In fractious times, Ruth Davidson is the great Tory unifier.
Brexiteers love her, Remainers adore her. Left and right, young and old, urban and rural, there is no faction that does not sing her praises. Her public utterances on everything from social justice to immigration lead the BBC news bulletins. Serious people speak seriously about her as a future Prime Minister; the more excitable assure you she could swoop into Number 10 today and solve Brexit, crush Corbyn and win a 200-seat majority before lunch. This, remember, is a politician who has never held a seat at Westminster and has been in the Scottish Parliament for only six years. Jeremy Corbyn may have pulled in the crowds at Glastonbury but now the Tories have their own headliner: Ruth Davidson, rock star of the Right.
Her fan base should prepare itself for disappointment because the Scottish Conservative leader is not ready to size up the drapes at Number 10 quite yet. Davidson still has a job to do. In the General Election she stopped the SNP juggernaut in its tracks but she is intent on setting it in reverse, securing the future of the Union for years to come. To do that, she must change tack, shifting the national conversation to social and economic policy.
The 2011 election marked a turning point in Scotland’s politics. The SNP secured a majority at Holyrood and with it the prize of holding a referendum on independence. And that’s when it happened. Everything stopped, or near enough everything. The constitution didn’t just take centre stage in the nation’s politics, it became the nation’s politics. Independence was the only game in town and every last lever of government was wrenched in the direction of separation. Historians will debate whether the SNP could have achieved their 45 percent vote while still running the country but the past is a chiel that winna ding and the fact is they chose to do otherwise. Grinding a nation to a standstill is a curious way to go about setting it free but many are the contradictions of politics, especially when idealism gets involved.
Ruth Davidson’s task is to drag things back to the mundane. In doing so, she will not only be advancing the Tory cause but echoing sentiments expressed by those not naturally aligned to the Conservative banner. A senior party source says: ‘We’re coming up for the 20-year anniversary of the devolution referendum and you could argue the entire history of devolution has been focussed on the independence question. We have spent the summer talking to people across Scotland, people in civic Scotland, and there’s a real yearning for the Scottish Parliament to move beyond process and onto substance.’
With the Scottish Parliament returning from recess in two weeks’ time, we will begin to see how the Tories put what they have learned into practice.
That people and groups once cosily ensconced in the bosom of soft-left nationalism are now talking to the Tories is one thing. That they are tiring of the SNP’s constitutional torpor is something else. The Tories too are eager to break out of their comfort zone and are planning a policy blitz on everything from living standards and stagnant wages to the housing crisis and the pressures of an ageing population.
The senior source points out: ‘We’ve been banging on about the bloody constitution and these issues have been debated elsewhere. How do you give young people the sense that Western liberal society is going to provide for them and give them the opportunities they need? Why should the Scottish Parliament not talk about these issues when the rest of the world is?’
There is an echo here of Winnie Ewing’s proclamation, ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.’ The Nationalists, as far as the Tories are concerned, have lost the impetus of that battle cry. They have been so fixated on independence they have made Scotland small and marginal at a time of acute global challenges.
If the SNP lacks ambition for the country, the Tories are determined not to be accused of the same. The aim is to build over time a comprehensive policy agenda that could one day become a programme for government. This platform would be grounded in support for the Union but its object would be setting out a centre to centre-right vision for Scotland’s future.
In this endeavour, Ruth Davidson benefits from that rare thing in politics — a broadly united party. There is a widespread understanding that the Tories must offer voters a vision that goes beyond which box they put their cross in three years ago in September. The Scottish Tories will be the ‘no to independence’ party but they will be more than that.
A Conservative MSP tells me: ‘Everyone gets that it needs to happen. There are areas such as the economy and education where we are quite well developed; others like health and welfare where there is much to do. But it’s a real opportunity to build a distinctive Scottish Tory offer which will be attuned to local conditions, so won’t always mirror Westminster policies — an interesting dynamic for the 13 MPs who may find themselves on occasion at odds with southern colleagues in the Commons. That’s no bad thing.’
How changed the times are. Only a few years ago, there wasn’t much pressure on the Scottish Conservatives to present a programme for government since the closest they’d get to government was binge-watching DVD boxsets of the West Wing. As an activist and past candidate puts it: ‘I remember sitting at the launch of the 2011 manifesto when Derek Brownlee and Annabel Goldie presented arguably the most detailed manifesto, with published full costings. But nobody was listening. We weren’t in contention for delivering any of it.’
Six years on and the picture is very different. ‘We aren’t a smaller party anymore. We are the official opposition with a realistic shot at government… This time writing a detailed manifesto actually matters.’
‘This time’ is May 2021, the next Scottish Parliament election. The country may be heartily sick of voting but all the parties are in the 2021 mindset and it is this poll, not any future Westminster contest, that will overshadow politics north of the border in the coming years. That’s because it is the first election where the SNP could reasonably stand to lose control of Holyrood.
Although deprived of their overall majority last year, the Nationalists can govern comfortably thanks to the ever-dutiful Scottish Greens. If June’s General Election results are anything to go by, and if Nicola Sturgeon fails to turn her government around, the separatist parties could find themselves in the minority. This would flatline the nationalist cause, with no chance of getting their independence bandwagon back on the road for years to come.
