Jackson Carlaw on leading a Ruth-less opposition

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 12 February 2019 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview: The Scottish Conservative party’s interim leader Jackson Carlaw talks to Holyrood about his spell babysitting the party

Jackson Carlaw - David Anderson/Holyrood

Before she went off on maternity leave, Ruth Davidson assured her deputy, Jackson Carlaw, that he would be standing in for her during a quiet time in politics. But while she gave birth to baby Finn, Carlaw found himself stuck in the middle as his Westminster colleagues threw their toys out of the pram over the Prime Minister’s EU negotiations and also in a front row seat on what is fast becoming Scotland’s biggest political scandal.

While the chaos over Brexit was entirely predicted, no one could have foreseen the extraordinary fallout at Holyrood from the spectacle of the former first minister of Scotland being charged with 14 offences, including two of attempted rape, and his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, Carlaw’s sparring partner at FMQs, coming under increasing pressure to answer questions about her role in the debacle.

And with a court case as well as two parliamentary inquiries in the offing, Davidson may be uncharacteristically keeping mum for now, but this episode in Scottish politics could feasibly see a Sturgeon government fall and put Davidson in prime place to pick up the keys to Bute House.

“I have reminded Ruth from time to time of what she said about it being a quiet time,” Carlaw wryly tells me. “It has in fact turned out to be fairly eventful in her absence, both in terms of where we stand in relation to national politics, but also here in Scotland itself. There has been a fundamental shifting of the sands. 

“I basically approached this time as interim leader with the view that I didn’t want the ship to sink while I was at the helm, but rather I think we’ve managed to keep ourselves very much in the game and afloat.  

“I also wanted to do something with the plumbing of the ship, because Ruth is so focused on the politics of winning and the future of the country that we need to ensure that as a party, next time round we are organising ourselves to win an election, not to win a position as an opposition party.

“It has also helped define things more sharply for me. I think I have been able to function more as her deputy during this interim period because it’s crystallised things that I can take forward on her behalf. I’ve certainly come to quite enjoy being the interim leader in terms of being able to focus on the First Minister and the shortcomings of the government, as I see it, but it has also been about preparing the ground for Ruth coming back.

“I’ve come to the view that it’s not a bad system that allows a leader of a party to step back for a period, recharge their batteries, re-energise their focus on key issues… I think it’d be quite a good idea in the US, for instance, if the president could do the same thing. I can also think of other scenarios where it might be a useful way forward, but the reality of politics doesn’t really allow for that. It is kind of strange that maternity leave has allowed a national leader in British politics that opportunity to recharge and reflect, and I know from being out on the street, a lot of the public don’t know she’s not here, they still think she’s doing a great job, and so in essence her profile hasn’t really lessened as a result of the maternity leave.”

Carlaw says he has had weekly telephone conversations with his leader during her leave, but admits that baby Finn is often more vocal in them than his mother.

“I have to say conversations with her are a competition between her and Finn, who is a very noisy and very vocal young man – like mother, like son – and I’m sure he’s going to have his own independent way of thinking and doing things.

“Ruth is, like any new mother, getting her energy back and she’s come into the new year, she’s seeing events, and she’s looking forward to coming back. I’m not saying we have a sweepstake on whether she’ll hold out for the whole of the maternity leave, but I’m pretty sure she will, and she’ll come back recharged and ready. 

“I think she recognised that, first of all, it’s quite unique what she’s doing as a party leader, in this country at least, and she took the decision quite early on that either you’re here or not here. I think if she defined maternity [leave] as something you’re on when you want to be, that would have proved to be unsustainable. She has literally made one comment at a key moment in the Brexit process, but beyond that, I think that she has stayed well out of the whole thing and let me get on with it.”

Carlaw, the MSP for Eastwood, was always an interesting appointment as Davidson’s deputy, not least because he had lost against her for leadership in 2011. But while he may give an initial impression of being a dyed in the wool, true-blue Tory, his first political foray was actually with the Labour party as a teenager in the 1970s and he is, surprisingly, socially liberal. 

He campaigned for equal marriage, believes in assisted dying and was known to be angered by comments from his party’s spokesperson on welfare, Michelle Ballantyne, about people on benefits and putting a cap on the number of children they could have. He has also worked tirelessly, cross-party to campaign for justice for women affected by transvaginal mesh implants.

Davidson may not have had a large pool to choose from at the time, but appointing Carlaw as her deputy was an astute move. She lacked experience and he brought the benefit of maturity and a grassroots intelligence garnered over a 40-year period of close association with the party. They have proved a winning combo.

