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by Mandy Rhodes
24 April 2023
Douglas Ross: Nicola Sturgeon and I had nothing in common

Douglas Ross photographed for Holyrood by Anna Moffat

Douglas Ross: Nicola Sturgeon and I had nothing in common

For someone about to make a pitch to be the leader of a nation, Douglas Ross is remarkably casual. He’s dressed in a hoodie and jeans rather than his normal suit and tie which only adds to the very salient point that he is making, that as a former dairyman, the working-class son of a tenant farmer and a school dinner lady, and the only leader of one of the main parties in the Scottish Parliament not to have gone to private school, he is perhaps less of your stereotypical caricature of a Tory leader and more representative of your average Scot than either Humza Yousaf or Anas Sarwar, who both went to the fee-paying Hutchesons’ Grammar in Glasgow.

And while, given the parliamentary arithmetic, the vote for the next FM may well be a forgone conclusion in favour of Yousaf, Ross is taking the exercise seriously. He will, he tells me, put himself forward as the change candidate. A first minister, who, he says will work on the priorities of the Scottish people and not on an obsession with independence.

He will spell out how as Scotland’s first Tory first minister, he will prioritise the economy, health, improve education, and ensure that crime does not pay. Above all, he says, he will work in the interests of the Scottish people.

It may just be a piece of political theatre but with Nicola Sturgeon having unexpectedly resigned as SNP leader and before her successor is formally voted in by MSPs as first minister, all party leaders, including Ross, are afforded the opportunity to make their bid for the top job.

Unsurprisingly, Ross’s approach is to argue that the so-called continuity candidate, Humza Yousaf, who narrowly beat Kate Forbes in the leadership contest, just doesn’t cut it. He will say that he has failed in all the ministerial jobs he has so far been given by his predecessor including health, justice, and transport, and that he will continue to focus on the constitutional question which, Ross will argue, has held Scotland back.

Ross tells me that he and Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, had crunched the numbers while down at Westminster where Ross, the list MSP for Highlands and Islands, also sits as the MP for Moray until the next general election, and calculated that it would be a slim win for Yousaf in the leadership race. They hadn’t put money on it – unlike his now infamous and winning £100 bet with Nicola Sturgeon about which of them would still be the leader of their respective parties at the next election – but they did write their predictions down on a piece of paper and put it in a drawer, so the evidence exists. I ask him if Yousaf was also the outcome he wanted given a Kate Forbes first minister might have been a tougher challenge, particularly on the economy, for his party.

“I think any of them were going to focus on independence, and we are going to oppose that extremely strongly, and in terms of Kate, she was going to have an independence referendum within three months of the general election according to what she said during the contest. Any of the contenders for leader would have brought different challenges and opportunities for us, but all of them are driven by their desire to separate Scotland and I come at it from a very different angle, I think we should be focusing on the core issues that matter to the people of Scotland. 

“Very clearly the priority for Humza Yousaf is to have another independence referendum. That is his focus. He believes he can achieve independence in the next five years. I think that’s the worst possible priority for Scotland at a time when everyone, even some SNP supporters, are saying the government and the parliament should be focused on the cost-of-living crisis, on supporting the NHS, on growing the economy.

“These are the priorities of people across Scotland. And that’s what I articulated two years ago when I stood against Nicola Sturgeon as first minister and they remain the same priorities now. I think we’ve seen a very turbulent period in Scottish politics and none of that has been helped by the government here in Scotland focusing on independence above all else. As first minister I would put the priorities of the Scottish public to the fore.”

But despite his rehearsal to be first minister and the heartfelt speech in which he set out his plans in the Chamber for a more positive vision for Scotland, citing his party’s Right to Recovery Bill designed to tackle Scotland’s drug shame; plans for a ‘rent to own’ bill that would ensure home ownership is “not an unaffordable dream” for many young Scots; and a “skills revolution” which he says would give every Scot the right to retrain, and which had the laughter from the SNP benches as its backing track, Ross predictably loses the vote. 

With all the parties voting for their own and with the Greens joining forces with their pro-independence pals in the SNP, Yousaf is comfortably and predictably elected as Scotland’s sixth first minister. Almost two week later, Ross and I have to revisit our original interview following a tumultuous time in Scottish politics with each day bringing a fresh scandal about the party Yousaf now leads.

“It’s incredible that we are in a situation that eight days after leaving office, Nicola Sturgeon’s home was searched by the police, that her husband was arrested, a camper van at her mother-in-law’s house was removed, and then having been told the party auditors had resigned – and most people assumed that was recent – we now discover this was at least six months ago. Of course, you are left wondering, what more to come?

