Back in the old, pre-referendum Scotland, with its old, pre-referendum certainties, three things in life were unavoidable: Death, taxes, and think pieces about the future of the Scottish Conservatives.
No commentator ever went hungry who could knock out 1,000 words on ‘whither the Scottish Tories’ by teatime. How had ‘the only party ever to win a majority of Scottish votes’ spiralled into such irrelevance? (The Protestant vote split, class and nation supplanted religion, deference dropped dead, the Unionists became the Tories and the Tories too right-wing.)
Would devolution/David McLetchie/Annabel Goldie/David Cameron bring about a revival? (No on all counts.) Could the party ride a wave of post-Section 28 social reaction? (Tried and failed.) Break away, rebrand and bounce back? (Never tried and we’ll never know.) Embrace a centre-right vision of independence? (The matrons would’ve clobbered them with their handbags had they dared.)
In the end, they did the most conservative thing of all: bided their time and left well alone. Something would come up. That something was Ruth Davidson, though she was hardly an obvious choice. Many party members were troubled by her alternative lifestyle but eventually learned to accept her career at the BBC as a passing phase.
And she vindicated their faith by leading them to their biggest victories in decades. The Conservatives are now the second party of Scottish politics and, perhaps their most impressive feat, have forced Nicola Sturgeon to wheesht about independence for the time being.
Davidson’s star has shone bright enough to be spotted by Time magazine, which has placed her on its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, alongside Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Oprah Winfrey. Nae bad for a girl from Buckhaven High School.
To her grassroots, this is yet more proof she is destined for great things. When Ruth restored the fortunes of the Tories, they were like dreamers. After decades of sowing in tears, they now reaped in joy. Since then, a complacency has set in among some activists, who assure you that the party need only wait till the SNP falls.
This is not a view shared at the top. They know that ‘No Indyref2′ has taken them as far as it will. Senior MSPs and strategists have begun to reassess not just their policies but the philosophy that underpins them to broaden the party’s appeal. Now a fresh enquiry presents itself: Wherefore the Scottish Tories?
Much of their revival has come on the back of Ruth Davidson’s image. Young, female, and state-schooled, she doesn’t look or sound like a Tory. Her personal attributes are not unimportant. She has an acid sense of humour and that edge of cynicism that you breathe in after long enough in a newsroom.
She is a patriot driven by an anachronistic sense of duty, reinforced in the Army Reserves. She learned commitment and self-reliance from her parents and understands precarious employment because she’s experienced redundancy first-hand.
‘The other side have got an ideology,’ Margaret Thatcher once urged. ‘We must have one too.’ As it searches for the ideas of the future, the party that has been remade in Davidson’s image must root its philosophy in her instincts. Hard work. Opportunity. Service. Optimism. These are the cornerstones of Davidsonism, an unsettled and underdeveloped worldview but one with obvious potential.
The nod from Time has rekindled speculation about her designs on Downing Street. Those who hope to see her replace Theresa May are frustrated by her insistence on staying in Scotland and spoiling the fantasy. They want her for all the wrong reasons and fail to learn the lessons she has to offer. To London’s liberal Tories, Davidson is Bobby Ewing in the shower in Dallas, a deus ex machina who can wipe away the last disastrous year as a fevered nightmare.
This tells us that even nominally thoughtful Conservatives underestimate the scale and nature of the challenge confronting them. A new face on the leaflets and a couple of appearances on Loose Women wouldn’t begin to address what we must be honest and call a crisis in conservatism. The Tories have lost the young, the educated, and the metropolitan. They are haemorrhaging confidence in law and order and immigration, previously among their strongest issues.
Jeremy Corbyn, whom they ought to have kicked all the way to Cuba in last year’s election, has terrified them into a stupor. They have misread his success as an omen that Britain is going red. In fact, the ascent of Corbyn is, along with Scottish nationalism, Donald Trump, and Brexit, part of a wider populist uprising. While the strains differ superficially they all flow from the 2008 financial crisis, the ongoing hardship it caused, and a resulting backlash against established parties and politics.
We are not living through a revolutionary moment but a conservative one. It is not Corbyn’s support for a united Ireland or justice for the Chagos islanders that is attracting voters. It is mundane policies like building homes for families, properly funding the police, respecting the Brexit vote and grudgingly retaining the independent nuclear deterrent.
He describes immigration as ‘the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions’ and rails against expending UK troops and treasure to stop dictators killing foreigners. The Tories having ditched conservatism for market dogma and corporate fealty, Labour decided to pick it up, dust it off and stick a red rosette on it.
This is why Davidson is more useful to the UK party where she is. The next few years will shade in the outlines of Davidsonism and we can expect its focus to include education, housing, poverty, and living standards — a conservatism that enables aspiration where it’s needed and gets out of the way where it’s not.
The Conservative Party should look to Ruth Davidson for a lesson in confident conservatism and making traditional Tory values work for people who aren’t traditionally Tories. That is a party that she might, one day, be interested in leading.
Hero of the Week is Kezia Dugdale who, with one question at FMQs, bounced the SNP into doing the right thing by people with incurable conditions.
The Labour MSP asked Nicola Sturgeon why her government was backtracking on a pledge to extend terminal patients’ access to disability benefits from the last six months to the last two years of their lives.
The Nationalists had made the promise following the death of MND campaigner Gordon Aikman, a close personal friend of Dugdale, who lived with the devastating condition for almost three years after his diagnosis. He was determined that others would get proper support at a time of great personal anguish and vast expense.
Social security minister Jeane Freeman is one of the best ministers at Holyrood and trying to find efficiencies in welfare spending is no sin. Perhaps, however, the SNP could remember that next time they are denouncing the Tories as wicked and cruel for doing the same.
Scenes from the class struggle in Giffnock. Residents of the leafy suburb are threatening revolt over the replacement of their beloved Whole Foods with a Lidl. They fear this will attract the wrong sort — criminals, malingerers, people from Clarkston. Locals are understood to be panic-buying quinoa and fortifying their bungalows with polenta-filled sandbags.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.