Scottish Election 2021: Why Conservative leader Douglas Ross should be going outside his comfort zone to places like Castlemilk and Craigmillar – John McLellan

The one and only time I met Gordon Brown was at the end of 2009 at one of the regional press receptions at Number 10 in which editors are given some warm wine and warmer words in the hope that they go back to base and publish nice things about the government of the day.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross with candidate Dr Sandesh Gulhane outside New Stobhill Hospital in Springburn, north Glasgow. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

In the midst of the economic collapse after the previous year’s banking crash, with Alex Salmond firmly installed as First Minister for two years on the back of a series of SNP giveaways, Mr Brown was not in the heartiest of moods and was particularly concerned about the amount of coverage Scottish papers were giving to the devolved government.

“It’s the economy that matters and that’s here,” he said, and wasn’t persuaded that as health, education and policing had been fully devolved, those were likely to feature prominently in the regular news agenda.

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Judging by the current Scottish election campaign, we were both wrong, because in the era of TV-driven personality politics, the SNP’s lacklustre record on health, education or law and order is making no impact on voting intentions and an Ipsos/Mori poll for STV indicated independence had gone from a low priority to the number one issue for 49 per cent of voters, with education (28 per cent) and health (27 per cent) some way behind.

It’s unclear if the constitution is now a top priority because unionists sense the danger and nationalists the opportunity, or because of pro-independence Alba, but it’s obvious from three new polls – Ipsos/Mori, Opinium for Sky News and Savanta ComRes for The Scotsman – that the Conservatives and Labour opposition are making no headway, despite a bright start for new Labour leader Anas Sarwar.

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As for Alba, Alex Salmond’s failure to condemn Russia for the Salisbury poisonings is another reason it is struggling to rise above three per cent, and The Proclaimers and all the other Alba-nonies should have a good think about the company they are keeping... “I’m on my way, from novichok and sarin gas today... And days from now you'll make it to the next world… ”

The SNP is so far ahead, now predicted to win up to 71 seats, that the opposition can’t rely on SNP campaign blunders, like this week’s ill-judged and widely mocked “1984” party election broadcast featuring hazy images of Nicola Sturgeon on a bank of 1970s televisions.

Maybe the admission of failures over care home deaths will have an effect, but with just over three weeks left, Conservative leader Douglas Ross needs a new attention-grabbing strategy which challenges perceptions because so far little has worked. The Conservative dialogue has all been about opposing a referendum, which the public understands, but what then?

Giving devolution a go would be a start, because the truth is that Labour effectively only stuck an assembly on the old Scottish Office as a means to skewer nationalism, but since 2007 the SNP’s main aim has been to expose its inadequacies.

The opportunity remains to make devolution work if both London and Edinburgh truly believe in it and two events this week show how that can be done.

Edinburgh businessman and Lothian Conservative candidate Malcolm Offord presented a paper for the Reform Scotland think tank which outlined eight steps for the recovery, including infrastructure investment, devolution of corporation tax and the expansion of the Scottish National Investment Bank (SNIB), which chimed with a new study from the Oxford Economics (OE) consultancy on boosting Scotland’s economy for Sir Tom Hunter’s Foundation.

OE was scathing about Scotland’s economic landscape; a high proportion of people have no qualifications and job-related training has declined, workers are less likely to be in senior posts than the UK average and management skills are often poor. Scotland is near the bottom of UK nations and regions for the number of businesses, has a poor business birth and scale-up rate, so jobs growth is slower than the UK average.

Beyond high-speed rail links to the rest of the UK (on which the Scottish government has withdrawn co-operation) OE sees only marginal benefits in transport infrastructure investment, but like Mr Offord wants a powerful SNIB at the heart of a new Scottish venture capital sector to accelerate growth.

With extensive borrowing capabilities, matched by reformed taxation to encourage work, investment and risk-taking alongside a targeted industrial strategy based around renewable energy and decarbonisation, it could give the whole Scottish economy a much-needed shot in the arm.

None of it relies on independence but it does need enthusiasm and good faith, and as the Conservatives are committed to joint UK-Scottish infrastructure investment for projects of national importance, this can be part of an expanded SNIB, as Mr Offord and OE recommend.

The SNP knows how to buy votes with middle-class bribes like free school food for all, but shows little appetite for a committed programme to generate the cash to fund them, but there is nothing more Conservative than backing private enterprise to create wealth and opportunity for the benefit of those who need it most. As Gordon Brown said, it’s about the economy, but it also needs effective communication.

I previously said Mr Sarwar should be out speaking to the people being left behind, but so too can Mr Ross meet those who need the jobs only a booming economy can deliver.

That’s not financiers and factory bosses but in communities where the welcome for a Conservative might not be warm, but which are being taken for granted by an SNP expecting to stroll back into power.

As a football referee, he is used to being outside a comfort zone, but day after day in places like Castlemilk and Craigmillar, Torry and Toryglen, or Linlathen and Lochend he should listen to people at the sharp end of both Scottish and UK government decisions. Who knows if it will win votes, but it will win respect.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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