Ruth Davidson is not an obvious choice to lead a revolution.
But out there in the country, from the family farms of the Borders to the fishing enclaves of the North East, from central belt suburbs to the rolling hills of Perthshire, a rebellion is brewing — and Miss Davidson finds herself its de facto leader. It is a pushback by the sensible centre, moderate-minded Scots who reject the SNP’s fixation with independence but recoil from the alternative of a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. These voters have no party, crossing as they do divides of left and right, urban and rural, struggling and getting-by. What unites them is frustration with the ceaseless constitutional wrangling that has put their country’s future in doubt since the Nationalists won their majority at Holyrood in 2011. Middle Scotland, those who live there and those who aspire to, yearn for calm, stability, and a government that knuckles down to business.
Ever since the independence referendum, we have heard a great deal about how angry nationalist voters are, how aggrieved they are by the sins of wicked Westminster Tories, why Unionist politicians must drop their opposition to independence to win them round. In all this talk about discontent amongst the 45%, little has been said of the 55% who voted to keep the UK together. These are the Scots whose will is somehow less sovereign for arriving at a conclusion the SNP does not like. They said No to independence and they were ignored. They told pollsters Brexit wasn’t grounds for a second referendum and they were ignored. They begged Nicola Sturgeon to get back to governing and they were ignored. Now they have had enough of being ignored.
Many of them have chosen as the figurehead of their impromptu movement Ruth Davidson, who may represent Edinburgh’s gentrified suburbs at Holyrood but is herself more semi-detached ex-council house in her tastes and demeanour. It is this background, as well as her good humour and tenacity, that has attracted so many who once would never have dreamed of voting Tory.
I caught up with her, or at least tried to keep pace, over a soft drink last week. The Tory chief lives off the stuff; she downs Diet Cokes like Eric Lock downed Messerschmitts. Perhaps there is a secret ingredient in the sugarless concoction that gives her so much energy, for she never stops. Since winning the Scottish Tories’ top job in 2011, she has campaigned in two referenda, two general elections, two local elections, a European election, and a Holyrood election. You might think she would be flagging by this point but if anything she seems more up for the fight than ever. Of course, she is buoyed by her party’s success in May’s local elections, where they gained 164 councillors and pushed Labour into third place. This came one year after her she defied the received wisdom of the commentariat and doubled her seat total in the Scottish Parliament, becoming leader of the opposition in the process.
No doubt she draws succour from the splenetic rage she inspires in the Nationalist establishment, which has spent a decade telling itself and anyone who will listen that conservatism and unionism are dead in Scotland. Little wonder she has become a hate figure for the pro-SNP media, including the National which splashed her face on Friday’s front page and accused her of being ‘obsessed’ with independence. It is the highest compliment a unionist can be paid: If the Bute House Bugle is on the attack, it means you’ve got Nicola Sturgeon rattled.
For the Tories to break through and be in with a chance of a double-digit seat haul the magic number is 30%. A few percentage points below that and their achievement would be on the order of half a dozen or so pick-ups; their best tally since 1992, and nothing to be sniffed at, but agonisingly short of a bigger win. An Ipsos-MORI poll published earlier this week put Ruth Davidson’s party on 25%, neck and neck with Labour amongst those ‘certain to vote’. Dig a little deeper into the numbers, though, and you glimpse the battleground on which Tory fortunes rise or fall. Three-quarters of Scots say they have made up their mind and won’t switch before polling day — but one in four could be persuaded to go elsewhere. Conservative and Nationalist supporters are the most committed, 85% and 83% respectively have ‘definitely decided’, but 42% of Labour voters and 63% of Lib Dems may change their mind.
Miss Davidson’s task in the dying days of this campaign is to convince enough of these ambivalent electors to take a chance on her. Her pitch to them is straightforward, and captured in two soundbites incanted daily: If you oppose ‘a divisive second referendum on independence’ and want the SNP to ‘get back to the day job’, the Tories are the only opposition party strong enough to do it. As she characterises it: ‘You don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, you don’t have to say you’re going to vote Tory forevermore. Help me do a job in this election to take the referendum off the table.’
She is appealing to traditional Labour voters, disenchanted with their party and its prevarications on independence and the Union. She tells me:
I think there are a huge number of them across Scotland who are committed to the UK, who want to make sure we get a good deal as we leave the EU, who want a commitment to workers’ rights like the one Theresa May has put in her manifesto, and I would appeal to those Labour voters: If you want to stand up to the SNP, if you want to make sure we keep our country together, if you want to improve Scottish education, look after the workers of this country and let them keep more of their own money in their pockets, and look after our public services, then take another look at the Scottish Conservatives because I can do a job for you.
This year’s Conservative manifesto marks an audacious incursion into Labour territory. A cap on energy prices, first proposed by Ed Miliband, is now the centre-piece of the Tory election offering. There is a pledge to continue taking the lowest paid out of tax, with no one paying revenue on the first £12,500 of their earnings by 2020. At Holyrood, the Tories want to help those feeling the pinch by raising the higher rate threshold to £50,000. Workers’ rights would be shielded from the impact of Brexit and new leave rights for carers and bereaved parents introduced. Ruth Davidson’s MSPs would also push for 100,000 new homes to be built in Scotland in the next five years while exempting Scots pensioners from means-testing of the Winter Fuel Payment. As if these were not encroachments enough into Labour territory, it was Miss Davidson who convinced Theresa May to maintain spending of 0.7% of GDP on international aid — and Miss Davidson who has ruled out any overturn of the ban on fox-hunting in Scotland.
