The oldest Tory in Holyrood: An interview with Jackson Carlaw
“I find, to my astonishment, I am the oldest Conservative MSP,” Jackson Carlaw tells Holyrood.
We’re talking to the now veteran MSP about his career following his victory at our recent Holyrood Garden Party and Political Awards.
It’s his third award in three years. In 2018 he was named joint political hero of the year, in 2019, he won MSP of the year, and last month he took home the Wag of the Year prize.
As he noted in a tweet the next day, the move from man-of-the-hour to man-with-the-gags is as good (if a little unfair) a metaphor for his recent career as any.
As it happens, there were no awards in 2020, which is when Carlaw served as his party’s leader for just slightly more than five months. His decision to quit after such a short stint in charge was such a shock that members of his own frontbench team only learned of the resignation on social media.
He’d been in parliament quizzing the First Minister just hours before, with little sign that it was a valedictory session. There had been no real indication, no whisperings in the Sunday papers, no sightings of men in grey suits.
There was, however, in the immediate aftermath, speculation that he’d been ousted because No 10 and senior Scottish Tory figures were unhappy with his performance and wanted him replaced with Douglas Ross.
That speculation was partly fuelled by a camper holidaying in Moray who, just days before Carlaw resigned, spotted Ruth Davidson meeting with Douglas Ross.
He insists the decision to go was his.
He simply “wasn’t enjoying” the job he held permanently between February and July 2020, covered between September 2018 and May 2019 when Davison was on maternity leave, and then again between September 2019 and February 2020 when she resigned.
“I had no intention - I think people know - originally of even seeking the leadership of the party," Carlaw says. "It was a function of the position of Ruth originally having Finn. And then her decision not to run again. I thought she and I would run through till the 2021 campaign, and I assumed, then, that of course, with her in Bute House I would be there alongside her, but failing that, that we would probably both step back.
“So, when I ran it was as much because I felt I’d done the job for a period of time as interim.”
He says the pandemic changed the dynamic.
“Friends and family said it was obvious I wasn’t enjoying it. And that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy representing the Conservative position.
“I tried as hard as possible to be as constructive as I could be in my engagement with the First Minister. And I found that interesting, I mean, it didn’t matter what I did, half of people were absolutely furious with me and the other half were equally so for the other reasons, ‘how dare you agree with Nicola Sturgeon’ or ‘how dare you not agree with Nicola Sturgeon’.
“I felt that it was an incredibly polarising thing when it seems to me that our first responsibility, when there were a lot of unknowns about the pandemic, was to work as constructively as we could with the government.
“As time went on, I think there was room for a bit more interrogation of that support. And I found that slightly frustrating because, as I think I observed in the chamber at one point, the First Minister accepted, mistakes were being made in the abstract, but never in the specific, and I felt that if we’d been more candid with one another, for example about the emerging evidence in care homes, it’s possible parliament together could have taken action that would have led to a mitigation of what was unfolding.
“But because it became almost a pejorative stance, you know, ‘you must support what we are doing, how dare you be political about it’, I feel that those mistakes were compounded and it’ll only be when we finally have the public inquiry that will eventually come that we will see all of that, but by the summer of that year I was pretty knackered.
“And, of course, Douglas by then had resigned from the government [over Dominic Cummings and his rule breaking trip] and so, I saw someone who was someone I much admired, who I had encouraged - I’m old enough, because of my age, to more or less have been an advocate and mentor to many of the younger politicians in the group over the years - and I thought we had in Douglas someone who could take the leadership of the party forward well into this parliament which would not have been my intention in any event.”
Carlaw was, he says, exhausted.
“That whole initial six months must have been a huge strain for the First Minister, but this was before we had Zoom, we were still trying to manage telephone calls, parliament was closed, there was no infrastructure to speak of, I mean it was an incredibly difficult job.
“It was also very difficult to get any cut through within the media and I just felt physically very exhausted by the whole thing. And so as that process unfolded, I decided there is now an alternative and I’m happy to go.”
There was no plot? There was no secret meeting between Ruth Davidson and Douglas Ross?
“I’m sure that Douglas and Ruth met, but in the knowledge of the handful of people who understood what my intentions were going to be. I didn’t want to just resign into a vacuum. So clearly there was some discussion going on, but I mean, was there a plot? No.