“Can you imagine where we would be as a country if this had happened eight days earlier and the first minister had been at home with her husband when the police knocked at the door to arrest him? This is already a massive story playing out now but would have increased tenfold had that been the case and she had still been first minister, so I am in no doubt this played a part in Nicola Sturgeon’s apparent surprise resignation. Everyone felt she would stand down at some point. I was pretty sure about it, as you know, but the timing took a lot of people by surprise, and I think all that has happened since reinforces the view that this was no coincidence.

“I fully recognise that internal party procedures aren’t routinely discussed publicly but you would think there was a wider public interest story here about the finances of the party of government in Scotland being, and continuing to be, investigated by the police, that a party treasurer resigned over transparency issues, that the party auditors had resigned, and so on, and yet not a single word from the former first minister who was the leader of the party during this time. 

“Even just one of those scenarios in party HQ including, we now know, Nicola Sturgeon telling the NEC not to raise difficult questions about finances – I mean, that was enough surely to raise difficult questions – any one of these should have been a massive red flag and for Nicola Sturgeon to say publicly ‘nothing to see here’, raises huge question marks about her conduct as leader of the SNP while at the same time running the country, and let’s remember that had it not been for questions about membership numbers during the leadership contest, her husband could still have been chief executive when all this began to come out.

“Many people are looking at who is culpable here and by failing to be open about this, rightly or wrongly, Nicola Sturgeon has put herself front and centre of many of the unanswered and absolutely legitimate questions about what she knew as leader of the SNP when she was also first minister of this country. 

“I think it is very hard to differentiate what is done when it is the same individual that is party leader and country leader and for that not to raise suspicions about her time in office. And whether she was directly involved or not in whatever has gone on, she must have known of significant elements of this, and that must have been on her mind as she went into daily press conferences. She must have wondered if this was the day that I might get the difficult question about the funds, the investigation, about my husband, about party finances, or any combination of the above, and that must have an impact on someone’s ability to run the country.

“There are so many questions for both Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf about who knew what and when because there are serious allegations outstanding here, and in terms of a first week or two in the job it seems Humza Yousaf lurches from one crisis to another and that’s before we even start to look at some of the serious issues facing the country that he needs to get a grip of. 

“I think we are now left with a continuity candidate that is taking the same approach as Nicola Sturgeon and that doesn’t work well for Scotland.

“I’m not worried about facing him in the Chamber but I also wouldn’t underestimate him. He’s a slick politician. He can deliver a line but he’s also a bit thin-skinned, as we saw when he fell off his scooter in the parliament and he was complaining about people retweeting that footage. I remember he was one of the first to tweet when I tripped over my own feet at Hampden in a Scottish Cup final, so he can give it out, but he can’t take it quite so well. So, I think that can be part of his problem.

We also saw during the leadership hustings that he can be a bit short tempered. He didn’t particularly like it when the audience weren’t with him. I think it was a Times Radio debate and a question on the gender recognition reform and he got quite shouty at people who have a very strong position – and one I agree with – that is the opposite of Humza Yousaf’s. I think he’s got to be careful that he doesn’t sometimes let his temper, or his thin skin get the better of him.”

I suggest to Ross that he too has been criticised for striking the wrong tone particularly when facing Sturgeon and I also remind him that he had to apologise for his use of “industrial language” when he was caught on mic saying “fuck’s sake” when protestors interrupted FMQs.

“Look, it’s very difficult to be the leader of the opposition. Everyone’s got a different view of what you should ask and how you should ask it. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to hide the fact that there was no love lost between Nicola Sturgeon and I and to be fair, neither has Nicola Sturgeon. With Humza Yousaf, I think I will look at how he performs over this first few FMQs, but I’ve certainly got plenty of material to go with.

“Going back to that remark, well, I am annoyed that I made it because, you know, I don’t like swearing – certainly not in public. I think it does give a bad impression. But it was also just a genuine moment of frustration, that at that point, I think five weeks out of seven, we had an interruption from this group who seemed to delight in disrupting the proceedings in the Chamber. It wasn’t actually because I was challenging the first minister or that I was being interrupted, it was our parliament being interrupted again. I didn’t like that. And yes, I got caught out.’’

Nicola Sturgeon’s parting shot as first minister was that we should try and be kinder in politics. And yes, I did have a wry smile. This is the Nicola Sturgeon who said she detests all Tories.

