ll continue to hold out that olive branch. I think it is a way forward, I think it is what people want in Scottish politics, for the parties to work together, get away from this division of the past and focus on our recovery in Scotland.

“I’ll continue to make that offer and I hope at some point the Labour Party wake up to their responsibilities and accept it.”

ConHome: “In your speech on 3rd October to the virtual Conservative Party conference you said that

“far too many members in England…do not value the importance of the Union to their own British identity… They too often see Britishness and Englishness as one and the same. These attitudes extend to how we govern our country.”

“Are those attitudes improved now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street?”

Ross: “Well I always said those comments were not directed at any one individual. And indeed they weren’t just directed at the Conservative Party.

“I think we saw from the Labour Party, who oversaw devolution with the referendum in Scotland in 1997, that obviously led to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999, from Whitehall almost a view of ‘devolve and forget’.

“As if we could just provide funding to Scotland and not worry about how that was spent.

“And what we’ve seen over the last few years of SNP control in Holyrood is significant financial support going to the Scottish Government, the latest budget this year is the highest budget ever delivered to the devolved Scottish Parliament.

“But we’re seeing our standards in education falling. We’re seeing hospitals being built that can’t take any patients. We’re seeing our economy, pre-Covid, more sluggish than other parts of the United Kingdom.

“So it was a wake-up call to those within Government and outwith that we have to get rid of this devolve and forget attitude.

“Somehow a narrative that the English don’t care what happens to Scotland or the Welsh don’t care or those in Northern Ireland don’t care actually only aids the Nationalists.”

ConHome: “Some questions about the way the devolution settlement is working in Scotland.

“First of all, do you agree that Parliament should in some respects have more powers – for example, that MSPs should be covered by parliamentary privilege?”

Ross: “Yes. So I believe there are – I set out in a speech I did to Onward recently – some suggestions for strengthening the accountability within the Scottish Parliament.

“This should be done on a cross-party basis, I’m not saying the Conservatives have all the answers to this issue.

“But I think it was particularly revealing, to people across the country, that it took a Member of Parliament standing up in the UK House of Commons to reveal information that was not able to be revealed to MSPs sitting on an inquiry looking into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints and the procedure they set up.

“I’ve already raised issues about the Lord Advocate in Scotland being the head of the prosecution service, and also a political appointment sitting round the Scottish Government Cabinet table.

“I also think we could learn from the UK Parliament in terms of electing select committee chairs. I’ve sat in both Parliaments and been on committees in both, and I think we have far more rigour in our investigations and our questioning with select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House rather than party appointments that we have in the Scottish Parliament.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that a central problem with the devolution settlement in Scotland is not that there’s too much devolution but that there hasn’t been enough.

“And on that theme, you’ve called for local councils to have more powers, the power to set business-rate-free zones and to build more railways, deliver universal broadband. Could you expand on that?”

Ross: “Yes, so first of all I’m not advocating for more powers to go to Holyrood. I don’t think people suggesting now just devolve some extra powers and that’ll stop people wanting independence is credible.

“And I also say to the SNP, if you continue to call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, just start using the ones you’ve got.

“In terms of devolution, what I want to see is more devolution from the Scottish Parliament to local councils.

“I do believe that local councils are better at delivering many of these policies. I was a councillor for ten years.

“For many people now in Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood seem as distant as the UK Government and the UK Parliament did in London prior to 1997 when there were calls for devolution.”

ConHome: “Aberdeen Council is reported to be applying for grants directly from the Shared Prosperity Fund. Do you know how that’s going?”

Ross: “There’s been an awful lot of positive discussion. I’m in regular contact with Douglas Lumsden, Co-Leader of Aberdeen City Council, he’s one of our excellent candidates on the North East list for the election in May, and with Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, who sees this as a way forward.

“He can see the frustration of councils in Scotland, particularly those outwith the central belt.”

ConHome: “Do you believe that Westminster should deploy the powers it has: for example, the Political and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee could launch an inquiry into the conduct of the civil service in Scotland, over why laws seem to have been crafted especially to investigate Alex Salmond, even after the Head of Propriety and Ethics in Whitehall expressed discomfort.”

Ross: “I think we have to look very closely at how the Scottish Government civil service worked throughout this process, and obviously the head of the Scottish civil service is answerable to the head of the UK civil service.