“I’ve said to people if I thought there was a plot going on, I’d have been the first member of it. There’s been a lot of exaggerated nonsense. It’s futile to correct all these things. People want to believe what they believe.”
Carlaw is happy to be where he is, though he jokes that the party don’t really know what to do with him.
He’s the new convener of the parliament’s public petitions committee, a position he’s genuinely pleased about. He points out that the last time he sat on the committee was when he heard about the transvaginal mesh scandal.
It is his work here that Carlaw’s friends believe will do more to define his legacy than his time in charge of the Tories.
It was this work that ultimately won him - along with Labour’s Neil Findlay and the SNP’s Alex Neil - the initial Holyrood political hero award in 2018.
“It’s probably one of the medical scandals of the century, the first real big one. And, you know that involved cross party working, but it involved a really sustained effort by a handful of us against our medical establishment.”
The use of the implants was halted completely in Scotland in 2018 after hundreds of women were left with painful, life-changing side effects.
Often those who complained about the procedure were dismissed by doctors. It left many women unable to trust the health service.
Earlier this year, the government announced that they would pay to have mesh implants removed.
“I’m absolutely delighted that here we are now, eight years later, with the government bringing forward primary legislation which will offer complete redress,” Carlaw says.
We meet in Edinburgh as the party faithful gather in Manchester for their annual conference - their first in person get together since 2019. I ask if he misses not being in the middle of it all.
“In a small way,” he starts. “But do you know, I was at the party conference when the Brighton bomb went off?
“I remember being outside the Grand Hotel in the small hours of the morning having been woken out of bed by the explosion. We were helping bring deck chairs up from the beach.
“The wife of the president of the Scottish Conservatives, in whose room, behind whose bath panel the bomb had been, was one of those who died. Not immediately, but you know over the course of a few weeks after the blast, and Donald McLean himself suffered horrendous injuries.
“Until then, party conference was a really very different thing. There was very little security. There was the obvious police presence to deter large protests but the expectation that there was a fundamental threat to life was not there, and cabinet ministers and people circulated in the conference in a very open and free way and progressively I think that changed.
“So, for me, having enjoyed those days, the conferences I subsequently went to I enjoyed somewhat less. And I have to say when I look at some of them now there are far too many lobbyists and external people there trying to gain influence and make their case. There are an awful lot of young men in suits.”
“I don’t have the same sense of them as being a family party, which I think is what party conferences once were,” he adds.
Though he says that since 2016, the Scottish reception at conference has been one of the hottest tickets of the week, a remarkable turnaround for a part of the party that had once been in the “doldrums.”
Carlaw knows those doldrums only too well.
During the 1997 election, he was put up by the party to take part in STV’s overnight coverage.
He’d been told to go and fill in until a victorious Scottish Tory MP was able to relieve him. He spent six and a half hours being filleted by Bernard Ponsonby.
Carlaw has, he says, “done his shift”.
He was first elected as a list member before winning the Eastwood constituency off Labour in 2016.
Carlaw says he hadn’t fully appreciated just how different the two roles are. As a list MSPs the casework tends to be more campaign based, but as a constituency representative the work is more “personal and fundamental”.
“And I don’t know when I was a very young teenage politician whether I would have found that wholly engaging, you know you’re all very radical and interested in the big things at that stage. Now I do. I very much enjoy, if that’s the right word, but very much take seriously the engagement I have with individuals and supporting the community, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
I ask if he’ll stand again in 2026.
“I don’t know, it’s too soon to say,” he says.
He adds: “I have no particular ambition. I mean I’ve been the leader, and Douglas doesn’t need to look over his shoulder, I’m not planning a comeback. So, my future is really concerned with being a voice, obviously, to members of the party here who are newer and look to have that experience, but to representing the Eastwood constituency.
“I remember John Major when he lost the 1997 election, he came out onto Downing Street and said when the curtain comes down, it’s time to get off the stage. And I am conscious, however young I might feel, that some politicians have maybe carried on longer than they should have done. Part of your contract is to make way for others at some point.
“That’s not me saying that at the age of 67 I’ll think that’s yet time for me, but it might.” •