15 July 2022

Mind your manner: how can the next PM take on Nicola Sturgeon?

By Ian Mitchell

One of the many important topics that has been largely unremarked in this leadership race is what the next PM will do about Scotland.

It is no secret that Boris Johnson was a red rag to the nationalist bull – partly because of his policies, which had something in common with David Cameron’s ‘devolve and forget’ approach. Nicola Sturgeon did her best to make sure Johnson could not ‘forget’, but in a provocative rather than constructive way. Publicly, she downplayed policy differences and concentrated on personal derision. Boris was a gift to the inverted snob in so many nationalist Scots. If the Union is to survive, this dance of negativity has to stop. 

However, Johnson’s damaging relationship with Scotland was also in part a product of his manner. Disraeli famously said that ‘the British people, being subject to fogs, require grave statesmen’. That could be paraphrased as: “The Scottish people, being subject to a tradition of lapsed Calvinism, require grave statespersons.” Scots tend to prefer leaders who can be made to look ‘serious’ in a way that Johnson, with his hedge-row hairstyle and hyper-toff manner, could never manage.

Public puritanism is harder to achieve now that politics has become a performing art, largely due to social media and the banality of television. It is therefore important to stress that, if petty nationalism is to be suppressed, the next leader of the Conservative Party must be someone who comes across to the sentient majority of the Scottish electorate as a serious person.

For these reasons, my own favourite before campaigning started was Ben Wallace. Apart from his time in the Scots Guards, he also served a four-year term in the Scottish Parliament as a Tory ‘list’ MSP. That will have left him with a far better understanding of the way Holyrood works than any other candidate.

Now, I am not going to list the ‘Scot-compliance’ ratings of the remianing candidates, but I urge the electors in this contest to consider them carefully. There can be no question that Mrs Thatcher had a disproportionately damaging effect on the Union. Many would argue she provoked the movement which led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon has said repeatedly: ‘Hatred of Margaret Thatcher was the motivation for my entire political career’.

That was mainly due to Thatcher’s policies. But her manner also grated on Scots when seen at a distance. By contrast, Jim Sillars, the ex-Labour independence firebrand and long-time MP, has often said that, though he disagreed profoundly with Mrs Thatcher on a political level, he found her charming at close quarters. What might have happened if Thatcher had been more forcefully advised about her manner in Scotland? 

There will always be a policy gulf between Conservatives and the Scottish National Party; that is natural and, to a point, healthy. What is important is to heal unnecessary divisions, and an important step in that direction would be for the Tories to elect a leader who would not cause needless offence in Scotland. The Royal Family is supremely competent in this respect, and it would behove any future Prime Minister to get some coaching from the Queen on how to behave in the Caledonian mists. More seriously and immediately, the Tories need to select a future leader who understands sensible, civic Scotland, which has for so long provided much of the backbone of the British state. 

This should go without saying, and it applies to Northern Ireland and Wales too. The UK is, or should be, a tolerantly multi-cultural country – and Scots are as much part of that as any of our many other communities. Tory members should therefore ask themselves which candidate is best-placed to speak for the whole of the United Kingdom in an increasingly dangerous world?

One final thought: whoever becomes the next PM, the SNP’s almanac of Boris-centric insults – white, male, rich, Etonian, arrogant, divisive, privileged, imperial, incapable of understanding ‘diversity’ – will be far, far less effective. Imagine Sturgeon’s fury when she realises that her handy playbook of shallow cliches won’t work with her new opponent. Who knows, she might even be forced to respond to their actual policies – even that would be progress of sorts!

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Ian Mitchell is the author of The Justice Factory: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 21st Century Scotland? (2020) and is working on a parliamentary biography of Nicola Sturgeon.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.