Ruth Davidson is applying for a job that doesn’t exist.
She wants to be leader of the opposition but there’s no such thing in Scotland.
Not because we have reached peak one party statehood and all dissent has been outlawed — that’s pencilled in for 2017 — but because when the devolved legislature was being designed, its political architects were hell-bent on making it as unWestminster as possible.
No two sword lengths here; Holyrood would be a more enlightened parliament for a more progressive nation. The arc seating arrangements of the debating chamber would foster cooperation, not confrontation — what did they think this was? The Oprah Winfrey Show? Politics is about conflict — and in a legislature elected using proportional-ish representation, no one party would be accorded the distinction of official opposition.
What could possibly go wrong? As with almost every other Labour intervention on the constitution, quite a lot actually. The devolution settlement devised to “kill nationalism stone dead” handed the SNP, a fringe party in the House of Commons, a parliament of its very own and within eight years the reins of power were firmly in Alex Salmond’s grip.
Gifted an outright majority in 2011, the Nationalists found themselves unchecked by an upper chamber, independent committee chairs, or inquisitive backbenchers. Holyrood, accused from the start of being a talking shop, hushed to reverent tones as government MSPs dutifully recited their catechisms and never, ever posed heretical queries to the leader’s credo.
Only every Thursday at noon can the pews be heard, when Nicola Sturgeon casts out the Labour devil and the amen benches behind her whoop themselves close to rapture.
“The main issue is the threat of a one-party state,” Linda from Keith informs us in a Tory party political broadcast.
“Dominant-party system” might be more palatable to the political scientists out there but the SNP’s growing hegemony over Scotland is the backdrop for Ruth Davidson’s bid to replace Labour as the second-largest party in the Scottish Parliament. This is a Conservative campaign like no other: Davidson is asking the public, even those who don’t vote Tory, to back her for “leader of the opposition”.
She explains the pitch to me: “We’re asking the country a very specific question at this election. We’re asking them: Who do you want as First Minister but also who do you want as leader of the opposition? I believe we need a strong opposition, one that actually holds the SNP to account but we need a responsible opposition that is putting forward alternatives.
“What I’m saying to people out there is that if you vote for me and my party I will do a specific job for you. I will hold the SNP to account. I will make them focus on the things that matter, not on a second referendum. And I will put forward alternatives on how we can do things.”
Opposition to a rerun of the independence vote is central to her message. There’s little nuance to be found here: “I will do everything in my power to stop a second referendum in this parliament. I will vote against it if it comes to Holyrood. I will instruct my party to vote against it if it comes to Holyrood.”
Fine, but we’re talking about the Tories becoming the main bulwark against the SNP. Labour has been doing this job for decades; is Davidson tough enough to take on this challenge after just five years at Holyrood?
She is the picture of determination: “Better opposition makes better government and I will not blink in going toe-to-toe with Nicola Sturgeon when there’s something in Scotland that I feel needs addressed and that she, as the person who currently holds the post of first minister, needs to address it.
“Sometimes that’s not wholly popular issues and sometimes I need to come back to them again and again. So things like farmers’ payments. No one else was touching it but this was ripping £400m out of our rural economy. I promise you, if that sort of issue, that sort of failing, had arisen in urban Scotland, the SNP would have been all over it.
“But because it was rural Scotland, they weren’t and it needed me to go in there. She thought that she could brush it off once but it’s about having that tenacity, rather than toughness; it’s about having that drive and doggedness to keep going and keep going and keep going. I’ve never been lacking in that.”
No wonder party literature screams: ‘Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition’, with quieter reference to the Scottish Tories elsewhere. Polling shows the Tory brand remains in the gutter but Ruth Inc is a rising stock. The challenge now is to get the voters to buy it.
Election 2016, most commentators agree, is the first poll to be dominated by tax, with the Scottish Parliament gaining extensive new powers thanks to The Vow.
The Conservatives, though, have been quiet on the fiscal front, where Labour and the Greens have done much of the running and the SNP much of the standing still.
What exactly do the Tories want to do?
Not very much, it would seem: “We’ve got alternatives to the land and buildings transaction tax we want to bring in. We’ve got alternatives to business rates we’re talking about. And all of this is detailed in our manifesto. In terms of income taxes, we have a very clear principle: We don’t want people in Scotland to pay more than in the UK. We think that’s good for individuals to protect their pay packet but we also think it’s really important for the Scottish economy.
