Michele Ballantyne’s resignation highlights Scottish Tory blues

Michele Ballantyne’s resignation highlights Scottish Tory blues

by Linda Holt
article from Sunday 29, November, 2020

REMEMBER that heady time after Better Together when Ruth Davidson seemed to be leading a Scottish Conservative renaissance, throwing off the crusty old image of Scottish Tories as Westminster lackeys and delivering one breathtaking election victory after another? When moving into Bute House in May 2021 transformed from a ridiculous pipe dream into a thrilling possibility?

I had occasion to recall those salad days, and how very far away they seem now, when I saw the current Scottish Conservative leader at a session of the Scottish Affairs Committee last week. 

I urge you to watch the clip (from 14:51:40) here for a snapshot of just how wrong-headed the current Tory leadership is. If you watch the whole session, you get a sense of the context: the forensic questioning of the committee members and the measured, informed responses of the witnesses, including the SNP constitutional secretary Mike Russell. Beside them, Douglas Ross’s Paxmanite “gotcha” strategy and schoolboy bullying style looks even more out of place. This raises troubling questions, not only about Ross’s judgment but about the calibre of his advisors.

Since then Douglas Ross has had to contend with two MSP resignations, one from his front bench team at Holyrood and one from the Scottish Conservative Party altogether. Whatever their causes, the resignations do not reflect well on a leader who has been in post for less than four months.

The MSPs were the only two Tories to defy the whip and vote with Labour against the SNP’s latest Covid restrictions. Prior to his resignation, Oliver Mundell distinguished himself through his uncompromising criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s behaviour over the Salmond enquiry. He was asked to leave the Chamber after he called the First Minister a liar and refused to withdraw the comment. Such principled passion is rare among Scottish MSPs of all parties nowadays, and in these times more necessary than ever.

The other resignee is also no nodding dog. Unlike Mundell, Michelle Ballantyne is not a child of the party establishment. She was a Scottish Borders councillor and occupied the next place on the Conservative’ regional list for the 2016 Holyrood elections behind those who had been returned. When John Lamont MSP was elected to Westminster in May 2017 and Rachel Hamilton MSP took his place in a by-election, this created a vacancy on the list seats, with Ballantyne being put forward to take her parliamentary seat. She stood out among her fellow Holyrood Tories in being a Brexiteer and supporter of Boris Johnson, but her real transgression was to stand against Jackson Carlaw in the leadership election in February 2020 despite having the support of none of her MSP colleagues. 

Although she did not have the party machine backing her bid, Ballantyne toured Scotland (pictured campaigning) and attracted significant grassroots support from a standing start: her pro-Boris, pro-Brexit platform also promised party reform and a greater role for Conservative members in the organisation. When Carlaw was elected leader, he immediately stripped Ballantyne of her front bench position. Subsequently, Ballantyne was the only MSP to express public regret that Douglas Ross’s appointment as leader after Carlaw was a coronation. She was reported at the time as supporting Ross “on the understanding that we will be a centre right Conservative, Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti-Nat party”. She also wanted to see “cronyism” in the Scottish Tories rooted out. Like Carlaw, Ross did not give her a front bench position.

In her letter of resignation, Ballantyne wrote: “as Douglas indicated in his address to our Party Conference, there are differences arising for some, myself included, in the Party’s positioning on policy and, indeed, its principles.” She concludes: “Sadly, for me, this means I no longer feel the Party and I are a good fit.” 

This is significant because Ballantyne points to a widely-felt unease with the direction Ross has taken the party since his appointment. It has two main features. First, he has aligned the Conservatives much closer to the SNP, seeking to outdo the SNP with his free school meals proposals and overturning the Scottish Tories’ historic opposition to free university tuition – although without offering an alternative plan for properly funding higher and further education, given the parlous state of both sectors. Both policies broke with UK Conservative policy. Second, he attacked Boris Johnson and the UK government for encouraging nationalism by treating Scotland as an afterthought, and pointedly disagreed with the Prime Minister after he reportedly said devolution had been a disaster. 

Ross is seeking to appease the nationalists, but appeasement will not win votes from those tempted to vote for the SNP or Greens. What it will do is alienate those who are strongly anti-SNP or strongly unionist – and Ross’s recent manoeuverings have certainly been met with dismay by ordinary Conservative supporters. It was striking to see the sympathy, understanding and affection Ballantyne’s resignation attracted from fellow Conservative councillors and activists on social media.

Last Friday’s Times carried more detail about the background to Ballantyne’s resignation. The Covid debate was, indeed, “the straw that broke the camel’s back”: “I sat there and thought ‘this is mad — this is absolutely mad’. If we don’t stop and think we are basically destroying life for so many people. I looked hard at the evidence and it just doesn’t stack up to the direction of travel…”. 

While insisting that there was “no major row” with Ross, “just lots of little things over time”, Ballantyne condemned the party for “fighting among themselves”, presumably a reference to Ross’s criticisms of the Westminster government. On the other hand, she ignored the explosive potential of challenging the UK government’s Covid policy that might undermine relations between Scottish Tories and the mothership.

Perhaps one of the unique problems for Scottish Conservative MSPs is that compared with Commons backbenchers, the selection filtering allows little room for individuality and divergence from the party line. In the goldfish bowl of Scottish politics, nationalism magnifies any dissent by a Scottish Tory into evidence for the illegitimacy of Westminster rule. Similarly, the nationalist imperative inhibits SNP MSPs and others from publicly disagreeing with their party, as the injunction “Wheesht for Indy” encapsulates. It is absolutely impossible to imagine a phalanx of lockdown-opposing MSPs within any party emerging at Holyrood as they have among the Conservatives at Westminster.

Michelle Ballantyne is likely to find life as an independent at Holyrood much happier. As she said, “the decision was that I needed space, and that I needed to be able to breathe and to be free to think about it and argue it without being under a whip”. Straitjacketed by nationalism, all the mainstream parties in Scottish politics end up enforcing fixed, tribal positions above all else. Vigorous debate, critical challenge and creative thought are all stultified. Ballantyne’s resignation points to a larger dissatisfaction beyond that evinced by her Tory grassroots supporters. 

This is what Jamie Blackett and George Galloway’s Alliance For Unity addresses: it is much more than an electoral strategy for defeating the SNP next May. It seeks to bring a significant cohort of independents to Holyrood – Unity members will not have a whip. Free from the nationalist straitjacket and unallied to a mothership party, they could scrutinise and criticise much more radically, and argue for a much greater and more creative range of policy options than are currently on offer. Independents could also take up popular or anti-establishment issues which enjoy little purchase in the mainstream parties. For instance, George Galloway is campaigning to unseat Margaret Ferrier, who is unconscionably hanging on to her fat salary, wildly unpopular in her constituency, and who all the parties, not just the SNP, would rather forget about.

In her doomed leadership campaign, Michelle Ballantyne nevertheless found herself in tune with a significant section of Conservative councillors, members and supporters: she wasn’t one of the Scottish Tory establishment boys and she was always going to be frozen out. It is no coincidence that many of her supporters have already made a point of pledging their list vote to the Alliance For Unity. Douglas Ross has yet to speak to the Alliance For Unity’s leaders, but by her rejection of the Scottish Conservative’s desiccated status quo, Michelle Ballantyne has already shown herself to be way ahead of her erstwhile leader.

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward and a prospective candidate for alliance4unity in next year's Holyrood elections. lindaholt.org.uk


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