The future of the Scottish Tories after Ruth Davidson

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, September 1st 2019

One constituency consistently admired Ruth Davidson – the media. As in her eight years of Tory leadership, the same has been true of her resignation; with numerous plaudits, magnified by how the London media misunderstand and misread Scotland.

One example was provided by BBC ‘Newsnight’s’ programme on Thursday evening when Ben Chu opened his Ruth Davidson film with the proclamation: ‘She was an election winner with a gold dust appeal to millennials’, which was completely wrong in both its assertions.

In her period as leader, Davidson shook up the Scottish Tories and had a wider impact in Scotland and the UK. But how deep seated was that impact, how sustainable, and where does it leave the Tories in terms of future challenges in the increasingly choppy waters of Brexit Britain?

Conservatives under her leadership became ‘the Ruth Davidson Party’ – a party that complained about the SNP’s concern with independence, yet continually ran campaigns saying ‘Just Say No’ and ‘No Means No’.

In 2011, Scottish Tories rejected Murdo Fraser’s offer of the prospect of becoming an autonomous party with a new name and credo, instead backing Ruth Davidson as their new leader. James Mitchell of Edinburgh University observes that ‘Davidson failed to detoxify the label but adopted Murdo Fraser’s strategy by dropping the name.  Her error was to personalise and not institutionalise the change – the ‘Ruth Davidson Party’ rather than some alternative.’

Post-Davidson the party has announced it will set up an internal commission to look at the future relationship of the Scottish and British parties. One possibility is a fully autonomous Scottish Tory Party with a new name.

Prospective Tory leadership candidates identified so far – Murdo Fraser, Adam Tomkins, Donald Cameron, and Annie Wells – face major challenges if the party is to adapt and prosper in the turbulent times ahead.

First, as Alan Convery of Edinburgh University comments, under Davidson, ‘the party mastered the art of opposition and fought two very disciplined and successful campaigns in 2016 and 2017’. But that leaves huge pressure points about ‘leadership, organisation, and devolution’, and to what extent the Tories can shift from an opposition mindset to proposing anything positive.

Second, the Tories have to take a distinct stand on Brexit that will become more problematic if a No Deal Brexit happens. Underlying this is what kind of Scotland and the UK Scottish Tories want to champion.

Adam Tomkins, in ‘Scotland, the UK and Brexit’ (an IPPR collection I edited) wrote that ‘We are unionists, not nationalists – advocates of growing the economy through increased international trade, not of separating ourselves from our nearest trading partners.’ He recognised that this posed difficulties, even then before a No Deal Brexit became a distinct possibility, stating ‘this is a vision of Brexit that will need to be fought for – it cannot be taken for granted.’

There is the thorny subject which Ruth Davidson has posed for her successor – namely that if she will not put up with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and the prospect of a No Deal Brexit – why should Scotland? This illustrates the weakness of the Scottish Tories and the limits of their influence, even under a leader like Davidson who has won lots of Tory plaudits.

Third, there is the challenge of how party refashions the cause of the union. Here the Scottish Tories have to address the challenge of remaking the case for the union in a state which, for all the rhetoric of ‘pooling’ and ‘sharing’, is regionally the most unequal advanced developed country in the world. They need to become advocates for a completely reformed union – not just constitutionally, but economically and socially – that most Scottish opinion will be rightly sceptical of.

Fourth, the Scottish Tories under Davidson partly reconnected with modern Scotland. This is a party that has, for example, officially made peace with lesbian and gay Scotland, whereas under Thatcher it was an openly homophobic, discriminatory party.

Yet the Scotland of systematic poverty and hardship made worse by Tory austerity and welfare cuts is one Davidson and her colleagues have tended to avoid. She was comfortable differentiating from Westminster Tories on racism and xenophobia, but prepared to defend the indefensible rape clause. Even more widely, Tories need to understand the Scotland that has been marginalised by years of focusing on middle class concerns at Holyrood and Westminster.

Finally, the Tories have to stand for domestic policy beyond Brexit and the union. Murdo Fraser addressed this recently saying that ‘The SNP in power have been vociferous about devolution from Westminster to Edinburgh, but whilst complaining about London power-grabs, they themselves have been all too happy to grab power away from local councils.’

There is a gathering mood across the political spectrum that centralisation has reached its limits and should be reversed. Could the Tories, who pre-Thatcher were once the champions of localism, be the new champions of decentralism? And could they in so doing gain plaudits from the left, from Greens and radicals? It sounds implausible for now, but this critique isn’t going to come from the SNP or Labour, leaving the traditional parties – the Tories and Lib Dems – to make their mark.

A reality check is needed about the state of the Scottish Tories. For a start their revival post-indyref has been aided by the lamentable state of Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems while in coalition with the Tories and its immediate aftermath.

James Mitchell believes that the ‘The Conservative brand remains toxic, and Brexit and Boris Johnson (are) likely to make it more so’ and part of this failure has to be put down to the past eight years of Davidson, as he continues that ‘The Conservative brand is more toxic now than when she became leader in 2011 – in part because she made no attempt to detoxify it but also because of the rise of Brexit hardliners and Boris Johnson.’

The rehabilitation of the Tories has been at best partial. Part of Scotland will forever be anti-Tory, but our political culture is also defined by memories and folklore of Thatcher, her economic policies, the poll tax, and Ravenscraig. A Boris Johnson-led No Deal Brexit will certainly add a new chapter to the Tory story, but it will be one damning and damaging to Tories, let alone the pain and inconvenience it will inflict upon millions of people.

Davidson contributed to bringing the Tories back from the margins, but it was never clear if she had any real idea about how to progress to the next stage to present a coherent positive agenda against independence and beyond a hard Brexit.

None of the possible candidates appear to have any more ideas than Davidson. But Scotland needs a credible opposition to the SNP and their limited domestic agenda, and it also needs a thoughtful voice scrutinising the independence case and advocating for a better, reformed union.

Yet, everything about Conservative Party politics in England, and the politics of Brexit and Johnson, will make such a Scottish Tory politics near impossible for the foreseeable future. Ruth Davidson may have departed for now to mostly glowing media headlines, but she has left a series of burning headaches which may prove insurmountable to whoever succeeds her.