But could 2021 witness something more? Could Ruth Davidson — whisper it — become First Minister? It is still very much an outside possibility; even with a further surge in support, the parliamentary arithmetic would likely go against the Tories. Nevertheless, they plan to mount a campaign worthy of victory. In 2021, there will be no running for second place.
An MP lays it out thus: ‘If we want to make Ruth First Minister, she needs to have a broad and deep policy platform that speaks to people beyond just “Let’s give the Nats a kicking”. Obviously there’ll be an element of that in 2021 because if they do well they might try again, but we can’t run a single issue campaign. Nor do I think any of us want to – we want to have actual debates on substance.
‘And with increased tax and welfare powers there’s a huge opportunity for a distinctive, modern, centre-right offering. Scotland is not some lefty enclave, and I think these new powers will show that if we pitch our stall right. Ruth has started to lay the foundations but we need to really push some big and bold ideas… and we need to formulate a positive vision of Scotland’s future within the UK in the new post-Brexit era as well.’
‘Post-Brexit era’ is a phrase we will hear often. Judging by negotiations thus far, the UK Government is in for several difficult years as ministers try to extricate Britain from Europe in one piece and with minimal economic and political damage. This period will be fraught with danger and the impression that Scotland is suffering the consequences of a decision it rejected could prove fertile ground for the Nationalists.
That is where distinctiveness will come in useful for the Scottish Tories. They will be able to demonstrate their independence by taking up the cause of Scottish interests in the Brexit process — ‘standing up for Scotland’, if you will. A source explains: ‘We’re going to make sure Scotland’s voice is heard, and when we say Scotland’s voice we don’t just mean the Nationalists. We want to see balance in the devolution of powers so that more powers come to Scotland where they can but where we also maintain the UK single market.’
It is an audacious act of political clothes-stealing, robbing the Nationalists of their sackcloth and ashes, but it might just work. Unlike Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson has real influence in the UK Government.
Taken together — Brexit, the policy refit, the next election — this sounds a Herculean feat and if any of it is to be achieved, Davidson will have to do less and delegate more. She is no longer Tory Action Woman, single-handedly fending off the Nationalist menace. She now has a pool of talent at Holyrood and Westminster that she can rely on. As Hon. Col. Davidson, 32 Signals, knows, a general is only as good as the faith she places in her lieutenants.
That trust will be tested, rewarded or rebuked, in the months and years ahead. Davidson is loved across all wings of the Tory Party but she is not universally liked. There is a certain sort of chap — and it invariably is a chap — who joins in the ovations for this fizzing little firework but whose joy at the party’s re-emergence in Scotland is tempered by the suspicion that Davidson is getting ideas above her station. Scottish Tories ought/ To know their place, and not to play/The Old Retainer night and day.
This tension could be exposed on immigration, for instance, where Davidson favours a more liberal approach. Appeals to the specific regional needs of Scotland — where migrants can offset an ageing population — will be deemed ‘unsound’ by some. Why go to all the effort of taking back control from Brussels onto to hand the head girl of the Caledonian branch a veto over immigration policy? Davidson and her MPs should steel themselves now because run-ins seem almost inevitable.
MSPs are returning from their summer holidays and it looks like this year they might bring the Scottish Government with them. Nationalists have been off at camp for the past five years, singing ‘kumbaya’ and dreaming of the future. It took the loss of 21 of their Commons seats to shock them out of their reverie and realise that the voters want less lofty talk about ‘the early days of a better nation’ and more running of the nation we have.
Nicola Sturgeon is expected to relaunch her administration after the parliamentary recess, pinning her hopes on an enthusiastic thump of the ‘reset’ button. How much leeway she has is not clear; the Nationalist benches are not teeming with undiscovered talent. Jeane Freeman and Humza Yousaf could readily be promoted to the Cabinet and Ben Macpherson, Jenny Gilruth and Kate Forbes stand out as future ministers. But beyond a few talented and conscientious Nats, Sturgeon is lumped with much dead wood.
Public opinion doesn’t make for pleasant reading either. In the days after the EU referendum result, support for independence reached almost 60 percent; today separation lags behind the 45 percent it managed in 2014. Nicola Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings have mirrored this nosedive. Amidst the shock and anxiety of the Brexit vote, Sturgeon commanded the backing of seven in ten Scots — now she struggles to keep that number above 50 percent. The country has made up its mind, for the time being at least, about the First Minister and her constitutional ambitions.
The Tories have greatly taken heart from Sturgeon’s comments to the Edinburgh International Book Festival apparently repudiating her party’s nationalist roots. It was not, they tell me, the act of a confident leader ready to take her party forward.
Still, the SNP’s woes could yet be their rivals’ undoing. There is an unmistakable mood of complacency among some Unionists, who mistake the current favour they are in with the voters for a permanent victory. Times change, attitudes too and, for that matter, so does luck.
The Conservatives are clear-eyed about the SNP threat. ‘You should never underestimate them,’ a top Tory warns. ‘They’re extremely motivated and there are a lot of talented, capable people there. We would be foolish to underestimate their desire to cling onto and exert power. That will always come first.’
If they hope to win the long war, Unionists will need to be motivated too. Those who are against independence must become more than opponents of someone else’s idea — they must champion ideas of their own.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, remembering to reference the essay. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.