Why Jackson Carlaw should be the next Scottish Conservative leader – Murdo Fraser
Scottish Conservative members across the country will receive their ballot papers this week to elect a new party leader to replace Ruth Davidson, who stepped down in the autumn. There are two candidates in the race, the current interim leader, Jackson Carlaw MSP, and my Shadow Cabinet colleague Michelle Ballantyne MSP.
I popped along at the weekend to my local hustings in Perth to hear both candidates speak in front of a large and engaged audience of party activists. Michelle Ballantyne spoke well, setting out what she believes the party needs to do to broaden our appeal for the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections in 2021. However, the star of the show was undoubtedly Jackson, speaking not just with passion, energy and good humour, but delivering a clear message on the party’s way forward.
Jackson and I go back in the Scottish Conservatives more than three decades. I can remember attending party conferences in the 1980s in Perth City Hall as a young member of the Conservative Students. Brash, confident and energetic, we considered ourselves the shock-troops of the Thatcherite revolution in Scotland. (The national chairman of the organisation at the time was a loquacious and rather self-important young man called John Bercow – I always wondered whatever happened to him?)
The rivals to the Conservative Students at the time were the Scottish Young Conservatives, led by the blond-haired, ruddy-faced, bespectacled figure of Jackson Carlaw. To us, the YCs were the country cousins, not really taking politics seriously enough. Thinking themselves edgy, they produced a conference newsletter titled “Boatrocker” – but the joke at the time was that while the Young Conservatives were rocking the boat, we were the ones taking an axe to the bottom of it.
Three decades on, and Jackson is a valued colleague in the Scottish Parliament. He proved himself an able deputy to Ruth Davidson and, during her period of maternity leave and in the months following her departure as leader, has demonstrated his capability in the parliamentary Chamber, fearlessly taking on Nicola Sturgeon on a weekly basis.
But it is not just Jackson’s debating abilities that persuade me that he is the right person to be Scottish Conservative leader at this time. Jackson has, to me, a full understanding of what our party needs to do, and the changes we need to make, to challenge the SNP at the Holyrood elections next year.
While fighting on the constitutional question and saying “no” to another independence referendum has been a vital part of our electoral appeal in recent contests, and while holding the line on the constitution will always be a significant part of the Scottish Conservative armoury, it is no longer enough for a party that aspires to be in government. We have to offer Scotland more.
The next Holyrood election will be fought not just on the question of independence, but will be itself a referendum on the SNP’s performance in what will by then be 14 years in government. Fourteen years in which we have seen standards in Scottish education go backwards, in which we have seen a whole series of failures in the NHS, where we have seen council services cut to the bone, and where public money has been wasted on a vast scale. We will need to point out energetically where the SNP have gone wrong, and demonstrate why we are a credible alternative with attractive policies on the issues that matter to people.
It is because Jackson understands what we need to do to make ourselves challengers in the 2021 election that I will be backing him as leader. With just 14 months until we are in the thick of the next Scottish Parliament election campaign, we don’t have time to waste. We should put Jackson in place, and hit the ground running for the electoral contest ahead. And I expect we will find that he rocks more boats than many expect.
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife