Everyone knows what Ruth Davidson stands against, but not what she stands for
Just over a year ago, Holyrood magazine held a summer drinks reception for Scottish MPs. It was a month after the Brexit vote, a second referendum was in the offing and politics was so topsy-turvy that even having an English MP as shadow Secretary of State for Scotland seemed the new norm.
Then the local government elections had Labour and the Tories doing better than predicted and the snap general election resulted in a minority government and an unexpected deal with the DUP.
The winner, by a country mile, in all these elections in Scotland was the SNP. But like after the 2014 referendum, losers acted like winners and winners like losers.
We had a PM who wanted to strengthen her hand but lost her head, a first minister that wanted a referendum but lost her nerve and a Labour Party leader who lost the confidence of his PLP, won over a nation, lost an election, yet acted like he had won.
Even more unexpectedly, the Scottish Conservatives had a resurgence. And with Ruth Davidson increasing her MP tally from just one to 13, she has been credited with shaking up Scottish politics and has personally put the SNP Government on notice to quit.
But she has a long way to go.
I spoke at a business event just before recess when one of Davidson’s front-bench spokesmen candidly revealed that the party had no policies. Perhaps sensing the utter consternation in the room, he added, they’d get some soon.
Indeed, Davidson has charged a trusted lieutenant, the bright and amiable Donald Cameron MSP, to draw up her policy plan. And he has a blueprint to hand, having asked me for a copy of an interview I did some years ago, with the then MP for Moray, Angus Robertson, wherein he outlined how the SNP transformed itself into a winning party.
That vision involved taking fundamental steps to talk, listen and persuade, overlaid by an unflagging positivism and a heavily repeated mantra about the 2007 election being: a two-horse race, that only the SNP could beat Labour, and it being a straight choice between Alex Salmond and Jack McConnell for FM.
Unfortunately for Davidson, that formula is not easily transportable. Even on current form, which most commentators would score as poor, the SNP is polling to win and Davidson, although popular, faces a ratings plummet when scored against being the next FM. Research also reveals that upwards of a third of those that voted Tory in the last election are not Tories at all and so that support remains fragile.
Davidson’s challenge, then, is to find her real relevance in a Scottish poll. Everyone knows what she stands against but not what she stands for. She speaks well, writes eloquently but poses many more questions than provides answers.
She says the UK economy is broken and needs to be fixed, that immigration targets need to be debated, that education, the health service and justice is not working under the SNP and that Theresa May must pursue an ‘open Brexit’ – whatever that means.
Davidson is a pro at calling the shots but an amateur at working things through. Word is that her UK Cabinet colleagues are already recognising that and there is disquiet at some of her ill-timed volleys.
And now, with an astonishing lack of self-awareness, on the day that news broke that two of her councillors who posted deeply offensive racist and sectarian comments on social media, were readmitted to the party, she has criticised Nicola Sturgeon for acknowledging that in the context of the current debate about right-wing nationalism, she would probably not name her party the Scottish National Party, if starting out today.
This is not a new proposition – SNP leaders Billy Wolfe and Alex Salmond said the same – and Sturgeon repeated it to me in March of this year, adding:
“My view, not just of Scottish nationalism, but … of the kind of country I want Scotland to be, whether independent or not, is open, welcoming, diverse, tolerant, a country where we don’t mind where people come from or where they were born but take the view that if people want to make Scotland their home permanently or temporarily and want to live here and make a contribution here, then they have a stake in building a better country and that is the notion of society which drives all of my politics and always has done.”
And therein lies a problem for Davidson. When measured against the SNP, what is her vision for Scotland? And despite her efforts to fudge it, where did the word ‘Conservative’ appear in her election campaign? She is still a Tory and British nationalism, for which the Tories can be credited with fuelling during the Brexit campaign, is the nationalism that dare not speak its name.
Nationalism is not all the same. Just ask those that champion Gandhi or Mandela.
Davidson has enjoyed something of a media honeymoon but with an election approaching in 2021, she will be increasingly scrutinised as she is pitched as a direct contender to Sturgeon.
And all in all, it’s been a good summer for the FM. After a torrid end to the parliamentary term where being defensive became the norm, recent statistics on exam results, health and the economy could all be judged good and improving. There is the totemic opening of the new Forth crossing and the much-awaited Growth Commission is reportedly an impressive piece of work and will, I am told, be unveiled soon. And given the UK Government has adopted some of the key Brexit proposals penned by the SNP, Sturgeon and her team look as though they are focused on the day job.
Davidson will need to counter that record with more than just calling out a name.