Jackson Carlaw: “You should come into politics bringing an experience of life into it”

Photograph by PHIL WILKINSON / TSPL copyright 'Tel +44 (0) 7740444373''TS PICS.'SCOTTISH CONSERVATIVES LEADERSHIP CONTEST.''Jackson Carlaw MSP
Photograph by PHIL WILKINSON / TSPL copyright 'Tel +44 (0) 7740444373''TS PICS.'SCOTTISH CONSERVATIVES LEADERSHIP CONTEST.''Jackson Carlaw MSP
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In the second part of our special report, The Scotsman completes our interviews with the Scots Tory leadership contenders

JACKSON Carlaw says he can pinpoint the moment when the emotional bond between him and the Conservative Party was sealed. It was on the night of 12 October, 1984, when the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were holding their party conference.

“I was in a guesthouse a couple of hundred yards away,” he recalls. He was woken up by the blast and roused the group of Young Tories with whom he was lodging.

“I was there within 20 minutes of it. We were bringing deckchairs up from the beach for people to sit on. I remember journalists being just as shellshocked as us.

“That understanding of what it meant to be part of the UK Conservative party and family seared itself into my consciousness. In terms of my core beliefs, if not shaped then, they were absolutely reinforced by it.”

The ability to tell that kind of story is the reason why the 52-year-old MSP, who has largely remained under the media radar in this deeply contentious race, is a contender to win the Scots Tory leadership next month.

Alone out of the candidates, Mr Carlaw has the kind of back story which may give him a special bond with some of the party members who are to elect their new chief – particularly those from a certain vintage.

He first became politically conscious in the 1970s, leaning initially to Labour. Then, as a schoolboy at Glasgow Academy, he remembers doing his homework by candlelight during the three-day week, and feeling angry with the industrial militancy of the unions.

Once Margaret Thatcher arrived in 1979, promising to shake things up, he was sold. As a 20-year-old, he was in Blackpool at her first conference, where the young ’uns were given polystyrene boaters and told to sing “Hello Maggie”. “Just ridiculous,” he admits.

Yes – very. But also the kind of stuff that many members of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party just love.

Rivals are pretty blunt about Mr Carlaw. “He might have been around for 30 years, but then people have had 30 years to get to know what he’s like,” says one, about his claim to experience. He has won the support of just one of his fellow MSPs, Mary Scanlon.

But, meeting him in his tiny office in Newton Mearns last week, it is clear this is not a man whose confidence is easily punctured. Watching his two main rivals for the job, Murdo Fraser and Ruth Davidson, he claims to be amused by what he says are their “sycophantic” entourage.

“I don’t think a leader is well served at all by being surrounded by people who tell them they’re the best thing since sliced bread. It just leads inevitably to difficulty. Even Margaret Thatcher latterly was only surrounded by people who told her what she wanted to hear, and it’s fatal.”

He says he wants people around him who will question where he is going. He makes great play of the fact that, unlike Murdo Fraser and Ruth Davidson, he had a career outside of politics – running a car dealership (although he claims: “I’ve never actually sold a used car”).

“I’ve always been of a generation that you should come into politics bringing an experience of life into it,” he says.

But the car dealership did not end well. “We expanded too quickly and the business went into administration. It was broken up and sold off a decade ago,” he says. Then he took the road to Holyrood.

Of Mr Fraser’s plan to dissolve the Scottish Conservative party and create a new one from its ashes, Mr Carlaw challenges it on practical business terms, but also because he believes it will not change anything.

“We stopped being the Tory party in 1841 when Sir Robert Peel broke from the Tories because of the Corn Laws. [In Scotland], we have never been the Tories. But that is how we are known.”

The point is, he says, that you can call a new party what you want, but people will still call them the Tories, “probably with an expletive attached”.

Mr Fraser says his new party MPs will still take the Conservative whip. So the whole thing is self-defeating, says Mr Carlaw. “That is not an independent party in any sense at all. So this new party, which is taking the Conservative whip at Westminster, will be the Tory party too.”

He says he has a lot of time for Mr Fraser, however. He has been “tested in battle”. But mention Ms Davidson, who has emerged as perhaps his main challenger for the top job, and a more venomous tone comes out.

Won’t she be a breath of fresh air; a walking, talking sign that the Tories in Scotland have changed? “You cannot simply say I’m the new kid on the block and therefore the world is going to come and flock to vote Scottish Conservative & Unionist – someone who has been parachuted in from absolutely nowhere, who we know nothing about, who has no political agenda that we know about, who has fought no campaigns.

“Ruth Davidson’s own performance in Glasgow [at the May election] wasn’t terribly impressive. Moreover, she failed to win the list-ranking ballot in her own seat and none of the constituency chairmen in Glasgow are supporting her. The idea that you simply say because somebody is new, that is going to save the party, I’m afraid I simply don’t buy it.”

He says the UK party did that with William Hague and “we ruined his career”. Somehow, however, you get the impression that when he talks down Ms Davidson, it is not her career he is primarily thinking about.

Isn’t basically the problem that, if he is elected, people will just look at him and say “Same old Tories”?

“I’ve said how we will change policy, change the face and organisation, and I can do that because I’ve got the experience,” he says, pointing to radical policy proposals such as the plan to restrict the number of terms that MSPs can have. Such a move is likely to bring in a large group of new faces after the next election.

He goes on: “In future there may need to be some reshaping of our brand and identity and everything else.” Although that won’t include a name change, he clarifies.

And any major reforms won’t be proposed this side of the election. He says Mr Fraser’s “we will tell you what’s good for you mentality just turns so many people off”.

Mr Carlaw, who knows his Conservative electorate well, is hoping to win them over as the man with the grass roots at heart, who can reach down from the ivory tower of Holyrood and attend to their needs. Consequently, he cannot yet be discounted before the result next month. EDDIE BARNES