What parliamentary pundit could have predicted that Ruth Davidson, on the first day of the new term of the 2016 Scottish Parliament, would ride into the chamber on the back of a bull?
Somewhat uncertain at first, the creature pawed the ground in the public lobby until violent prodding from Jackson Carlaw and Jeremy Balfour cajoled it forward. MSPs, new and old, shuffling into their seats, weren’t sure what to make of the animal. Was it from the Tories’ rural base: a throwback to the old days when Annabel Goldie, the rural granny that everyone wished they had, brought her quad bike to Edinburgh? Was it an animus of John Bull, inspiring the Tories with unionist might, or a herald of strong opposition wielded by a woman who knew how to tame the beast of rightist electoral power?
Davidson dismounted and the bull was tethered to a chair for the duration of the session. The Tories trotted out some rough and ready rhetoric and positioned themselves as the party of opposition. It was all quite effective. But the parliamentarians were distracted. Their eyes kept darting to the bull, and when they caught its eye it almost appeared to smile mysteriously.
Scotland is so habituated to the SNP that as the party ensconces itself in Parliament for a third term, having increased its constituency vote, and sets about the murky business of governing, most of our attention has turned to the Tories and their unexpected role as the main opposition. Backed by a triumphant 22% of the vote and a right-wing press that suddenly seems more imposing, the new opposition is already insisting that independence is not an issue: peak-Nat has passed. In doing so the Tories paradoxically thrust the national question back into the centre of Scottish politics. Sturgeon’s announcement that the government will launch a new campaign for independence also situates Scottish politics around the national question. The electorate has a short memory; this collision further squeezes Labour into oblivion.
There is almost-universal assent that with the Tories in opposition, Scottish politics is drawn more heavily along nationalist-unionist lines. David Torrance has talked of ‘Ulsterisation’ now being ‘complete’ in Scotland, and the Campaign for Socialism – a left-wing groupuscule within Scottish Labour – declares that Labour must not buy into either of the politics of national identity on offer. The phenomenon is not new. During Labour’s last term in opposition they made sure the nationalist/unionist divide defined them.
But is it really so simple? Is Scottish politics stuck between the rock of independence and the hard place of unionism? People have become fixated on the second half of the Conservative and Unionist Party’s name. But the name is not a list: the two parts fit together to form a highly effective instrument of constitutional conservatism.
Who are the 31 Tory MSPs? As we might expect, there’s a retail manager, a landowning aristocrat, a racist car salesman, a small-business owner, a chartered accountant, a business consultant, a disgraced councillor, plenty of career politicians and a Sun journalist. But there’s also a republican theorist of the British constitution, and several others clutching law and constitutional law degrees. Even among the candidates, then, there is an intriguing mixture of hardcore legalistic unionism and traditional Toryism.
Ruth Davidson and her coterie are ploughing an old parliamentary furrow. She dismisses those to the ‘right’ and ‘left’ of her who propose that people can best be looked after by the market or the state – both are mechanisms, according to Davidson, that can never meet our needs. The Scottish Parliament is so essential to Davidson’s centrist Toryism precisely because it is incapable of giving everything away to the state or the market. If you’re a centrist Tory you’re likely to become something of a constitutionalist – you’re going to want to stabilise society so that it will never get out of control. Labour introduced a parliament to kill nationalism, but the Tories understand the true constitutional beauty of the Scottish Parliament – its limited powers and scope mean it can never introduce disorder. The Tories are, consciously or not, following a long British tradition of constitutional conservatism. Their opposition will sometimes be difficult to place on a Left-Right or a nationalist-unionist spectrum because they will advance stabilising policies – on education, health and social care – that will be eminently centrist and sensible.
The Scottish Parliament is set up well for all kinds of stable low-lying politics. As we say in our book,
While the devolved Parliament is certainly important, and does some mildly progressive things and so on, it’s also very tedious. The structures of devolution keep out the elements of politics that are the most important and relevant for the working class. The remit of Scottish politics – administering social services to the citizens of Scotland – excludes the issues of most salience for gaining control over the economy. The underlying dynamic of political and economic change, the conflict between antagonistic social forces, is contained within an administrative framework which claims to mediate between these forces. Politics as conflict spanning the whole of the social order has never been introduced to devolved Scotland, where politics is limited to a narrow set of widely shared civic interests. Devolution is a lobster pot: the creatures of Scottish politics are trapped in the mesh of consensus, pincers snapping feebly in the face of powers far outside their reach.
The Tories delight in this entrapment, because as long as they are in charge at Westminster they will still have control over all the real ‘powers’ of state. And of course the constitutionalism of the Scottish Tories does not stop them from being rabidly right wing in other ways. Their business and financial interests will simmer away, being addressed by their cronies in Westminster, sometimes being helped along by a few deft SNP moves to secure a vote. That’s the way the Scottish Parliament was meant to operate, they will insist. It was never meant to encompass every power of the state, but to create stability around certain constitutionally defined issues.
This is not unionism as we have come to understand it under Labour’s opposition. It’s not SNP-bad, it’s not Better Togetherism, and it’s not wrapped in a butcher’s apron either. This is conservative constitutionalism, a unionism of old, brought back to light as a calm, simple facet of modern Toryism. And it’s dangerously effective.
Gradually the parliamentarians will become accustomed to the bull, which is quite a well-behaved brute at the end of the day. Parliamentarians will have to make a few changes to accommodate it, like deftly side-stepping piles of dung when they walk around the chamber. But unionist constitutionalism is such a perfect fit in the Scottish parliament that gradually the Tories will come to have their natural place as the main opposition, as if they had always been there. Even the most socialist MSPs might struggle to effectively challenge the calm face of middle-ground reason that the Tories will wear. But if someone were to raise a red flag, in some unlikely location, the Tories might lose their constitutional cool. The bull would go charging after it, and in the brutal conflict that followed, all horns and teeth and hair, the edifice of the Scottish Parliament might come crashing to the ground.