Joyce McMillan: May's popularity is a matter of mystery

THE new Prime Minister's track record suggests her only concern for Scotland will be to hang on to it, writes Joyce McMillan

A poll says Theresa May is more popular in Scotland than First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Scotland, autumn 2016; and there is wild rejoicing in the ranks of the Conservative Party, as a poll reveals that both Ruth Davidson and Theresa May are now more popular with Scottish voters than the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. The poll doesn’t really quite show that, of course; what it shows is that Nicola Sturgeon has more people who dislike her - which is perhaps inevitable, since she has been a senior minister in Scotland for almost a decade. All the same, it is a good result for Scotland’s Tories, and for all those No voters who are leaning towards the Tories, as the only serious Unionist party left standing during Labour’s spectacular meltdown.

Ruth Davidson’s relative popularity is perhaps understandable, given that she has become the leader of Scotland’s main opposition party without ever having held any political power of any sort, or having any of the consequent opportunities to make any enemies. Indeed her main achievement as party leader, so far, has been to project an air of bluff, buffalo-riding geniality - and general social progressiveness - while remaining strictly silent on almost every policy embraced by the UK Conservative Party to which she nominally belongs; and where she did take a firm stand - on her opposition to Brexit - she seems to have changed her mind within weeks, and is now declaring with her usual sunny insouciance that it will all be hunky-dory.

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When it comes to Theresa May, though, matters are more serious; and I am moved to wonder just how far gone a person would have to be, in that old but strangely persistent Scottish cringe, to conclude that her government is remotely desirable as the final arbiter of Scotland’s fate, possibly for the next decade. About Mrs May, there are four positive things worth saying. First, she once briefly referred to herself as a feminist - a small thing, but better than nothing. Secondly, her sassy taste in shoes is slightly endearing. Thirdly, she once righty told the Tories that they should stop being “the nasty party”, although she did not act on her own advice. And finally, she emerged from the Tory EU referendum shambles with more credit and composure than most of her Cabinet colleagues; although that is not saying much.

For the rest, though, it is hard to know where to start in describing just how unimpressive Theresa May’s government seems, two months in. On the great matter of Brexit, they still clearly have no idea what their main priorities are, or how they are going to reach a sustainable UK-wide negotiating position; indeed Mrs May’s too-clever-by-half series of Cabinet appointments, resurrecting the dead-in-the-water careers of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, has almost guaranteed their long-term inability to agree, even on how much importance they attach to remaining in the single market.

On the economy, likewise, they seem to have quietly abandoned the brutal and ill-advised deficit reduction project that was the keynote of George Osborne’s long reign at the Treasury, which lasted for more than six years, but now already seems like ancient history. After some 40 years, neoliberal economic orthodoxy at the top of the Tory Party seems to have been replaced, almost overnight, by a slightly frightening mix of patriotic nostalgia, and ineffectual talk about greater equality, both reflected in the Prime Minister’s sudden, rash, and completely evidence-free announcement of a return to grammar schools. And although many may think that the demise of “Osbornomics” is long overdue, it is worth reflecting, for a moment, on the sheer, unnecessary human suffering inflicted since 2010, with Mrs May’s apparent enthusiastic approval, in order to fulfil that now discredited economic agenda.

And then finally, there is Mrs May’s record as Home Secretary, which is one to make the blood of any freedom-loving citizen run cold. The immigration regime run by the government during her time has been an unrelieved disgrace, characterised by a culture of bigotry, disbelief and institutionalised abuse that has inflicted untold pain on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. She personally got rid of provisions, enacted under the Labour government, that required all official bodies to promote greater equality of opportunity. She shamelessly flirts with the section of the Tory Party that wants to withdraw entirely from the European Convention of Human Rights. As for the powers against freedom of speech and fundamental privacy enacted through her bill against “radicalisation”, and through the governments’ new surveillance powers - well, I strongly suspect that Britain now has a Prime Minister who, like Humpty Dumpty in Alice In Wonderland, believes that words like “freedom” and “fairness” should mean exactly what she says they mean, no more, and no less.

And this is the woman who, we are told, is now “more popular in Scotland” than Nicola Sturgeon. This is of course - as we have already seen - the age of evidence-free politics; Theresa May is a new face in Downing Street, currently in receipt of a good and largely uncritical press, and for many voters that now seems to be enough.

If there are any voters in Scotland who think that Theresa May’s premiership is likely to bring us any benefit, though, I would suggest that they are in for a most bitter disappointment. Her track record suggests that she will not give a damn about us, our public services, our right to maintain our European citizenship or to continue to welcome EU migrants, or even our basic freedom to debate our own future; although she will doubtless, like all British premiers, give a damn about hanging on to the territory of Scotland, at all costs. Once again, in other words, we in Scotland are likely to be put in the uncivilised position of only being truly heard, when we threaten to leave. And that suggests that those of us who want to avoid being marginalised and cash-starved, during what will doubtless be long years of Brexit negotiation and Theresa May government, had better keep voting for Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues to represent our best interests; or accept that however much we “like” Theresa May, she is unlikely to return our feelings, any time soon.