Ross is an interesting mix of someone who can spend a long time talking about his passion for dairy cows, and you imagine he would be very happy returning to a life on the farm, indeed he has just taken delivery of two pygmy goats, Poppy and Daisy, who join the chickens that he already keeps at his Morayshire home, but he can equally switch into a detailed analysis of politics and strategy.

He has previously told me that he adored the solitude of the milking shed and yet thrives on the frenetic nature of politics and particularly loves the art of debate. He described how as a dairyman, he had spent so long in close proximity to cattle as he milked them that he could recognise individual cows from their back ends and knew their individual characters. I ask him if that kind of close observation of herd instinct follows him into the Chamber and what he observed about the behaviour of his main political adversary.

“I learnt that she was very good at not answering questions. I mean, she was extremely accomplished at saying an awful lot without getting herself into too much trouble and without answering the key questions. And I think she is a consummate politician. I would watch her, and sometimes I would ask quite a short first question before she’s got time to go into her big bundle of notes, but by the time we get into questions two, three or four, she’s got information in front of her, and she’s prepped. I’m not certain we’ll see the same style from Humza Yousaf.

“I knew when she was very uncomfortable with a line of questioning because she had this tick, it happened a few times, she would scratch her neck, either where her necklace would normally sit or when she was wearing a necklace just at the side of it. And she really didn’t like humour used against her. So, during Covid, when I was mentioning that she had suggested chopping the bottom off classroom doors to improve ventilation, she was starting to rub her neck and on GRR, the same thing, and I thought, I’ve got her here. When she was trying to defend her view and being unable to say that a double rapist was a man, the neck scratch.”

It is on the issue of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill that Douglas Ross has uniquely departed from the other party leaders in Scotland in opposing the central tenant of gender self-identification. He gave his own party a free vote on the bill and all but three of his 31 MSPs voted against it in the final stage. He remains unequivocal in his opposition and supports the UK Government in invoking a Section 35 order which prevented the bill going for royal assent because it believes the bill clashes with aspects of reserved areas in the Equality Act. That is now being challenged by the Scottish Government in the courts and likely to take years to resolve. Ross says it was obvious that was where the bill was headed.

“Clearly, the approach that the Scottish Government took was that gender recognition reform was always going to be about the fact that you could self ID, that was presented as the only issue, and the implications of that were clear from the very beginning and have been very well described and articulated by campaigners against the bill both domestically here in Scotland and elsewhere and by the UN Special Rapporteur. 

“When you have so many voices, so many clear and articulate voices, saying this is what will happen if you pass this bill as is, and when you ignore those voices, dismiss them as not valid, and then ignore key amendments that could provide some protections against those identified consequences, then I think that’s why this issue became so toxic and controversial. There were opportunities, indeed, there still are opportunities, to improve the bill in a way that improves the lives of trans people and that doesn’t diminish the rights of women and girls, but the early indications from Humza Yousaf is that he doesn’t want to take them on because he’s going ahead with the legal challenge to the UK Government no matter what.

“I do think Nicola Sturgeon was in some ways lucky by the fact that the bill passed in the last days of 2022 but before such a prominent case as Isla Bryson/Adam Graham broke. I think a lot of my constituents in Moray and indeed people across the country were not connected to this whole debate until that happened and then it was on the lips of everyone. They were speaking about it in the pub, they were speaking about it in the post office.

“You know, I was walking down the street and people had suddenly became experts because they had their view and they were making that very clear, whereas if you think back six months earlier, apart from people like yourself there was a reluctance to even report on it because it was such a difficult issue to have a balanced view on. But then the bill passed, and people were already questioning why it was rushed through, and then Isla Bryson hit the headlines. You had a man go into a women’s prison having been convicted of rape. And the public just thought this is madness. Then we had the whole scenario where Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t say if that rapist was a man or a woman. She has claimed there were various reasons for her standing down, but I am in no doubt that this all played a part.

“When you’re allowing people to self ID, taking down the period that they’re living within their preferred gender, and particularly introducing a reduction in the age limit, then all of those things were huge concerns to me and I think the UK Government has been clear as well, it said to come back with something that doesn’t threaten the rights of women and girls, and we will look at it again. I would look at the legislation again, but there’s no budging the Scottish Government. They’re saying no, this is our bill, and they correctly say it was passed by a significant number in this parliament, but the UK Government also correctly has the opportunity through a Section 35 to say no, this has significant implications across the UK, and we are preventing it.