“I also think there’s an opportunity for the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which I sit on, to look into it. It’s chaired by an SNP member, so we may have some challenges in getting that into our future work programme, but absolutely, I think there is a clear role for scrutiny within the UK select committee system, following on from the report of the Scottish Parliament committee.”

ConHome: “Should the UK Government here do more to involve the Governments of the devolved administrations in their decision-making, over immigration, say, or trade deals?”

Ross: “Well I mentioned that in my Policy Exchange speech, and it was more just about more dialogue, it’s not saying direct decision making.”

ConHome: “At one point last year, Michael Gove was reported to think that just occasionally, there’d be a case for inviting Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations to sit in at Cabinet meetings. What do you think?”

Ross: “No I don’t think that would be particularly helpful. Clear, distinct subject matters which affect the whole of the UK such as travel arrangements, quarantine arrangements, restrictions that may differ north or south of the border or into Wales, are right to be focussed on a small committee, and I’ve sat in on a number of these committees when I was a Scotland Office minister, so I can see the value of them.

“I think inviting devolved leaders to actual Cabinet meetings is a step too far, and I’m not sure it would be reciprocated by offers of the Prime Minister to go to the Scottish Government Cabinet meetings or the Welsh Assembly Cabinet meetings.”

ConHome: “How substantial a problem for your election campaign this year is Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland?”

Ross: “I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as an opportunity for me to continue to show that I’m the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. I am the leader standing for election to Holyrood.

“NIcola Sturgeon and the SNP are already using this in their leaflets, saying ‘vote for the SNP or vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party’.

“But the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His policies are having a positive impact in Scotland, such as the vaccine rollout; the levelling up funding will see investment into Scotland.

“But in terms of the running of the party here, our manifesto, our team, it’s led by me. I think that’s right for the Scottish Conservatives and it’s certainly the approach I’m taking into the election.”

ConHome: “Are you looking forward to Boris joining you on the campaign trail?”

Ross: “Yeah. It’ll be a very different campaign trail, so let’s be honest, he’s not going to be popping up every couple of days to do visits, and we’re all trying to get our head round exactly what this campaign’s going to look like.

“But I was at Political Cabinet last week, we had a good discussion on the election in Scotland, and obviously in Wales, and there’s big elections in England, we’ve got by-elections coming up as well, so the Prime Minister’s going to be busy all over the country.

“But we’re probably going to do an awful lot of it like this. It’ll be Zoom meetings. We’ll see how it all pans out.”

ConHome: “Do you know Oliver Lewis?”

Ross: “Yes.”

ConHome: “What was your take on him?”

Ross: “Yeah, I worked well with Oliver, first of all he was always extremely engaged with Scottish MPs during the Brexit negotiations, and then when for a short time he was the head of the Union Unit I spoke to him a number of times, and I think he had some really good things to offer.

“Clearly it didn’t work out, but he is someone I will still look at what he says and listen to what he says.”

ConHome: “It doesn’t make a difference that the Unit’s no longer there?”

Ross: “I don’t think so. Clearly the change in personnel was something that attracted quite a lot of media attention. I actually think the move to the Cabinet committee system, with senior members of the Cabinet, is a good thing, having the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Minister of the Cabinet Office, the Secretaries of State like Alister Jack, it’s a powerful committee.”

ConHome: “One of the things people know about you is that you’re a great football referee. What help is that to you in your present role? Because your role now is partisan, you’re on the pitch, you’re trying to wipe the floor with the opposition.”

Ross: “Well I don’t quite get onto the pitch, because I’m an assistant referee, just from the sidelines, and I’m not even doing that at the moment, I’ve got a hamstring injury.

“But I do think for political leadership it’s a good thing, because you’ve got to take instant decisions, based on what you see in front of you, knowing that that decision will not please everyone, in many cases my decision will please no one, and you’ve got to have a pretty tough skin to do it in the first place and to defend and stick by your decisions.”

Henry Hill: The beacons are lit! Aberdeen calls for aid, and London must answer

17 Dec

It has been a while since this column covered the war between the hyper-centralising Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), but that’s only because it seems to be over.

During their 13 years in office the Scottish Nationalists have squeezed the ability of councils to raise their own finances, and partly plugged the shortfall with central funding over which Holyrood ministers have final say.

