Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, has attacked over-centralisation by Westminster and called for English mayors and devolved administrations to be given seats in a reformed House of Lords.
In his first major speech since becoming Scottish Tory leader, Ross said there was mounting evidence “trust has broken down” between Boris Johnson’s government and the leaders of the UK’s nations and regions during the Covid crisis and the Brexit transition process.
That was largely driven by the prime minister’s centralisation of power and “winner takes all” attitude to Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, Ross told the Tory-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange in London.
“The Covid-19 crisis has put the structures for interaction between the UK government, devolved administrations and indeed the English mayoralties to the ultimate test,” Ross said. That had fuelled widespread discontent with Johnson’s government.
“Trust has broken down and when it does we see time and time again popular opinion siding with their devolved representatives,” he added.
Ross hinted heavily that he sided with the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, which has told Johnson his recent approach has exposed “deep structural and systemic disadvantage faced by our communities”
His warnings to Johnson follow a surge in support for both the Scottish National party and for independence during the Covid crisis, putting Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and first minister, on course for a majority in next May’s Holyrood election.
Ross implied the record yes vote was driven largely by popular dissatisfaction with Johnson personally and with the UK government’s attitudes over Brexit and its policy failures during the pandemic.
But Ross went further than his colleagues by arguing one solution was to give English regions and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments seats in a reformed Lords – a position that aligns him with pro-federalist leaders in Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Devolved governments and English mayors needed a voice at Westminster – something the Tories should deliver, said Ross. “It is ridiculous that the Church of England and hereditary peers are better represented in the UK legislative process than the Scottish government,” he said.
“Many governments have flirted with Lords reform, but when we finally get around to it, we need to deliver formal representation for our nations and regions.”
The SNP has refused to take up seats in the Lords, arguing it has no democratic legitimacy; Ruth Davidson, a former Scottish Tory leader who is now the party’s Holyrood leader, is due to take up a peerage in March next year, after retiring as an MSP.
Ross said Johnson should first allow greater flexibility in the UK’s immigration system after Brexit, to allow different parts of the UK to recruit workers needed for their local services and economies.
That proposal, pushed hard by Sturgeon’s government after the 2016 EU referendum, has been repeatedly rejected by the Home Office but was supported by Ross’s predecessor, Jackson Carlaw.
Johnson should also give the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments a role in Brexit trade talks, Ross said, to prove Johnson wanted to include all parts of the UK in the post-Brexit settlement and promote a mature relationship between the governments. That has been another of Sturgeon’s demands.
“Instead we need to unite our country around the values of openness and inclusion that have always defined our union. That is the single most important thing that the UK government can do to strengthen it,” he said.