Brexit Roundup: The Scottish Conservatives and the Brexit Challenge

David Torrance | 16 April 2018

© 2017 SCER

Two years ago, everything was going rather well for Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson: not only had her party become Scotland’s principal opposition after the May 2016 Holyrood elections, but in the weeks that followed she enjoyed a UK-wide profile as a prominent voice in the campaign to ‘Remain’ in the European Union. At Wembley Stadium, she even took on Boris Johnson and won.

Her face the morning after referendum day, however, told a different story. At Glasgow’s Science Centre, where journalists liked me were gathered to do the usual round of punditry, Davidson sat in a corner with her adviser Eddie Barnes looking rather miserable. The reason was obvious: her whole strategy to ‘revive’ the Scottish Conservatives (and advance herself in the process) appeared to be in tatters.

But when Davidson and Barnes sat down to watch Nicola Sturgeon’s Bute House statement, their mood lightened. Her ‘highly likely’ phrase and intimation that referendum legislation would be prepared suddenly handed them a strategy. Another independence referendum, Davidson responded later, was ‘not in the best interests of Scotland’. ‘The 1.6 million votes cast in this referendum in favour of Remain,’ she added, ‘do not wipe away the two million votes that we cast less than two years ago.’

All this explains why Brexit hasn’t caused the Scottish Conservatives the problems they (and many others) expected it would. Following the 2017 general election, meanwhile, Davidson took advantage of 12 MP gains north of the border to launch another strategy, that of portraying herself and her rejuvenated party as a moderating ‘brake’ on a hard Brexit.

She was pilloried, of course, by Sturgeon for changing her position: not only had Davidson campaigned to remain part of the EU, but in the aftermath of Brexit suggested keeping Scotland in the single market (if not the EU) was her preferred outcome, much as it became the ‘compromise’ position of the SNP. Subsequently, Davidson finessed her position, speaking of an ‘open Brexit’ in which the UK retained the ‘largest amount of access’ to the single market after 29 March 2019.

Ironically, Brexit ended up causing Nicola Sturgeon rather more problems than Ruth Davidson, not least because it revealed a split in the Nationalist ranks between Remainers and Leavers. That said, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the Scottish Tories, as a recent row over the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) demonstrates.

Now even though the Scottish fishing industry does not loom large in economic or employment terms, it does occupy a symbolic space in Scottish political discourse and therefore requires careful handling. In this context, Davidson fell short, appearing to suggest (alongside, interestingly, Environment Secretary Michael Gove) that Scottish fishermen wouldn’t be subject to the CFP for a day longer than necessary.

Despite the SNP’s own position being a bit muddled (it wants to stay in the EU but either opt out of, or reform, the CFP – a quixotic goal), Sturgeon et al went to town, accusing Davidson of ‘betraying’ the industry just as Edward Heath had while negotiating entry back in the early 1970s. The Scottish Tories attempted to limit the damage, including a rather empty threat to vote against any final deal, but it wasn’t their finest hour.

Therein lies the obvious danger for the Scottish Tories over the next year – that further unpalatable compromises regarding Brexit will blow up in Ruth Davidson’s face, weakening her soft-nationalist claim to ‘stand up for Scotland’ within the United Kingdom and reducing the likelihood of further gains at the 2021 Holyrood elections.

There is, however, another scenario. Frustratingly for the SNP, Brexit is a slow-burner with no decisive ‘moment’ which allows them to push the case for a second independence referendum. In terms of public opinion, meanwhile, Ruth Davidson seems more aligned with the majority view in Scotland, which voted Remain but seems unwilling to man the barricades to stop Brexit happening.

Many Scottish Tories I’ve spoken to are not complacent about the Brexit dimension, realising it’s key to their political fortunes over the next few years. If it’s a constitutional and economic disaster, then Ruth Davidson could be dragged down along with Theresa May, but if it trundles along and the final deal isn’t radically different from the status quo, then the Scottish Conservative leader could end up in a rather better position than her Nationalist counterpart.

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David Torrance is a freelance writer, journalist and broadcaster and the author or editor of more than a dozen books on Scottish politics.