Lesley Riddoch: The SNP is no cult Mr Carlaw, the Tories however..

It is not wise for the new Scots Tory leader to bait half the electorate, writes Lesley Riddoch.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

‘I understand the SNP. It’s not really a political party, it’s an evangelical faith-based cult. It believes entirely in independence and almost nothing else.’
We all know Jackson Carlaw doesn’t think much of the SNP or Nicola Sturgeon, but perhaps it’s a surprise to discover he thinks so little of their supporters. Was it entirely wise to bait such a large group of voters in his very first BBC interview as Scottish Conservative leader?

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After all, this “evangelical faith-based cult” has an awful lot of members. So many as to defy definition as; “a religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people.” Doesn’t support by roughly half the electorate suggest a shared outlook that’s too mainstream to qualify as “extreme and strange”?

A smaller party with just 25 per cent of the vote, has stronger cultish potential. There’s one problem for the Scottish Tories though. They’re missing the number one cult prerequisite - a charismatic leader. Or at least one who thinks before he lets rip.

Just three hours before Mr Carlaw was lambasting half the Scottish electorate for its zombie-like adherence to the cult of independence, his boss was in London, surrounded by cabinet members, visibly shaking with nerves to be in the very presence of the Great Tousled One. What if they had a senior moment and shouted the wrong hospital total; what if they couldn’t remember the Boris bus plan; what if the tension in the room got so bad, they found themslves blurting out the terrible words, Sajid Javid?

So, which party behaved most like a cult, last week? Let’s see.

Worship of one man - check.

Willingness to be subject to total control - check.

Jumpiness beside the Holy One - check.

Inability to point out the Emperor is wearing no clothes - check.

Enthusiastic advocacy of leadership plans that are patent nonsense (moving the Lords to York, building a bridge to Ireland) - check.

Only one set of people exhibited slavish, unquestioning and fearful worship of their leader last week - and it wasn’t the SNP.

Much has been said about the Stepford Wives-like atmosphere in the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street, as highly-paid, grown adults were made to chant targets and repeat makey-uppey Tory achievements, right on cue. The whole spectacle was pathetic. The fact Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings saw fit to approve it for broadcast was nothing short of scary. This is how democracy works in the Mother of Cabinets now - dae whit yer telt, or sling yer hook.

Given this extraordinary backdrop to Jackson Carlaw’s “cultish” remarks, the main online reponse was humour. Within an hour the hashtag #SNPCommandments was trending in Scotland, with dozens of contributions to the list of “rules” for SNP cult membership; “Thou shalt say how, when thy meanest - why. Unless thy granny is present thy maw shall always be correct. Thou shalt take thine coat aff indoors or thou shalt not get the use of it later. Thou shalt always yell “do you think this is the Blackpool illuminations” when there’s more than one light on in the house.” And my personal favourite; Blessed are the doofer holders, for they shall change the channels.

Yes, it’s silly. And ingenious. And light-hearted, and fun.

Jackson Carlaw, should be thanked for a statement so patently daft, that it simply inspired “cult members” to revel in the quirks of the Mither Tongue and archetypal Scot instead of getting annoyed. With Brexit, Storm Dennis and the coronavirus hogging the headlines, the gift of levity - even un-intentional - is a marvellous thing.

But the biggest problem with Jackson Carlaw’s cult theory is that slavish adherence to one person hardly fits the character of supposed members.

They are Scots after all.

And serious, earnest old besoms that we are, Scots don’t really do fandom. We generally value issues over individuals, policy over people and long-term strategy over short-term tactics.

Voters south of the border seem unaccountably willing to play the serf to Boris Johnson’s reincarnated Good King Hal. Good luck to them. The more he lords it around, followed by his very own Dominic Cromwell, the more folk with a desperate need to believe in feudal authority, hierarchy and the Good Old Days seem to like it.

Look - there’s Boris, getting things done, showing his cabinet who is boss, standing up for Britain etc etc.

The act must be working south of the border or focus groups would have stopped transmission of that bizarre cabinet meeting dead in its tracks. But the strong-man act isn’t working in Scotland. There’s no Boris bounce here, just as there was no Cameron surge or May bob.

The cut of individual jibs matters far less to Scottish voters than the policies backed by each party and Prime Minister.

As the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath approaches, let’s get this right. The bulk of Scots today are fairly similar to the noble signatories of yesteryear - wary of o’er powerful leaders and ready to risk antagonism by lending them only conditional support. Of course, there is faith and belief underpinning the cause of independence. But it’s a belief in the sovereignty of the Scottish people, not slavish support for one individual leader.

Some Yes supporters do have unrealistic hopes for independence -but that’s not the majority. Most realise problems won’t disappear overnight when Scotland becomes independent, but will be tackled differently by folk who live here and share a common cultural and political outlook.

Maybe this is why Jackson Carlaw is playing the woman - and the supporters - not the message, because it is pretty attractive.

Why shouldn’t the people of Scotland run Scotland - could they do any worse on the big reserved issues than zombie-like cabinet members of Tory England?

Or maybe Jackson’s cult salvo was a Boris-like attempt to deflect attention from other problems?

Sunday papers report that some senior Scottish Conservatives now back a second independence referendum, because a powerful and threatening SNP must loom large, to help the issue-free Scottish Tories activate their unionist support.

Clearly, these Tory eminent grises don’t believe the “unrelatable” Jackson Carlaw can do the job himself.

Ironic, for a man obsessed with the personality of the SNP leader and her loyal but not uncritical grassroots support.