“You don’t encourage jobs, you don’t encourage the investment that we need, if we’re the highest taxed part of the UK. In the long term, we would love to be able to use those powers to reduce taxes. I’m pretty sure if you saw Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister down south, we would be wanting to use those powers pretty quickly.
“But as a responsible opposition I also think that you’ve got to earn tax cuts and we haven’t got there yet. We hope to be able to in the medium term but right now our main priority is to make sure we’re not the highest-taxed part of the UK; that we’re not pushing away the sort of investment and jobs we need in our economy, and that we’re looking after people’s pay packets.”
Haud the bus. Is this the same Ruth Davidson who has spent months goading Nicola Sturgeon to use the new powers of the Scottish Parliament? And yet here is the lever any Tory worth the name would want their hands on — the ability to alleviate the burden of taxation on middle earners — and she wants to leave it in its shiny wrapping paper. Political calculations are all well and good, I put it to her, but people out there doing it tough don’t care about detoxifying the Tory brand — they need help now.
This she readily admits: “For people who are feeling it tough, I would say that raising the personal threshold has taken hundreds of thousands of Scots out of tax altogether. it’s reducing the tax burden for millions of Scots. Changing the bands so that people who were dragged into the 40p rate who were never supposed to be– We know from the Office of National Statistics that a tenth of nurses, a quarter of school teachers, a third of police officers across the UK had been dragged into the 40p rate. Their job hasn’t changed but the rates haven’t kept up with their salaries. Those people have been having a bit more in their pocket.
“I think what my opponents in this contest don’t understand is that by making sure people have a bit more in their pocket, that doesn’t take money out of the economy — it allows people to decide where in the economy they spend it. Whether that’s on clothes for the kids or a home improvement or a holiday or people buying things in the local shop — that’s being reinvested in the Scottish economy.”
Tax cuts, she believes, must wait until better days.
“We do need a time for stability,” she insists. “I would love to be able to say: ‘I will give everybody a tax cut’. But I can’t say that in all honesty, and say that I can give everyone a tax cut tomorrow and keep our health services and our education services at the same levels as they are. We’ve got to work towards that.
“The way to do that is to grow our economy, to make sure we have the investment, the jobs, more people paying tax, a larger tax base, people earning more able to contribute more in tax. We know higher earners pay a much greater proportion of the tax in this country and that’s proper. That will allow us in future to use these tax powers to cut taxes. That’s what my medium-term aim is.
“There is also one other thing that I would say, in terms of the contest and what people are being asked to cast their ballot on. We need a parliament that’s got a bit of balance to it. So you’ve got the SNP right now, the current Scottish Government, saying: ‘We want to make Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK’, and all the other opposition parties are telling the SNP: ‘No, you’ve got to tax even more, you’ve got to take even more money out of people’s pockets.’
“We’re the only party in there adding that balance, pulling the SNP back to the centre. When people are deciding who they want as their MSPs for their area and across their region, have a think about the balance that you want to see in the Scottish Parliament.”
No tax cuts? A safe, stale manifesto? All signs of true blue identity airbrushed from election leaflets? Shy Tories used to be found in Bearsden and Milngavie; now they’re in the Scottish leader’s office.
The timidity of the Tory offering is disappointing.
After all, a powerhouse parliament needs powerhouse policies. Two of Davidson’s other proposals, however, are much bolder, both of them taking aim at the “culture of free” fostered by the SNP (and Labour before them). During the STV debate, in what was widely interpreted as a gaffe, she admitted her party would restore a graduate endowment of up to £6000 and prescription charges for those who could afford to pay.
It seems strange to ca’ canny on tax cuts then provoke the ire of Middle Scotland by asking them to pay for their Vicodin and their offspring’s gender studies degrees.
“In terms of free prescriptions, if you look down south, only 10% of prescriptions are actually paid for,” she maintains. “So we’re talking here of course about pensioners still getting free prescriptions, young people, students, people with long-term conditions, and pregnant women still getting free prescriptions, in the way that they always had it for free. But it’s about people who are earning money and who are prepared to pay putting a contribution in.
“We know that taking away the prescription contribution cost the NHS in Scotland £16m. Now, we think on balance it’s better to spend that money on frontline services and for people who are working to be prepared to put their hand in their pocket for paracetamol so someone else can get a cancer drug. We think that’s fair.”
Davidson has broken the cardinal rule that Tories shouldn’t talk about education because there’s no votes for them there.
To the contrary, she regularly wades into what has long been safe Labour territory and gives them a doing.