“This is not about denying democracy or chipping away at devolution, and frankly, I just find it amazing that political parties who supported Section 35 when it was written into the 1998 Scotland Act by Labour politicians now say it shouldn’t be used. Well, it was put in there for a reason, it was supported by all political parties then because they thought there might be a time when it might be needed. I think it is right that it isn’t used frequently because it is a significant measure, but it should be there to protect people across the UK if legislation is going to have a significantly negative impact on them.

“I don’t get the UK Government’s legal advice and it is true, anyone can win on the day in court, but certainly, the opinion that I have seen and what I’ve read from very prominent legal experts and academics is that the UK Government has a very strong case here. I think that’s why Kate Forbes said she wouldn’t go forward with the legal challenge, had she won the leadership. And therefore, you have to question why Humza Yousaf will spend significant amount of taxpayers’ money and resources of the Scottish Government on a legal case that I think would be very difficult for it to win.”

We have spent a lot of time discussing the woes of the SNP leadership, and I suggest to Ross that his own party hasn’t had its own troubles to seek in the last few years with a revolving door of prime ministers, lockdown scandals, and police investigations. After a few minutes of talking about the competency and likeability of Rishi Sunak, as he so often does, Ross answers a question about his own party’s issues by referring back to the problems within the SNP. He is very tribal but then this is politics, this is Scotland, and he is the leader of the main opposition. I refer back to his comment about there being no love lost between him and the former first minister. As a political observer you get used to the theatre of the Chamber but then also accept that apparent political foes can still sit down afterwards and be friends. That is evidently not the case between Ross and Sturgeon. I ask him if he even likes her.

“I don’t want to say no so bluntly, because I don’t think you should ever really dislike people, but we just had nothing in common. There was nothing that brought us together. I have people in the SNP that I really get on well with when I’m down in London that I would happily have a drink or a meal with. I chat with them in the same way I do with Labour and Lib Dem colleagues – Nicola Sturgeon and I were never ever like that. The one thing we have in common is that we were the only leaders who were both educated at state schools, that’s probably it.

“Nicola Sturgeon’s parting shot as first minister was that we should try and be kinder in politics. And yes, I did have a wry smile. This is the Nicola Sturgeon who said she detests all Tories. The Nicola Sturgeon who did not publicly criticise the people who hurled abuse and threw things at my members as they attend leadership hustings in Perth. This is the Nicola Sturgeon that said to Laura Kuenssberg that some opponents of the GRR – and she was careful not to say all opponents – were transphobic, homophobic, and probably racist. As first minister, I think that was wrong. I agree much of the political debate can be improved but it comes from all sides and for Nicola Sturgeon to urge kindness, she must surely also reflect on some of the words she used during her entire time as first minister and the consequences of that.

I don’t think I’ve ever tried to hide the fact that there was no love lost between Nicola Sturgeon and I and to be fair, neither has Nicola Sturgeon. With Humza Yousaf, I think I will look at how he performs over this first few FMQs, but I’ve certainly got plenty of material to go with

“I do get a lot of abuse but worry less about that for me than for my family, and particularly my wife, Krystle. She has a public-facing role – she’s a police officer, and I worry sometimes that within the police, or if she’s at something and people recognise her, that she’ll get criticised or get labelled because of who I am rather than for who she is. I mean, she’s an extremely competent and professional person who has achieved so much, she’s a sergeant in the police because of her own skills and merits.

“But your family can get the brunt of this and that’s wrong and it can hurt, particularly when there’s personal criticism being made. There was a banner at a football match recently with abuse that was very personally directed towards me, and it didn’t bother me but I knew my mum and dad and my wife were going to see it, and that’s not good. I spoke recently in an interview about a death threat I had received and was going to report it to the police because although I don’t always, this breached a certain level, and then I suddenly thought, I’m reporting it to the local divisional commander and Krystle might hear about it that way and I hadn’t even thought about telling her before because I don’t want to worry her, but then thought I better because she’ll be wondering why this death threat has come in and I’ve not even told her. So, I always have to think about my family and the effect that my job has on them.”

The last time I interviewed Ross he was a junior minister in Boris Johnson’s government before resigning in protest over the Dominic Cummings affair. That very principled position he took then often gets overlooked in a caricature of Ross as someone who flip-flops – his changing view on Brexit (he was against but now believes we should get on with it); on calling for Boris Johnson to resign over party gate and then withdrawing his letter (he believed the Ukrainian war meant now was not the time); saying Liz Truss would be prime minister at the next election and then calling for her to resign (the economy crashing spoke for itself); a recent reported spat with the UK party over comments he made on tactical voting (he said there was no rebuke, his words were taken out of context and he would only ever tell voters to vote for his party). I ask him if he thinks the view of him as someone who blows with the wind is fair.

