Written by Mark Stuart.
While the Prime Minister licks her wounds in England, another female Tory leader north of the Border has emerged as the new star of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Last Thursday, Ruth Davidson presided over a dozen spectacular gains for the Scottish Tories.
Remarkably, after years in the wilderness, Davidson engineered her Party’s best performance since 1983, including the spectacular toppling of former SNP leader, Alex Salmond in Gordon and the scalp of Angus Robertson, the Leader of the SNP’s Westminster MPs in Moray.
The turnaround in the Tory Party’s fortunes in Scotland is almost solely due to their strong opposition to a second independence referendum (known as ‘IndyRef2’), which became the only issue in town last Thursday. During the General Election campaign, Davidson successfully hammered home the message that Scots had ‘had their fill’ of independence. A chastened Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, will now be forced to park independence at least for the time being.
Make no mistake. This was Davidson’s victory. While Theresa May ran a robotic presidential campaign in England, Davidson’s cheery face was all over Conservative campaign literature in Scotland. Such has been her meteoric rise that commentators are now suggesting that she should set her sights on Downing Street rather than Bute House, the residency of the Scottish First Minister in Edinburgh. However, to do so would be to misunderstand the reasons behind her success in Scotland, and just how far apart she is politically from her English colleagues.
The reason why Davidson has succeeded is that she has sought to detoxify the Scottish Tory brand, which was previously tainted by its association with the English nationalism of Margaret Thatcher, who became a hate figure amongst most Scots in the 1980s.
Davidson’s plan is to allow the Scottish Conservatives to break away from its English counterpart, seeing a return to the early 1960s when the Unionists took the Conservative whip at Westminster, but very much retained their distinct identity. Such a system works well with the Christian Democrats in Germany, who operate both at a local and a federal level.
Davidson’s desire to distance herself from the English Conservatives is logical given key differences over Brexit. While Davidson was an unashamed ‘Remainer’, giving a brilliant performance at the Wembley Great Debate before the EU Referendum last June, much of the right of the Tory Party still wants a ‘hard Brexit’. Rather than shy away from the issue which divides her Party, Davidson called for an ‘open Brexit’ over the weekend, reflecting her strong belief in freedom of movement and in maintaining the single European market. Too few Tory MPs at Westminster are yet prepared to stomach such a vision for Britain’s future relationship with Europe.
Nor, quite frankly, would Davidson, an openly gay politician, want to associate herself with a deal between the Conservatives at Westminster and an anti-gay party in the shape of the Democratic Unionists. The Scottish Tory Party Leader’s open and tolerant interpretation of Unionism could not be further from the closed and intolerant stance of her Northern Irish counterparts, shown by her recent mischievous tweet of a link to a same-sex marriage lecture she gave at Amnesty’s Pride lecture in Belfast last year. Moreover, such an arrangement with the DUP, would in Davidson’s view, re-toxify the Conservatives, particularly among more socially liberal voters, which the Party must attract in the future if it is to see off the current youthful appeal of Labour.
There are also practical obstacles to Davidson becoming Conservative Party leader at Westminster, not least her decision not to stand as a candidate at the General Election. Were she to go for the Tory leadership, one of her thirteen Scottish Conservatives would need to give up their seat, something not seen since Sir Alec Douglas-Home renounced his peerage in 1963 and a youthful George Younger stood aside in his favour.
However, the fundamental reason why Davidson will not seek the Tory leadership in England is that she knows it would be silly to cling to a decaying corpse. The forthcoming Brexit negotiations are going to split the Conservative Party asunder, as the Leavers try and fail to come to terms with a ‘soft Brexit’. Who in their right mind would take on such a poisoned chalice?
Rather, Davidson can bide her time, directing her thirteen Scottish Westminster MPs to push for a more open Brexit, while offering a different vision of a tolerant, socially liberal society which is a world away from the dinosaurs in the DUP.
Indeed, Davidson can have her cake and eat it, first pursuing her political career in Scotland, untainted by the goings-on in London until such time as her vision of a more youthful, open and inclusive Conservative Party is required south of the Border post-Brexit. And who knows, aged only 38, she has the potential to become Queen of Scots, and then Queen of England at a later date.
Mark Stuart is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. This article was first published on The Yorkshire Post and can be found here. Image credit: Screencap/Youtube