Scottish Parliament election: Tories can't tell voters that independence is not the issue if they think it is – Ian Swanson

Scottish Tories won more seats than ever before at the last Holyrood elections with a single, simple pledge – to stop another independence referendum.

Douglas Ross has said he will not allow the Holyrood election to become a 'bitter and angry fight' over an independence referendum (Picture: John Devlin)

That 2016 result, under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, saw the Tories oust Labour as the main opposition party in the Scottish Parliament.

The independence issue, of course, has not gone away and the SNP will be using next year's Holyrood contest to press its case for a second referendum.

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But new Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross told his virtual party conference at the weekend he does not want the plan for a fresh vote on independence to be the main issue of the election. Instead he says he will focus on the SNP’s record during 13 years in government.

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Holyrood election will not be 'Spring referendum' on indyref2 says Douglas Ross

It’s a brave move to abandon the strategy which saw the Tories achieve their best performance since the advent of devolution in favour of routine, predictable attacks on the governing party for what it has or hasn’t done in office.

Ms Davidson was criticised for a lack of policies in her relentless focus on the independence issue – indeed she seemed to talk about it more than the SNP did – but it got results for her, including her own surprise election as MSP for Edinburgh Central.

Given the rise in support for independence in recent polls and the UK government’s refusal to even consider giving Holyrood the necessary powers to stage Indyref2, next year’s election is already being seen as a referendum on a referendum.

But Mr Ross told his conference: "We're sick and tired of the same arguments taking all the airtime in Scottish politics. I refuse to play to their rules. I will fight next year's election on my terms.”

It’s the same strategy his predecessor Jackson Carlaw planned to adopt. Launching his leadership campaign just in January this year, Mr Carlaw insisted the key issue in 2021 would be the SNP’s record, arguing another independence referendum was off the agenda because Boris Johnson had made clear he would not allow one.

But party leaders cannot control what issues voters consider as they weigh up their options.

At the 2016 election, the then Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale campaigned on the need to leave the referendum debate of 2014 behind and focus on bread-and-butter issues, opposing cuts to public services and proposing new investment. But voters showed they were not ready to “move on” and Labour was left on the sidelines.

Perhaps Mr Ross can be forgiven for not wanting to concentrate on the constitutional issue after Boris Johnson’s blundering comments about devolution being a “disaster” in Scotland. The Prime Minister has tried to claim he was describing the SNP’s record in government and insist he supports devolution, but how then does he explain his comment that it was “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”?

Many people may sympathise with Mr Ross’s wish to put independence to one side and talk about things of more immediate concern, like health and education. But polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice has said the constitutional issue is still the biggest influence on how people vote.

He also pointed out a flaw in the plan to focus on the SNP’s record: on the biggest issue of the moment, the pandemic, the SNP is enjoying very high ratings.

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