“Look, I think it’s easy to misinterpret some things, and some people do that wilfully, but it doesn’t really concern me as long as I know I am doing things for the right reason.”

Ross will address his own party conference in Glasgow later this week at which he says he will be presenting a positive vision for Scotland ahead of the next general election. And on that note, we address recent reports that Ross had not only received something of a tongue lashing from senior people within the UK party for a so-called ‘vote smart’ strategy urging Tory voters at the next election to think about tactical voting to get rid of the SNP. This was quickly interpreted as Ross encouraging voters to back Labour if necessary in a bid to get rid of the nationalists. And for the UK party worried about losing any of the so-called ‘red wall’ seats down south, this was an anathema. Ross denies that’s what he was calling for or that he had been rebuked.

“If you look at what I said and what was quoted in the papers it doesn’t marry up with the headlines but sometimes people only read the headlines. It says in black and white that I said I will always encourage Scottish Conservative voters to vote Scottish Conservative.

“I don’t run these things past the party down south. I have had discussions with the PM on this and I had a regular catch up with Greg Hands [party chair] about how things are going in England and the party understands the strategy in Scotland will be different as will the strategy in Wales as it will be in England. I think we can make gains in Scotland and given the party has a 70 or so seat majority at Westminster, a lot of what the UK party is doing is defending what we already have and will be fighting Labour for every seat.

“We are doing the same here but there are areas in Scotland where Labour and Lib Dems are not in contention and they can help us take the seat from the SNP and not only helps representation in the area move away from independence but also send a strong message in Scotland that we want to move on from the division we have seen for too long in our politics.

“Look, I myself am a beneficiary of tactical voting. I stood in Moray a number of times in 2010, 2011, 2015, and 2016 and always managed to come second but never quite win the seat. But in 2017 we were able to persuade people that might normally vote Labour or Lib Dem that if they united behind me we had a chance of beating the SNP. People thought that was impossible, Angus Robertson was a well-known politician, he was SNP Westminster Group leader, he had two PMQs every week, so it was going to take something significant to unseat him but we did it and I retained the seat in 2019 and that result was replicated in many parts of the country when we returned 13 Scottish Conservative MPs and I am simply saying what I have said before that there are many seats across Scotland where the Conservatives are the best placed party to beat the SNP and if voters want to remove the SNP in their area then we are the best party to get behind to do that.

“I have never said that voters should vote for another party other than mine, no party leader would say that, what I have said is that it is up to other parties to work out how they fight campaigns in the seats they are targeting, what I am saying is in seats where we are the best challengers to the SNP, we can make a big difference in this election and bring much needed change to Scotland.”

On the matter of the resignation over the Cummings affair, Ross says it was a straight choice between right and wrong.

“It doesn’t matter to me if others give me credit or not for doing something on principle but on the resignation in particular, it came down to a very straight choice for me about what was right and what was wrong. And yes, sometimes when you see things as black and white, you make the wrong decision. Sometimes you go in and people can convince you otherwise and in truth, the night before I resigned, the prime minister tried, the chief whip tried, the Scottish Secretary tried, we had numerous discussions, but I was sticking to my guns. And I remember I was walking the dog on the morning that it was going to be announced, and it was my last chance to reverse the decision, and I was walking by this old railway bridge. I still remember it was a beautiful morning with Murphy.

“Krystle had gone to work and I was just very calm and relaxed. I knew what I was doing, I was ending my career in government, something that I had never expected to get to as this, you know, young lad who used to milk cows for a living. I had advisors, government officials, my own red box, and I was giving all that up. But the overwhelming sense I had that morning was one of real clarity that I’d made the right decision, and nothing was going to change it. So, whether people give me credit for that or not it doesn’t bother me – it was the right decision to walk away then and I’ve never regretted it, because it’s still the right decision now.

“There was something Nicola Sturgeon said in her final speech in the Chamber as she resigned that resonated with me about the fact that she has made mistakes. I know I’ve made plenty of mistakes, things I’ve said, things I’ve done, things I prioritised over other things, and I beat myself up all the time about it. That decision was not a mistake. I know am very self-critical and I do go over and over the way I have done things. I think that is good because it means you always can improve, but sometimes it can be unhealthy as well because you just look for the negatives rather than seeking out the positives and as we move forward as a country, it will be the positives and the positive vision I have for Scotland that I want to focus on.” 

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