When Allegra Stratton resigned for nervously laughing that she did not know the answer to questions about parties in Downing Street, Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, quickly tweeted:
“Feel for @AllegraCOP26. She wasn’t responsible for the not-party, she wasn’t there (in video says she went home), and her nervous laughter was not to make light of it, but because she didn’t know how she could possible answer on it. Genuinely remorseful.”
Davidson has always been known as a plain speaker and has an ability to ‘cut through the crap’, but she expressed something more. By expressing solidarity with Stratton, she condemned the parties and those who attended them; it was a pointed attack on Boris Johnson.
Douglas Ross calls for Johnson to resign
This week Douglas Ross, the leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, called on the PM to resign following fresh allegations about partying in Downing Street. He has been an outspoken critic of the Johnson’s government’s handling of sleaze and corruption allegations and when the Stratton video emerged he said that if Johnson lied to the commons about Downing Street parties, he must resign. The new allegations made it inevitable that he would call for Johnson’s resignation.
Both Davidson and Ross represent Conservatives in Scotland and the majority of the party north of the border support their stance. Politically and culturally, Scotland is very different to England and the louche behaviour of parliamentarians and their advisers and civil servants in England is not something that would be shrugged off as unimportant or amusing.
The Conservative Party has been decimated in Scotland over recent years and the behaviour of the party in England since the 2019 general election will have done nothing to regain supporters. Ross and Davidson (and the people they represent) have far more in common with Nicola Sturgeon, and the Greens who are part of the current government.
The leaders of all the political parties in Scotland share many similarities. They come from modest backgrounds, reside, politically, in the centre, are socially liberal, pro LGBT+ and women’s rights, pro-immigration and were pro-Europe in the referendum. They are pragmatists and not overtly ideological. They value competence and incremental change. Local people can still collar them in the supermarket when doing the weekly shop, although perhaps Sturgeon less so these days.
Last year Sturgeon faced over seven hours of questioning in the Holyrood enquiry about her role in allegations of sexual abuse by Alex Salmond, and faced many more hours of questioning in the parliament before and after giving evidence. Aside from Sturgeon’s own personal inclination in the matter, to fail to appear and be answerable through the systems and structures designed to ensure ministerial accountability, would have potentially signalled the end of her career. As it was, her appearance probably helped her case and her seemingly genuine attempt to give a full account contrasted strongly with Johnson’s avoidance of any accountability.
Long before the current sleaze allegations, Scottish Labour in 2019 attempted to get MSPs’ second jobs banned. It had widespread and cross-party support but fell victim to covid restrictions. It would be unthinkable, in Scotland, for an MSP to describe a salary of £250,000 for a second job as “chicken feed” as Johnson did about his Telegraph column, or say that living on an MP’s salary of £82,000 a year is “really grim” as Peter Bottomley recently argued.
Intellectual heft and Presbyterianism
There is much less deference for wealth and power in Scotland. It remains proud of its intellectual heritage and as the source of the Enlightenment. Education and expertise is still highly valued. Brains, expertise and a strong history of public service are still very evident in public appointments and it is inconceivable that a ‘lightweight’ such as Paul Dacre would even be considered for shortlisting for a public appointment in Scotland.
Perhaps it is Scotland’s Presbyterian roots that give it a more puritanical bent when it comes to the behaviour of those in public office. This might also relate to its comparatively small size and the closeness MSP’s are to their own communities, often shopping alongside them at the weekend or freezing on the touch line at their children’s school football matches. Local authorities, as the main provider of government funded services, remain important and strengthen local connections and those with ordinary people. Ministers, therefore, also remain close to local authority politicians who have their feet on and ears to the ground.
Few people or politicians go to public school and most MSPs come from ordinary backgrounds. Outside of Edinburgh few children are privately educated and the local school is always ‘good enough’. MSPs share much in common with those they represent and there are not such extremes of wealth. There are rich people in Scotland and Scottish land is owned by surprisingly few people (the biggest estates are also foreign owned), but conspicuous wealth is rarely evident and is more likely to attract bemusement than envy.
Gold wallpaper in Sturgeon’s residence, Bute House, would make her a laughing stock, being ‘up-yersel’, a serious offence for a West of Scotland politician. While Edinburgh Morningside matrons would have gasped at its vulgarity.
Sturgeon was heavily criticised when a ceiling was repaired in Bute House by Historic Environment Scotland during lockdown, and also when she came out from a funeral and forgot to put her mask back on. Underlying these criticisms is the assumption, held by the press, the public (and her), that she is not above the law or her own government’s guidance. These incidents act as a perpetual reminder that she is ‘no better’ than anyone else.
A different country
Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon enjoy popularity way beyond their party boundaries. The public can relate to them, see them as down to earth and, mostly, believe they are acting in the best interests of Scotland and its people. Davidson’s tweet in support of Stratton could equally have been made by Sturgeon, both of whom will go against the grain when they believe something is wrong or unfair. Both punch upwards. Their behaviour is underpinned by a different culture to that that of Westminster and London.
This cultural difference between England and Scotland – or perhaps London and Scotland will need to be addressed by unionist politicians. A ‘global Britain’ that is based on exploitation and making money rather than intellectual heft and moral strength is not a winner. If London wants to ‘save the union’ it may well need to jettison Johnson. Being government by a man of his perceived calibre is a matter of shame, not pride.