He is less of a protagonist than his boss, more polite, but all the same, he can deliver lines with all the force of a metal fist in a velvet glove, but with the added panache of comedic timing. He has handled the weekly bearpit of FMQs in her absence with a certain Glasgow southside gentility. 
He began his first FMQs as Davidson’s proxy the day before she gave birth by defying convention in praising his opposite number.

“This is a failure of character on my part, which my party can scarcely forgive, let alone understand, but, as well as fully respecting the office of first minister, I actually quite like the First Minister,” he said in conciliatory tone, before managing to ever so gently highlight the fact that women who have suffered as a result of vaginal mesh implants have been let down by her government. He even got Sturgeon to agree to work with him on getting them access to disability cards.

Since then, the weekly outing in the chamber has become more visceral, with the allegations against Alex Salmond hanging over them like a cloud.

“In terms of how to handle this at FMQs, Ruth and I have talked about it in passing, but she’s very clear that when I’m here, I’m in charge of it, and I’ve tried to be as reasonable and as searching in everything I have asked as I can be, but obviously underpinning this are the very serious allegations that are now progressing in their own way.

“However, it did lead to issues of, I think, judgement and competence for the Scottish Government, which will all be explored in due course as well.But I do think as time goes on it’s shifting the political ground in terms of people’s perceptions of the First Minister and the government, because some of it I do find difficult to come up with a reasonable explanation for. So although I’m trying to be reasonable throughout, as a politician of an opposite party there are some issues that I just can’t quite understand myself how you come to a reasonable explanation.

“I think at every turn I have been surprised by events, because I’ve always thought of the present first minister as being quite a cautious person and some of what appears to be materialising demonstrates the lack of an exercise of caution, which I have found quite surprising. 

“I’m as astonished as everybody else by the events, but, as I say, I think there are questions about people having been around at the time that might yet arise and to ask, ‘Well, for heaven’s sake, who was having a handle in all of this?’ I think it was widely understood that it was quite a colourful and chaotic administration, but none of this was obviously something anybody had any anticipation of at all. Notwithstanding that, though, I do find the management at the top of the SNP a curious arrangement. You know, Mrs Carlaw and I wouldn’t survive as a couple, I don’t think, if she was the head of the Conservative Party [a reference to Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, being the SNP chief executive]. So, quite how all that functions is a mystery to me, but I do think it is difficult, because I think the separation of powers and parties is important. 

“I’ve also found it interesting in that I’ve been an MSP in the parliament for the whole of the SNP government’s time in power and the first session in 2007 was one in which they almost found themselves surprised to be a government. They reached out across various parties to achieve ends, and while it’s often said we voted with them x number of times, in fact, [it was] the same number of times as the Labour party did, but just on different occasions. 

“The second SNP administration – and this one too – reminds me a little bit of the period of the Major years as they wore on, where, after 18 years of Conservative government, there was more of a sense of entitlement setting in, and a sense among people that this is how it now is in the ordered way of politics and nothing is ever really going to change that. 

“Well, we found out very rudely in 1997 that the electorate is very capable of deciding when it’s time for a change and it can decide for a change in a way that you would never have thought possible, even five years before it happened. 

“So, the whole idea that this is just a blip, that nothing is fundamentally different, that the perception of the public about the Scottish Government is just as it was five or 10 years ago, I think is to misread things dramatically. 

“I think people are also looking at the detailed record of the Scottish Government, albeit through the fog of Brexit, which in a sense is allowing there to be less investigation and focus on that than we might have thought, and they don’t like it.

“The problem for the Scottish Government is when they took power, they never had a record in government that anybody could judge them [on], but after 12 years, there are decisions they’ve taken which now very much sharply bring into focus the successive failure of policies they’ve pursued, things like education have got them into a right soup in terms of the named persons policy or the primary testing or the attainment gap. In terms of justice, we’re now seeing criminal conviction rates increasing as more violent crimes are reported, a wholesale retreat on British Transport Police. 

"And on the economy, I worry that they’re much more focused on fighting an argument about how we stay in the EU, when actually, if we do leave the EU, we need to have a government that is focused on making sure we exploit all the opportunities and meet all the challenges that presents. 

“This is a government that look as if they’re looking back the way, not looking forward. So, across all those policy areas, and now increasingly on health, I think the public are looking and thinking, there’s not a lot here that really is as it was, there was a sense before that this was a government doing a pretty good job, now, I think, it’s people saying, I don’t think this government is doing as good a job as it once did.

