The Rise and Fall of Ruth Davidson, Brexit and the Future of the Union

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, August 30th 2019

Ruth Davidson has been a very successful politician in one inarguable aspect. As Scottish Tory leader she was continually spoken about, commented upon and discussed in the mainstream media and, often in non-Tory circles, in a positive light.

After eight years as Tory leader in Scotland Davidson has decided that she wants to quit, for reasons both personal and political. She is 40 years old, with a new child, Finn, and plans to marry her partner Jen in the next few months. But politics matter at least as much, as despite sharing some common views in the Tory universe with Boris Johnson at least in social liberalism, the two have never hit it off. The differences between them have become a chasm in recent years over Brexit, culminating in Johnson proroguing the UK Parliament to truncate debate and prevent critical votes.

Her resignation was in the style of much of her leadership: it made UK not just Scottish media headlines and produced acres of commentary on why she has done this and the potential consequences. It has also underlined the degree to which Davidson for all her undoubted skills is a very divisive candidate, loved or loathed, and in this respect, similar to her arch adversary Nicola Sturgeon.

Thus in the immediate aftermath of her announcement the ‘Daily Mail’ were bemoaning the loss of a Scottish ‘Boadicea’, while independence supporters and anti-Tories described her as ‘the alter-ego of a super hero, she runs off at the first sign of trouble’ and someone with ‘a keen eye for the most plausibly deniable bits of Scottish middle class bigotry’. This has been the battleline for much of her leadership and in particular since the indyref campaign.

Ruth Davidson mattered in Scottish and UK politics, and the identification with her, or antagonism felt by those who opposed her, confirmed this. She was seen by some as the potential savour across the water who could at the right moment come down south and save the British Tories from kamikaze politics. There were always numerous holes in this argument – her lack of a Westminster seat; the question of whether she ever wanted to move to London; and as importantly, whether she would cut it at Westminster, never mind whether the dwindling band of the aging Tory faithful would vote for someone connected to the world beyond them. Such questions at least for now have been put in abeyance.

Davidson was leader of the Scottish Tories for eight years and in this period notched some significant achievements. She made the Tories the second party of Scotland, the main opposition to the SNP, the primary defenders of the union and the main recipient of pro-union voters. In 2017 Davidson presided over a dramatic increase in Tory support and MPs – their vote rising to 28.6%, the party’s highest since 1979, and from one to thirteen MPs, the most since 1983. This tartan Tory revival after years of being treated as a pariah party saw Davidson’s ‘baker’s dozen’ contribute the critical seats which kept Theresa May in office and stood between the Tories holding on to and losing power.

Davidson gave the Tories a story and a message – so what now?

Davidson’s Indian Summer was significantly based on the force of her personality, her cheeky persona, and sheer brazenness. As someone who was a BBC journalist before becoming a MSP and Tory leader, she had an innate grasp of modern media needs, and the importance of messaging and photo opps, something which she seemed, in the never ending cycle of campaigns Scotland has gone through – including two referendums – to relish.

Davidson has an interesting backstory and present. From a working class family, she grew up in Selkirk and Fife, was raised in the Church of Scotland, and struggled for years to come to terms with being a lesbian alongside her faith, and has also in recent times talked openly, publicly and movingly about her mental health issues. In a Scottish Parliament not exactly swimming in talent and interesting personalities, Davidson gave the Tories a story and a message; and if people were prepared to see past the residual anti-Toryism that defines much of Scotland recognise someone who brought many qualities to public life.

The timing of this week’s resignation surprised many, but Davidson has long flagged up her disagreements with Boris Johnson and his tenuous relationship with facts and truth, calling him a ‘liar’ to his face in one of the 2016 Brexit TV debates. Last year she was part of a Scottish Tory exercise, ‘Operation Arse’, which had the express aim of stopping Johnson becoming Tory leader, and she indicated her continued opposition in the recent leadership contest.

The arrival of Johnson in Downing Street exasperated these tensions rather than ameliorated them. Johnson has made no secret that a No Deal Brexit is not something his administration will shy away from. Another factor was his sacking of David Mundell, Secretary of State for Scotland, and a key Davidson ally. She went as far as she could to try to protect Mundell to no avail, something which left her feeling bitter and not listened too. Rather germane in regard of Davidson’s political judgement is that Mundell was a spectacularly ineffective Scottish Secretary, one of the worst in decades, who threatened on several times to resign and didn’t; but then in these days of devolution this is an impossible, almost completely redundant post.

