Interview: Tory Jackson Carlaw attacks SNP’s ‘disposable democracy’
The interim Scottish Conservative leader says he had “not anticipated First Minister Nicola Sturgeon putting independence front and centre” of the general election campaign, but as a result he believes it plays to his party’s strengths as the “only party, firmly resolute on stopping a second independence referendum”.
Scots have realised, he claims, that both Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are too weak to “stand up to Nicola Sturgeon”, and even without Ruth Davidson at the helm, Scots Tories will help steer his party to a majority in the House of Commons.
He also believes that the new Brexit deal reached between Boris Johnson and the European Union, is essentially a good one, as it first and foremost protects the Good Friday Agreement.
The 60-year-old MSP told Scotland on Sunday: “I’ve been involved in politics a long time. I was in Brighton when the bomb went off, when the wife of the President of the Scottish Conservatives, Muriel Maclean, was killed in that attack by the IRA.
“I felt that pain – though it was nothing compared to the pain the people who lived through the Troubles in Northern Ireland experienced, and the Good Friday Agreement drew a line under all that.
“I think we all accept the circumstances of Northern Ireland are unique – David Trimble, one of the architects of the Agreement, supports the deal that’s been achieved, and that is why I will not play politics with the fact there are special circumstances there that need to be addressed.”
But despite demands from the Scottish Government for a separate deal for Scotland, which like Northern Ireland voted to Remain, he adds: “I don’t feel that deal is right for Scotland.
“Whilst Northern Ireland is in a fundamentally important trading relationship with a border state who will still be in the EU, if Scotland ended up having different arrangements with the rest of the UK we would end up with a hard border between Scotland and England – and the vast majority, four times as much, of the trade going south is with the rest of the UK and not Europe, so it’s simply not in our interests to create that division on the mainland of the UK.”
While Carlaw was a Remain voter, he admits that he is now of the opinion that it no longer matters as his side lost in the 2016 referendum. He says accepting the result is what all politicians have to learn to do.
“I’ve been very consistent about all of this,” he says. “If you have a referendum where you argue that the normal political process can’t resolve an issue, and you ask a binary choice question, and you’re given an answer, then it’s your duty to work to implement that answer.
“I’ve regularly been quoted – and Alex Salmond used to quote me as well – that I’d man the barricades with the SNP to secure the best deal from the rest of the UK in the event, that despite everything I had done, Scotland had voted for independence in 2014… And having lost the 2016 referendum I take the same view.”
The current general election campaign the SNP is running, he says, goes against that acceptance, in terms of both Brexit and the 2014 independence referendum, which in turn spells good news for the Scottish Conservatives.
“Of all the parties we’ve been the one which has consistently identified the fact that the SNP have never really accepted the 2014 result,” says Carlaw. “And in this election ever more so. A narrative has grown up that people are entitled to change their minds and Scotland has changed its mind – although there’s very little genuine sustained opinion polling evidence to support that argument.
“What we’ve been trying to say, very plainly, to people is that the SNP has a culture of disposable democracy – that at a referendum is somehow now a disposable event, and all the people, especially the record number who voted on the basis it was a once in a generation event, should now expect to have as many referendums as the SNP think appropriate going forward.”
He adds: “Had the SNP won in 2014, what are the chances that five years later they’d be saying, ‘Tell you what, people may have changed their minds, let’s have another vote to see if they still want the independence that they voted for in 2014’? They’d be the very ones saying ‘We had a vote, we’ve got to respect the result.’ Well, we are respecting the results of both referendums.”
Carlaw believes the Tories’ path has been made easier by the “weakness of the Labour party”, and claims that Jeremy Corbyn sees the future of Scotland as an “expendable commodity” if it enables him to secure power. He also says the Liberal Democrats have a “weakness in terms of political representation and their ability to stand up to Nicola Sturgeon”.
He adds: “We are now in a situation where there is one party for all the people who voted for the Union, after several years where they thought they had several homes to go to. In this election if you want to stop the second referendum and stand up to Nicola Sturgeon, there’s only one party that is absolutely firmly resolute about both doing it and why they’re doing it.
“The public realises we’re the only party that has got that resolution to stop it.”
Carlaw just will not countenance a second referendum, and he staunchly backs Boris Johnson’s stance. “The PM has been very firm, there are no circumstances that while he’s PM, Westminster would grant a second referendum, and for as long as I’m leading this party, and I’m sure any successor of mine too, there are no circumstances in which we would support a second referendum either.”
Yet the Scottish Secretary Alister Jack earlier in the week suggested that an SNP majority in the 2021 Scottish elections, might prove too hard for a UK Tory government to resist. “I’m not sure that’s entirely what he said, and it’s certainly not what he intended,” Carlaw declares.
“I’ve spoken to him clearly. He understands we are resolute that the position is as Boris Johnson said and as I said – the rocks will melt in the sun before the Scottish Conservatives will ever support a second independence referendum.”
Without doubt Carlaw has been won round to Johnson’s leadership of his party at the UK level and says the PM listens closely to Scottish Conservative representations – pointing to a pledge to review duty on Scotch whisky, the expansion of the seasonal worker scheme, repaying £35m VAT paid by Police Scotland and a £200m boost to farming.
Asked if there’s anything he may disagree with Johnson on – Carlaw points to votes for 16-year-olds. Pressed for anything more substantive – he says “you asked if there’s anything… I suppose I could give consideration to more. I very much believe we should find a way for the free TV licences for over 75-year-olds to be continued.”
His predecessor, Ruth Davidson, publicly disagreed with Johnson on occasions, but her brand of conservatism was acknowledged as turning round the fortunes of the party in Scotland.
Does the party miss her at the helm?
“I worked with Ruth for eight years,” says Carlaw. “And she was a fantastic Conservative personality to work alongside… but it goes beyond Ruth now.
“Although there was a lot of focus on her personally, what Ruth did demonstrably was to associate in the public mind, the Conservative Party as the vanguard in defence of the UK and I believe we are now as much associated with the issue as with anything else.
“That could confound the critics, because let’s face it, a lot of people said the Tories will never recover, then in 2016 we became the largest party of opposition in Holyrood – they said it was a flash in the pan – then in 2017 we doubled the numbers of councillors we had and ended up with 13 MPs. People said it was all Ruth Davidson, ‘they’ll never repeat it if she’s not there’.
“What we may find is that Ruth was very much a catalyst in re-energising the party but many who joined as a result of that represent that same blue collar conservatism, that reached into communities in Scotland where we had been under-represented for too long, and we’re now a party that the public look to with an agenda they support, and it’s that association of defence of the Union, getting Brexit sorted and moving on that people will support at the election.”
Despite this confidence, he refuses to predict how many MPs his party will have on 13 December , saying: “I’m encouraged by the response we’re getting and the acknowledgement from other parties that our vote is holding because we have a clear message
“I believe the Conservatives will be re-elected and we will have a majority and be able to fulfil our promise to the people to Scotland there will be no indyref two.”