“There is a sense of entitlement that creeps in. I saw it with Conservative people and invariably it’s among people who come into elected office after their party has assumed power, and they’ve only known their party to be the party of government. The people who have been there longer, who remember the long walk through opposition to get there, they always have a much bigger understanding of the fragile nature of this, and I think there are a lot of people in the SNP who’ve only ever known an SNP government and they think that’s the natural order of things.”

Even the First Minister?

“Increasingly so. When I saw the FM when she was deputy FM and in the early years, I used to see her with Noel Dolan, her special adviser, regularly in the Garden Lobby making herself available to meet with people, and I just have a sense now that invariably you don’t see her in the general run of the parliament in that way, as if she has more of an anxiety or a reluctance just to engage. There is also very much a feeling communicated by other SNP people that the people around her are very much the advisers now rather than the other politicians, and I think that that happens to all leaders and I don’t think it’s healthy.”

In the 2011 Scottish Tory leadership contest to replace Annabel Goldie, Jackson and Davidson were rival candidates in a four-horse contest that was bookended by Murdo Fraser’s proposal to completely abolish the party and start afresh, with even a new name, and Davidson’s main claim as simply being a fresh face – she had been an MSP for just five months. It ended in victory for Davidson and a hospital admission for Carlaw to remove his appendix just days before the final result was announced.

Ironically, given that the constitutional question has defined Davidson’s time in office and is credited for her success in reinvograting a moribund party in Scotland, Carlaw’s bid for leadership was spearheaded by a demand for an early referendum on independence.

For a committed unionist, Carlaw wanted to get the question of independence out of the way before any further discussion on transferring more responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament beyond the Scotland Act.

He said: “I want to secure a strong Scotland in a Great Britain and so the future of the union will be the heart and soul of my campaign and at the very centre of my appeal to party members.”

He lost that leadership battle, but what kind of leader would he have made?

“To be honest with myself, I think I would have done a competent job, but I think I would have been the face of a typical Tory, and I’m honest enough to say that. What I understand with Ruth, and the irony is that she stands for the sort of politics I always wanted to pursue. I was brought up very much in the shadow of Teddy Taylor in Glasgow Cathcart. He represented the people that don’t live in big houses, what I would call a blue-collar, working-class Conservative, who thought it was important to win votes in cities, and that always naturally attracted me. While I was always strong on issues of defence or economy, socially I’ve always been quite liberal, so that was the kind of politics I pursued. 

“Ruth is a genuine and authentic representative of that kind of politics and now in an era where authenticity is critical, I think the public look at Ruth and see that authenticity and that is why they relate to her, because they believe she is the kind of Conservative who, like Teddy Taylor, is interested in the people who don’t live in big houses and when she talks about that, she says she wants to do things to improve their opportunity, and I think they believe it.”

But isn’t the party basically a one-woman band?

“Not any longer,” Carlaw says with some confidence. “I think the very fact that I’ve been able to step in and keep the ship afloat has demonstrated that beyond doubt but it has also allowed others to come forward, too. Ruth is such an overwhelming personality that she occupies all the oxygen in the room when she’s there, because that’s who the media want. 

"But when she’s not been here, it has allowed Adam Tomkins to emerge very strongly on our constitutional and European front. Murdo has always been strong on the economy. Liz has always been strong on education. Miles has emerged, I think, as a strong force with a very broad commitment and understanding of things we want to do in terms of the health service and development of GPs. Jamie Greene, in relation to the ferries and transport, is now starting to take things forward. So I think there are colleagues who have emerged during this opportunity of Ruth’s absence, which was always part of my plan as interim leader, not to be the person who accepted every media bid, but to allow others to do that as well, and I think that a number of them have really taken advantage of that.”

But given the numbers, can he really see the Scottish Conservatives forming the next party of government in Scotland?

“Yes, I can. And I can do that because I’ve been around as long as I have. I’ve understood the stark changes that can take effect in an election. I very much believe that in the public’s mind at the moment there are only two candidates to be First Minister of Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon or Ruth Davidson, and if the momentum continues to build towards the idea that we need a change because things aren’t working well, I think there will be people, because of that authenticity and because the agenda Ruth will build up around that, who will look at what we offer and say, actually, you know, I think I can see Ruth Davidson as the FM of Scotland. I believe that it’s perfectly possible, if not in fact now likely.”

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