The Scottish Tory boss recognises Jeremy Corbyn as one of her key assets in this campaign. Many lifelong Labour voters are appalled that such a man is leading their party and cannot bring themselves to cast a vote that could see him become Prime Minister. Here the tightening national polls are useful to Miss Davidson. They act as a warning to those who oppose Corbyn — whether for his extreme views or because he is soft on independence — that he actually could walk into 10 Downing Street next Friday morning.
Miss Davidson is blunt:
To see the narrowing of opinion polls that we’ve seen means that, if you don’t want Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister, and there are plenty of Labour voters who don’t, there is no safe vote for Labour in this election. We know Jeremy Corbyn has invited terrorists to tea on the Commons terrace. We know he seems to think, from his speech, that Britain was somehow to blame for the terrorist attack in Manchester. We know that, in a Scottish context, he’s absolutely fine with another independence referendum because he came to Scotland and said so. There is no safe vote for Labour unless you want Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister.
But no one, not even the terrorist-befriending, Trident-surrendering Mr Corbyn, can recruit first-time Tory voters like Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP leader’s refusal to set side independence and her decision to turn the Scottish Government into a 24/7 separatist campaign hub has infuriated voters who want her to concentrate on their schools and hospitals. Her botched attempt to exploit Brexit to force a second referendum was, for many, the final straw.
Then, something unexpected happened. After ten years of getting their own way, of vanquishing foes and stifling debate, of bending civil servants and civic society to their will, of being at once above and beneath the normal rules of political engagement, someone came along and stood up to the SNP. Ruth Davidson wasn’t the first person to say No to the Nats but she was the first to do so conscious that her No was one of two million, that perhaps some of those two million were fed up being browbeaten and having their referendum vote disregarded, that maybe they longed for an opposition politician to neck a few brave pills and take on the Nationalists without apology.
‘Nicola Sturgeon said that she was going to put independence at the heart of this and we know that she will try her best once the votes have been counted to claim it as momentum for another referendum,’ she contends. ‘Now, we have stopped her before by working together and it’s simply the truth to say that, in so many parts of Scotland, the best bet to stop the SNP is the Conservative Party.’
It’s about more than being anti-independence, though; Miss Davidson takes a particular interest in education reform and she is alarmed at the condition into which Scotland’s schools have fallen under the Nationalists. ‘We’ve failed a generation with our falling school standards. We need to improve that. If we take independence off the table, if we can force Nicola Sturgeon to do what she promised she would do and respect the result of 2014, then we can bring Scotland back together and start improving standards in Scottish schools, improving our public services, and improving our infrastructure.’
Scotland has come to a standstill and, worse, we are beginning to slip back. The economy is lagging behind the rest of the UK and while the SNP pins the blame on Brexit the independent Fraser of Allander Institute warns there is a ‘more general slowdown’ afoot north of the Border. In health, promises on A&E waiting times and junior doctors’ working hours have been broken and targets for cancer treatment go unmet. Nowhere has the SNP’s governance been more socially destructive than in education. Teacher numbers are down 4,000 and college places 150,000; attainment in literacy and numeracy has stalled or gone in reverse. It is now harder for bright but poor youngsters to get to university in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK.
Nicola Sturgeon’s distance from these problems was exposed in the leaders’ TV debate where a nurse and a teacher in the audience confronted the First Minister with some awkward facts about her government’s record. Miss Sturgeon takes a briefing and is always ready with a talking point but it is becoming clear that her position has cut her off from the lives and experiences of ordinary people in Scotland. I put this to Miss Davidson and she was tactful: ‘I think it’s very difficult if you’ve not been to the supermarket yourself, if you’ve not ridden a bus, if you’ve not been to the gym, if you’ve not used the pub. It’s very difficult.’ Reading between the lines, it’s evident that she sees what so many other politicians, pundits and politics-watchers see and what, in private and in their own way, they observe: Nicola Sturgeon is out of touch.
And so we reach this unmapped pass. Many of us lament the prospect of a politics of nationalism versus unionism — and lamentable is what such a politics is, to say nothing of intellectually barren and regressive — but denial is a substitute not a remedy. Identity has been the pivot of Scottish politics for several years now and every attempt, however well-intentioned, to meet sentiment with reason has failed. Facts are chiels that winna ding but even they get worn down eventually. Trying to manoeuvre around nationalism does not work; it is ever twisting but never for turning. Working within its parameters only vindicates its fetish for flags and its illusions of destiny. Nationalism must be confronted and defeated.
The Scottish Conservatives are making their boldest appeal to middle- and working-class Scotland in decades. It is a policy agenda for a country that cares about more than whose face gets to be on the banknotes. After five solid years of talking about almost nothing other than the constitution, here is a chance to get back to what matters. Even those not persuaded by Tory prescriptions, who have other cures for our social and economic ills, can see that progress is impossible while nationalism flourishes. Scotland can move forward only by one of two means: Conceding defeat to the SNP and voting for independence — or by removing the SNP from power, seat by seat, election by election.
In setting themselves up as opponents of arid constitutionalism, in daring to suggest that we should take more pride in our schools and hospitals than in hoary myths of exceptionalism, the Tories have inadvertently become Scotland’s new radical party. A party that wasn’t made for causing trouble is now asking Middle Scotland to join it in a rebellion against a hidebound and out-of-touch establishment. And what a unique, mildly comic uprising it is. They don’t want to overthrow the government — they want it to get back to governing.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.