Now one local authority has had enough. The Press & Journal reports that Aberdeen City Council has voted, by 22 votes to 19, for their Chief Executive to write to Alister Jack to request direct funding from the British Government – and to COSLA to clarify that they want the money to bypass the Scottish Parliament.

It isn’t difficult to see why the Nationalists in Edinburgh would be content to let Aberdeen languish as the “lowest-funded in Scotland”. The city’s government is a ray of light for unionists, being run by a coalition between the Conservatives and local ex-Labour councillors who have defied their party’s myopic ban on working with the Tories even at the cost of getting suspended.

Naturally, the opposition parties aren’t amused. The SNP have accused the Council of basically trying a Trotskyist ‘impossible demand’ so they can blame the Scottish Government – which takes some brass neck, given that this is the normal form of devolved politics. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have accused the whole thing of being ‘an attack on the devolution settlement’.

For their part, the majority have amended the motion to clarify that they do think devolution is good, although how many of them really mean this is an open question. Recusancy remains, for now, a requirement for devosceptics in Scottish public life.

More troubling should be the Lib Dems’ assertion that the proposed deal is “never going to happen”.

After all as Douglas Lumsden, the Conservative co-leader of the Council, has pointed out, the proposal that Westminster take over responsibility for providing grants to local authorities is simply maintaining the order that prevailed under our membership of the European Union. It is the Edinburgh devocrats, with their Britanno-phobic aversion to any exercise of power by London, who are trying to stage a “power grab” by usurping this function and concentrating even more power in Holyrood.

The British Government’s proposals to forge stronger direct links with local authorities across the UK are therefore both well-justified and eminently workable. Whence then the Lib Dems’ apparent certainty that they will come to nothing?

Perhaps they think they have the measure of Michael Gove. As I reported last week, when word first broke that the Government might throw in the towel on the vital UK Internal Market Bill, there is growing concern amongst some in government about an ‘appease the SNP’ tendency on the part of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and some of his advisers.

In the event, the climbdown was much less severe than feared – which is probably why the devolved administrations are still threatening legal action. But government sources report that Gove himself wanted to offer far more concessions and effectively “gut the common framework”. He clearly lost on this occasion – but how sustainable is it for the Government’s constitution and Union strategy to need defending from the man nominally in charge of it?

Reinforcing Aberdeen will doubtless provoke similar squeamishness amongst those who’d prefer to ‘devolve and forget’, ceding the powers to Holyrood in exchange for a quiet life. But that would be dereliction of duty. There is a rebellion brewing in the North East of Scotland, one which compasses not just Aberdeen but also the Northern Isles’ quest for more autonomy from the overweening Scottish Government.

Together, this represents a golden opportunity for ministers to break down Holyrood’s gate-keeping and re-establish Westminster as a complementary government for the whole United Kingdom. They must not squander it: funding for Aberdeen, and giving them Armed Forces Day in 2022, should be just the start. Floreat Aberdona!

Other news:

We’ve led on one big story this week but there was far too much to cover it all anyway. Below are some of the highlights. First, the usual week of fresh misery for the SNP:

  • Gove calls on SNP Government to outline how it has spent Brexit money – The Herald
  • Labour demands impartiality probe into Sturgeon’s daily briefings on BBC – The Herald
  • SNP MP suspended from Commons after shouting during Brexit debate – The Herald
  • Leaked SNP report ‘contradicts Peter Murrell’s evidence to Salmond inquiry’ – The Herald
  • SNP criticised over ’embarrassing’ failure to cut primary school class sizes – The Herald

Next, their specific and damning failure on drugs deaths:

  • My brother’s death from drugs overdose was the result of our political failure, says SNP MP – Daily Record
  • Scots public health minister urged to quit over shocking drug death figures – Daily Record

The Tories.

  • Scottish Tories would boycott independence referendum run by Holyrood – Daily Record
  • Tory election candidates quizzed on abolishing Senedd – BBC
  • Davidson erupts at Nicola Sturgeon in brutal FMQs showdown – Daily Express
  • Lewis quizzed on future of Northern Ireland at 100, in online talk – News Letter

More flailing from Labour:

  • Scottish Labour’s top official quits ahead of Holyrood election – The Herald

And finally…

  • Plaid Cymru pledges Welsh independence referendum if they win in Senedd elections – Wales Online