She argues: “The answer from the Labour Party to falling standards in our schools is just tax people more and throw more money at the problem. That’s their answer to everything whenever there’s a problem. Actually in Scotland I think we have to think a little bit smarter.
“That’s why we’ve put forward — and had some success in moving the Scottish Government — on issues like reintroducing testing in schools so that parents can see how their child is doing, which they wouldn’t be able to do between five and 14 before now. Things like having attainment fund money to help the most disadvantaged pupils actually follow the pupil and be handed directly to the school — not just be lumped into a few local authorities around the country. We also appear to have — although I’m looking for confirmation of this — a bit of movement on initiatives like Teach First, which is about getting the brightest and best graduates from Scottish universities teaching in schools in deprived and poorer areas.
“There’s so much more we can do. The reason I talk about it is that I see so much potential there. Potential in terms of giving headteachers, teachers and school leaders the freedom to make decisions for the school; freedom over hiring and resource and all of these other things; the way in which they teach students — they know so much better than localised or centralised government. It’s also about having the bravery, the courage, in Scotland, to change things and do things differently. We rightly have prided ourselves through the years on having one of the best education systems in the world. At the moment, if you look at the international league tables, we’re slipping down them.”
The Nationalists talk the talk on education but Davidson is unimpressed by their record.
She tells me: “What I’ve found rather sad is that the SNP’s response to that is to remove Scotland from international tests and league tables rather than fix the problem that’s wrong. We are bursting with ideas on this and we want to be a constructive opposition, as well as one that does scrutiny. We want to put forward ideas like we have done.
“I think there’s a question here as well about the pressures on governments and first ministers. So I’m pretty sure Nicola Sturgeon and her education minister have organisations like the EIS in and out of their offices throughout the year campaigning against change. You need another factor there putting public and political pressure on the government to change. I think that’s a job I can really do to bring about these sorts of changes in Scottish education.”
It can’t be avoided.
The question. The query it would be remiss of me not to press.
Will she be Scottish Conservative leader a year from now?
Slightly startled. “I hope so. Do you know something I don’t?”
Come on. She knows what I’m talking about. The conversation that comes up with Conservative MPs and pundits at Westminster the minute they hear your Scottish accent: That Ruth Davidson is exactly what we need down here. Wasting her time up there. Get her down and into a safe seat. Straight onto the ministerial fast track.
MPs Heidi Allen and Jacob Rees-Mogg have touted her as a future leader, and even left-wing commentator Adam Ramsay thinks she has what it takes.
Davidson sounds unenthused by the prospect. “Scotland’s my home and I’ve got an important job to do. And I hope that it’s going to become more important because the role that I’m going to be asked to fulfil is a more important role. I’d be leading the official opposition, not being another opposition leader.”
Even if it means giving up her chance to be in the Cabinet — perhaps to occupy the best seat of all around that table?
Nope. She’s not having it. “I’m four weeks out from an election where there’s a real opportunity for me to lead my party to the sort of support we’ve never had before. To fulfil a role in civic Scotland and parliamentary life that we’ve never been trusted with before.
“There is a massive, massive issue in Scotland that’s resonating from beyond the independence referendum: You’ve got an SNP leader, a first minister of Scotland, who says she’s going to start a new campaign to break up our country in the summer.
“I have a job to do and for any baubles that anyone wants to hypothetically throw at me, the job of keeping my country together has been and always will be the most important job of my life. I have no intention of giving that up lightly.”
She means it, you know. I’ve tried privately to convince her to get the hell out of Scotland but she won’t budge. She has this weird patriotism kick where she thinks Scotland is the best thing since, I don’t know, haggis or 24-hour kilt repair shops or whatever it is you lot are into.
And if the Tories come second, fair enough; but if they place a respectable third, with a bump in seats, she should use it as a springboard to a national political career. She may not be sold on it yet but her party needs her. The distorting effect of Jeremy Corbyn on the political landscape masks the Conservatives’ difficulties attracting women, working and lower middle class voters, and young people. Davidson is the complete package: Young, gay, blue collar and liberal.
It hardly matters what the Tories look like while the Labour Party sounds more fascist than Fabian but if — if — Labour survives, a party fronted by Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall and Jess Phillips is a much more formidable prospect. The Conservatives are unprepared for that and Davidson seems the ideal candidate to knock them into shape.
Oh the irony. The Scottish Tories, once the red-headed stepchild of the UK party, could offer up the next best hope for the centre-right in Britain. But does she want it — and do the voters of Scotland want her more?
On Thursday night, we find out.
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Gareth Milner by Creative Commons 2.0.