Scottish Tory Leadership

The Tories are in disarray. After less than 6 months of being confirmed party leader, Jackson Carlaw has resigned and now the role is empty. Already people are putting their hats into the ring and today we’ll take a look at what this could mean for Scotland’s second biggest party (I know right? still stings) and Scottish politics as a whole. 

Jackson Carlaw (A man with two surnames for a name) began his leadership when Ruth Davidson went on maternity leave in 2018 as the interim leader. During this period he oversaw the loss of 7 out of 13 Scottish conservative MP seats in the 2019 election. Not exactly a fantastic track record, especially considering the overwhelming majority won by the Tory party in England, however this did not hold him back and at the start of 2020 he launched his bid to be confirmed as leader of the Tory party. His main challenger was Michelle Ballantyne, but Jackson managed to get a long tally of endorsements, including from Ruth Davidson herself, going on to win over three quarters of the total vote. 

Once confirmed, his leadership was largely uneventful, mostly defined by the policies of his party co-patriots down south. For example, the largest revolt the Scottish Tory party faced in recent memory was when Jackson initially supported Boris when his chief advisor Dominic Cummings broke lockdown. Jackson was also accused of grandstanding and lying over Covid lockdown restrictions in Scotland by the Green Party. Whilst not a great record, his resignation still came as a surprise to observers after such a short time as confirmed leader, who said he had come to the painful decision after realising he wasn’t the man to lead the party or make the case for preserving the Union– a particular worry for the Scottish Tory party as support for independence in Scotland appears on a sharp rise. 

Who might be leader next then? Ruth Davidson managed to lead the party out of political irrelevance in Scotland and firmly established them as the SNP’s major rival over Labour. Popular and effective, unfortunately for the Scottish Tories Ruth will instead be taking a seat in the House of Lords.

The current favorite to be leader for next May’s election appears to be Douglas Ross, a football referee turned politician. Unsurprisingly, Douglas is making preserving the Union a central issue of his would-be premiership. But who is the man? Winning his first seat as part of the regional lists as an MSP in 2016, Douglas would go on to win a seat in Westminster in 2019, taking the seat from the SNP’s deputy leader- a rare success for the Scottish Tories in what was otherwise a political nightmare. He also initially supported remaining in the EU, over concerns for what brexit would mean for the Union, initially voting against Theresa May’s brexit bill and missing the second vote due to his wife going into labour with their first child. 

Despite voting against the party and appearing as a remain rebel, it seems the Tory party held no grudges and Douglas even got support from Boris in the 2019 election when they campaigned together in Moray

Douglas is, however, not without controversy; a video from 2017 emerged where Douglas said his number one priority if he was Prime Minister would be to bring in tougher enforcement against “Gypsy Travellers”, a curious turn of phrase that shows a strange attempt at PC language while discussing how his top concern during a time of crisis for the UK- with an ever looming Brexit and rising independence movements- would be to introduce more bigotry to our society. Not surprising for a party that in 2019 promised to specifically target Roma as part of their election manifesto, but still truly concerning for those of us who don’t particularly like ethnic cleansing on the British isles. 

What does all this mean for Scottish politics? Well not much will be known for definite until a leader is actually picked, but a party that doesn’t have a leader already in place 9 months before an election is going to struggle. While this might be to the advantage of the SNP, Labour is unlikely to be able to seize a victory out of this Tory chaos, other than possibly being able to retake their position as first loser to the SNP. What can be said is that with the strongest Unionist party in Scotland now leaderless, independence might be appearing sooner rather than later, and with their star again on the ascendant it might be time for the SNP to call for a second referendum, especially if the 2021 elections continue to look like a clean sweep for the party as they do now.

Coronavirus And The Neoliberal Agenda

Not gonna lie, it’s been a pretty bad few weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated rapidly, and we’ve all watched as world leaders and scientists frantically scramble to get a foothold on the management of this global crisis. From the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, to Europe being declared the epicentre of the pandemic by The WHO, the response by governments world-wide has been varied in both strategy and (with some speculation) effectiveness. While China and South Korea continue to report fewer cases day by day as their focussed efforts take effect, European countries have been seemingly paralyzed into inaction, with much less drastic measures being taken, often much later than health experts are recommending. 

But what exactly are the actions that countries like China and South Korea have taken in response to this crisis, and why are we in Europe- and particularly the UK- not following their example?

In this article we won’t recap the details of how COVID-19 developed, or speculate on how it may develop, or tell you to wash your hands again (seriously though, do it); we’re looking instead at the varied response strategies by governments and what they tell us about the western hegemony, which for the last forty-odd years has been characterised by its own disease of the soul- neoliberalism.

The term neoliberalism refers to a set of economic principles which- to varying degrees in different countries- serve as the fundamental characteristics of a capitalist economy; the freer the market, the freer the people; governments should not interfere with markets; a free market is the best mechanism for the distribution of resources; public life should largely mimic the private sector, and often should subsidise its operations- i.e. markets are better equipped to deal with the operation and functioning of everyday life, including travel, infrastructure and healthcare. Under neoliberalism, all of the above are privatised. Under neoliberalism, the market is God.

In the UK, the rise of neoliberalism as the dominant ideology is most associated with the Thatcher era of British politics, which was characterised by the deregulation and privatisation of industry on a massive scale, widening economic disparity and the hollowing out of the public sphere as a result of major tax reductions. While Labour opposed these policies, by the time Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997 this battle was largely conceded, and little has been done to reverse the havoc wreaked ever since.

