If the first rule of leadership is, as Barack Obama once said, ‘don’t do stupid shit’ then this Tory leadership contest offers ample reasons for thinking neither Rishi Sunak nor Liz Truss is remotely capable of being prime minister.
Having advertised himself as the only adult in the race, the only candidate prepared to tell the truth, the former Chancellor has proceeded to set ablaze the rationale for his own campaign. Sunak’s imbecilities on the green belt and farming, to say nothing of his fantastical pledges on income tax, are the mark of a man spooked by the discovery that pandering to the worst instincts of the Conservative party membership is the only way to make progress in a race to the bottom. The only consolation to be found is that, if he wins, he will have little choice but to break many of the absurd promises he has hitherto made. This is not an encouraging prospectus for leadership.
Still, at least Sunak has not – or at least not yet – gone half-way towards suggesting much of the United Kingdom is a tiresome encumbrance that would be much better to simply ignore.
Liz Truss’s comments in Exeter last night that Nicola Sturgeon is merely an ‘attention seeker’ who should be ‘ignored’, rather as one might suggest a stroppy child should ideally be neither seen nor heard, were excruciating. Naturally, the SNP are outraged by this but plenty of Unionist Scots are also irked by Truss’s comments. For this was a desperately foolish thing to say.
Of course some of the nationalist hump-taking is performative. No one ever lost money underestimating the Scotch appetite for sanctimony. Nevertheless, it is also a gift to the SNP. Not just because it riles – which is to say, it deeply pleases – the party’s own supporters but because it is the sort of thing which irritates plenty of Scots who do not necessarily approve of Sturgeon or her party themselves.
For, on one level, almost all Scottish voters are nationalists to at least some degree. Unionism has almost always been an idea wrapped in nationalist clothing. When John Buchan, hardly a radical, suggested every Scot should be a nationalist he was not endorsing any idea of independence. Indeed he was more reiterating a long-established idea: Scottish sensibilities and Scottish perquisites must be protected, even from those ostensibly posing as their chums.
As then, so now. The tone in which Scotland, and the Union more generally, are discussed matters much more than many English Tories appear to recognise. Truss’s comments were gauche enough; the audience’s whooping and hollering in response was just as galling. These people have little idea of the United Kingdom’s realities and they are not afraid to show it.
And while candidates for the leadership may think they are only speaking to Tory members, they might from time to time remember that other folk have eyes and ears too. You can be heard and you are seen.
The SNP’s habit of conflating party and country is irksome in the extreme but it does Unionism no good when senior Conservative figures make the same mistake. Like it or not – and while there is no need to like it, it does not alter reality – plenty of Scots hearing an English audience cheering the idea that Scotland’s first minister is just an ‘attention-seeker’ who should be ‘ignored’ think that what this actually means is that Scotland should be ‘ignored’ too.
So while the tone is regrettable – which is to say it is deeply stupid – the actual content of Truss’s remarks is equally bone-headed. It is precisely the sort of thing the SNP would like the next prime minister to say. As Jacob Rees-Mogg says, Nicola Sturgeon may indeed be ‘always moaning’ but he lacks the standing to point this out in any politically useful fashion. As such, a period of silence on his part – and that of English Tories who agree with him – is as welcome as it is long overdue.
Since another leadership rule is ‘don’t give your opponents what they crave’, Truss’s comments are indefensible as a purely political matter. There may be much to be said for ignoring SNP provocations but this should be done quietly, not out loud. It is wearisome that this must be explained yet again. The SNP thrives on grievance and ‘disrespect’; talking in a fashion that offers them precisely this is stupid almost beyond belief.
The SNP’s mandate to govern Scotland – on matters of devolved responsibility – is incontestable. The relationship between Westminster and Holyrood should be clear on reserved issues but elsewhere be courteous, constructive and, perhaps above all, conducted in good faith. The SNP may not reciprocate but a prime minister’s first responsibility in these matters lies in not driving ambivalent or open-minded Scottish voters towards the SNP.
Like so much else, this is a case of mood and sensibility just as much as of actual policy. It should not be difficult to avoid adhering to the political equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to first do no harm. Yet, grimly, it seems to be beyond Truss.
The SNP would love nothing more than the chance to fight the next general election as some kind of Scotland vs England battle. At present, we may rely upon the Conservative party to give them every opportunity of doing so. It is entirely possible this may help the Tory cause in England but only at the cost of terrible damage in Scotland and – one day, perhaps – to the United Kingdom itself.
Is it really asking too much to ask senior Tories to note they are members of the Conservative and Unionist party and to dwell upon the meaning and implications of their own party’s name? Once again, dispiritingly, it seems this is a question destined to be answered in the affirmative.
And, yet again, Scottish Unionists can be forgiven for thinking that with notional friends like these, the SNP are the least of their problems.
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