The Limits of the Ruth Davidson Show

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 21st 2017

These are times of change. An election that shocked. Parties in crisis. And a world which never seems to stop in terms of news, surprises and tragedy.

Scotland isn’t immune to this. But one take as we come up for two weeks after the election has been that the Tories are back and that this is all due to the appeal of Ruth Davidson. And then there is the secondary story of Scottish Labour showing that it isn’t dead, and has possibly even come off the ropes, prepared to fight and hope again.

The Scottish Tories are seen as on the way up and even having UK impact and influence. Scottish Labour are now talked about as possibly having a future and not written off as a complete basket case.

The SNP appear unsure how to respond, with some arguing for a steady as she goes approach, others a more left course, and even a few worrying that they have already gone left enough. In this, the changed fortunes of the Scottish Tories and Labour matter. How do we best understand the upswing in their fortunes, and whether it is accurate to present the former as homegrown – and the latter as a Corbyn import?

The Tory revival has not come completely out of the blue. The Tories hit rock bottom in the 2015 Westminster election winning 14.9% of the vote – their worst showing since 1865. This rose in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections to 22.0% of the constituency and 22.9% of the regional vote – the latter in second place ahead of Labour. They then consolidated this position winning 25.3% in this year’s local election and 28.6% at the Westminster poll.

This has to be put in historical context. The 2017 Westminster election saw the Tories finish ahead of Labour in Scotland for the first time in votes since 1959 – and in seats since 1955.

This isn’t to say that we are returning to 1950s Scotland. Then Labour and Tories swept up nearly all the votes as the two big parties with the SNP (along with the Liberals) a tiny presence. But what is illuminating is that 1959 was the critical UK general election where post-war Scottish politics began to deviate from the UK picture: a pattern which has maintained to now.

This was Harold Macmillan’s ‘you have never had it so good’ election which in Scotland saw relatively higher unemployment, lower growth and less obvious prosperity. As a result, as the UK rewarded Macmillan with a majority of 100, in Scotland the swing was in the opposite direction in votes and seats: to Labour away from the Conservatives.

The Scottish Tories understandably lambasted the SNP over independence and the prospect of a second referendum, and utilised the popularity of Ruth Davidson to do so. But now, post-election, we have entered new territory. Davidson has been described as ‘Churchillian’ and even suggested as the next leader of the UK Tories – missing the small inconvenience that she is not a member of the Commons, has no Westminster experience, and could only be considered via an additional and unwanted by-election (which could thus go wrong).

Some of these eulogies now claim that everything the Tories touch turn to gold. Hence, Chris Deerin in a hagiographic piece in the ‘New Statesman’ praised Davidson, but didn’t stop there, praising the ‘talented’ Eddie Barnes, Tory Head of Communications and Strategy. No doubt he is this and more, but what the Tories don’t have is a strategy worthy of the name.

The Tories fought an opportunistic campaign which post-2014 and particularly post-Brexit, the SNP invited on independence. They allowed the Tories to speak to the anxieties of a majority of ‘No’ voters because of the spectre of a second vote, giving the Tories the chance to speak from their core beliefs – unionism – and reintroduce themselves to voters.

Yet, the Tory revival in Scotland which exists in votes and seats can be overstated. There has been as of yet no Tory revival in ideas or policies. The Tories stood on the soapbox of independence and as ‘the Ruth Davidson Party’. Name one specific Scottish Tory policy at the election or at all – excluding opposition to independence? Apart from support for UK Tory policies it is near-nye impossible to name anything. And this creates a problem.

The Ruth Davidson show is now going down the same road the Nicola Sturgeon show did post-2014. Have we learnt nothing from politics as fashion, groupthink and superficially identifying with personalities on the way up? Or that Westminster commentary yearning for our best players – whether it is centre-leftists for Sturgeon in 2015, and right-wingers for Davidson in 2017 – says more about them and the inadequacies of the British political system than it does about us? All in a way similar to the way England used to poach our best football talent.

Davidson has many of the same characteristics as Sturgeon. Both are good at campaigning and communicating. But they are also tactical, rather than strategic, have little grasp or interest in policy, no preparedness to build a team and collective leadership, and worst of all, have both chosen at their peak popularity, to begin believing their own hype. This last point is always the first step in the beginning of decline for any leader.

Take one example. Davidson didn’t have the great election campaign everyone now claims she did. She was bossed in the BBC and STV leader debates by the other leaders. In the STV debate, she was forced onto the defensive on the indefensible Tory rape clause, with Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie, unlike other areas, co-ordinating their questions. It wasn’t pretty and Davidson was totally out of her depth on detail and policy, but she was saved headline wise by Sturgeon revealing the content of a private conversation with Dugdale.

Scottish Labour on the other hand ran its usual shambles of a campaign. Scottish and British Labour don’t agree on much at the moment, but they couldn’t even agree for the duration of a campaign on independence. Yet, despite all this the Scottish party staged a mini-recovery.

This needs qualification. Labour finished third in votes and seats: the first time this has happened at a Westminster election since 1918. But the party put on votes and seats compared to 2015 and 2016, and comfounded the critics and Nationalists.

Already though Scottish Labour are fighting over who produced their recovery. Hence, Kezia Dugdale claims that this is her vindication, the product of little known organisational and logistical changes she introduced. Neil Findlay, on the other hand, claims that if only the party had embraced Corbynism it could have gained twice the number of seats. There is also the possibility both are wrong.

Polling during the election campaign shows Dugdale’s ratings flatlining, but Corbyn’s dramatically rising in Scotland – at the same time as they did across the UK. Labour’s vote began to shift upwards in Scotland in the last ten days, particularly amongst younger voters. This hurt the SNP disproportionately. All the evidence points to a Corbyn-led revival and that Dugdale’s efforts were mostly, if not entirely, irrelevant.

This leaves the party needing to make a choice about its future direction. Does it go down the Corbyn route and embrace populist leftism, or does it continue with the responsible cautious moderatism of recent years? Corbynism carries with it the danger it may blow itself up, or perhaps even worse, be faced soon with the pressures of office. Scottish Labour doesn’t have the influx of new members and energy which Corbynism gave the party south of the border, but a politics which embraced a more insurgency-based Labour railing against the status quo could be a potential threat to the SNP.

Where then does this leave the Tories and Labour? For one the battle for the soul of unionism has not been won conclusively by the Tories – as everyone thought – and as anyone would judge from southern coverage. This is still an ongoing struggle, and if Labour are back in the game permanently, it has a long-term advantage over the Tories if it can find the right terrain and speak with a coherent voice.

Second, Scottish Tories and Labour are both bereft of policy ideas and detail – but then so to are the SNP and most of Scottish politics. Third, there is a huge degree of continuity in Scotland for all the noise and fury of the recent election. Nationalist Scotland in many respects is beginning to look rather like Labour Scotland – but with just the signage and shop window changed.

This last point isn’t helpful for the SNP in an age of upheaval and constant change. No one wants to be seen as the defenders of the existing order and status quo. The economic and social dogmas of the last 30-40 years are crumbling before our eyes. The UK Tory manifesto abandoned the tenets of neo-liberalism railing against ‘selfish individualism’, and everywhere we look we can see the cost it has inflicted on society, from the shaming human tragedy of Grenfell Tower in London to the Resolution Foundation research showing that Britain’s richest 1% own 14% of wealth, and the richest 10% a staggering 50% of wealth.

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a country and politics which dealt with these issues of substance? We can but hope but somehow the combined effects of the 2017 UK election has made it seem a little more possible that we can begin to imagine such change happening.