In fact, so thoroughly has the ideology of neoliberalism taken root in our society that its callous machinations, for many, appear simply as the result of unavoidable material shortcomings and a Wheel of Fortune without prejudice: there just isn’t enough to go around and that’s life.

The truth of the matter is that scarcity is often artificial, and is a political choice. Economic saving in the short term comes at the expense of improving lives in the long term; conscious efforts are made to “balance the books” instead of preparing for an eventual crisis, which works well enough when things are ticking along as normal- but there is always, always a coming crisis. Around every ten years our global economic system collapses in on itself and neoliberalism is left trying to maintain an economic system that booms and busts like clockwork, all the while imposing a social system where people are left to fend for themselves whenever the music stops.

The UK’s approach to Covid is a stunning and shocking example of this policy put into practice. Despite being able to look into our own future by simply watching events unfolding in the rest of Europe and Asia, we have instead frittered away precious time hand-wringing over tax-avoiding multinationals going under and delaying lockdown measures. The UK lockdown- such that it is- began on the 23rd of March, a full two weeks after Italy went into full lockdown following their failed partial lockdown strategy which had begun on the 21st February. The lockdown in Wuhan had come on 23rd January, and at the end of that month the first two cases of coronavirus were reported in the UK. Warnings by nations ahead of us in the outbreak cycle continued to fall on deaf ears.

While it might seem that this inaction is only the result of some misplaced sense of British exceptionalism (and no doubt these delusions were at play), the truth of it is that modelling and data gathering about an eventual pandemic has been underway a lot longer than the Covid-19 outbreak. In 2016 the government carried out “Exercise Cygnus”- essentially a practice run to see how the UK would cope if a flu epidemic hit- and the results were terrifying. Within the NHS, local authorities and every government department taking part in the drill, massive service failures were found to exist. The exercise showed that the NHS was already stretched to breaking point, and would not be able to properly supply protective gear to its staff, never mind dealing with any surge in service use. 

What is the neoliberal answer to such a report? Suppression. The report, until very recently did not see the light of day. Deeming its contents “too terrifying” for the general public, the government instead chose informed inaction. When actually hit with this nightmare scenario- of which the government wilfully and knowingly left the UK underprepared- the official government policy was to seek out “Herd immunity”, where the disease would “burn through the population all in one go”, as the PM had put it, and infect 60% of the population. A policy that would have left hundreds of thousands dead, even with low fatality estimates of 1.5%.

Neoliberalism is the pursuit of profit over people, and hundred of thousands dead is acceptable collateral to people so committed in preserving the status quo that they would rather you die than risk business interests being put down the priority list. 

Why is it then that China and South Korea have coped better? At the start of this China and South Korea were respectively the first and second worst hit nations by this pandemic. South Korea, for its part, didn’t even enforce a lock down; instead they made testing easy, accessible and available on a massive scale. Anyone who tested positive had their contacts traced, were asked what venues they had gone to and who they met. Anyone they had met was tested as well and anywhere they went was closed for two weeks and sanitised. Testing was also made quick and simple, with tests in the hospital quickly being replaced and moved to drive ins and single person booths. An app was also released nationwide that let people volunteer information about where they had visited if they tested positive for Covid-19, this let people make informed decisions about where to go, and what venues to keep open, limiting the impact this had on day to day life in South Korea. 

In China the policy instead embraced self isolation, social distancing and a focus on hand and respiratory hygiene. Transport services were limited, schools were moved online and local services such as food delivery services were supported. The Chinese government, supported by the World Health Organisation also made an effort to provide education on infection prevention and controls, and is looking into ways to integrate these practices into day to day life, with a long term aim of preventing something like this happening again. The Chinese government also took a very direct role in encouraging people to focus on their own health in the coming days, and to put it in the words of Dr Gauden Galea, the WHO representative to China “Staying healthy over the next phase of COVID-19 is everybody’s business.” 

One difficulty however in discussing China’s response to the outbreak is that, funnily enough, there isn’t one Chinese response. Despite often being accused of authoritarianism and over centralisation, the Chinese government’s approach has been one of deferring to local authorities on policy; the more stringent lockdown in Wuhan has been in contrast to the response in Shanghai or Chengdu, where the local authorities have focused on the availability of health education and hygiene products. The WHO have also provided a big support to people in China, with their educational materials on social media, according to their own numbers, reaching 1 billion people. 

In summary, the response in South Korea has been one of an active government making testing available, as well as helping people coordinate around the pandemic without requiring a complete lockdown and China has instead focused on deferring local responses, supported by social distancing, moving services online when able, making education on the matter easily available and taking advice from international organisations like the WHO. The UK’s response was ignoring reports of service failures and until very recently, inaction.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has had praise heaped upon him across the media and public discourse for lending just a shred of credibility to the Tories despite their cruel ineptitude, and for producing a budget which, at least in theory, will support the vast swathes of people now finding themselves in precarious economic circumstances, although there remains questions about whether these measures go far enough. With increased spending and support being announced and with the crisis itself being such an overwhelming situation, it can be tempting to absolve leaders of past actions and instead focus on the positive steps being taken in the here and now. But we would all do well to remember that these are the same people who, through their negligence have cost hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and have left us without the social infrastructure to deal with the present crisis as a consequence of years of austerity. 

This new found generosity will not last. Dominic Cummings deflecting questions around NHS pay rises is evidence enough for any who need it that this sudden change in values is on a strictly temporary basis, unless we demand manifest change.

(Collaboration by Ryan Wilson and Alex Osbourne)