Tory unionism did gain a new kind of tone and attitude under Davidson. It was less apologetic, more populist, campaigning and challenging, and more prepared to mix it with the Scottish Nationalists. Yet, for all these undoubted successes, they came at a cost. The Tories became reduced at times to Ruth Davidson with little opportunity for anyone else. They seemed to stand for nothing more than being against independence and their continual charge that the SNP wouldn’t stop going on about the constitutional question (when at times the Tories outflanked them in the independence obsession stakes).

There was a bigger failure for unionism under Davidson. For all her undoubted qualities and energies, five years after Scotland’s indyref, the state of unionism has not been overhauled and re-energised to the extent it should from those such as Ruth Davidson’s and Gordon Brown’s perspective, who believe that the union has to be defended and the case for it made and remade.

Five years on from 2014, despite the independence question remaining a constant backdrop and concern of Scottish politics, and even more so since the 2016 Brexit vote, Davidson did not contribute any coherent or significant ideas to the intellectual or substantive case for the union. The same can be said about Gordon Brown, who has been in periodic campaigning mode since 2016, warning only in the last week of the dangers of ‘extreme nationalism’, and equating the reckless adventurerousism of Johnson and Farage with the cautious incrementalism of Sturgeon.

This points to a deeper crisis of unionism. Remaking unionism requires a receptive, engaged Westminster audience, and this has proven lacking since the 2014 vote. Indeed, Scotland’s 2014 vote was to large parts of the Westminster classes Scotland sorted and put back into its box; while the Brexit 2016 vote whereby Scotland and Northern Ireland decisively voted Remain, while England and Wales voted narrowly Leave, was never perceived by the London elites as a constitutional crisis about the nature of the UK.

If Ruth Davidson won’t put up with Boris and No Deal Brexit, why should Scotland?

Davidson’s resignation underlines the cul-de-sac the Scottish Tories and unionism have parked themselves in. She repeatedly indicated her opposition to Johnson and a No Deal Brexit, doing so in her resignation. Moreover, her departure indicates the strategic weakness of Scottish unionism and the limits of its influence in both the UK and Tories. Scotland did not vote for Boris Johnson to become PM (as did no one but Tory members). Nor did it vote for Brexit, let alone a No Deal Brexit. Yet Scotland is powerless in the union to stop either. And this raises the thorny question for Scottish Tories and unionists – if Ruth Davidson won’t put up with Boris Johnson as PM and a No Deal Brexit why should Scotland? This question is going to come back to haunt her successors.

Where does all this leave the future of the Tories in Scotland? The only viable road for them is the one mapped out by defeated Tory leadership candidate Murdo Fraser in 2011 in the campaign where he lost to Davidson. He posed that the Scottish Tories had to embrace the possibility of becoming a separate, fully autonomous party north of the border – standing up for Scottish interests in the union, and aspiring not to be seen as doing Westminster’s bidding in Scotland.

This solution did not happen in 2011 as Fraser lost, but Davidson did inhabit much of the political terrain of this approach, articulating a politics of distinctiveness and establishing clear blue water between Scottish and Westminster Tories, without going down the road of formal separation.

The forthcoming Scottish Tory leadership contest will take place against the backdrop of a party commission looking at the autonomy of the Scottish party and its relationship to the British one. It will involve Murdo Fraser and potentially Adam Tomkins, Donald Cameron, and Annie Wells – all sitting MSPs; deputy leader Jackson Carlaw has ruled himself out. This underlines the plight of the Tory Party that, for all the increased representation at Holyrood and Westminster, there is a serious paucity of talent and ideas on Tory benches, which has been long obscured by Davidson, but which she did nothing to rectify.

Ruth Davidson’s departure leaves all sorts of questions. There is the unanswered issue of the £319,000 ‘dark money’ to the Scottish Tories which became the subject of an investigation by the Electoral Commission; about the role of celebrity and personality in politics; of the role of the media reporting on media savvy types; and how hype breeds hype and a politics of superficiality. All of this was aided with Davidson by the problem of how London media types report Scotland which has been to see it as a foreign country without ever putting in the homework they would in a formally foreign country. Thus, Davidson has been regularly hailed as an ‘election winner’, ‘box office dynamite’ and the savour of the Tories, when the story is a little more qualified: a politician of populist touch presiding over reversing the long term decline of the Scottish Tories and taking them from fourth to second place in votes.

Depending on how the Johnson experiment goes this may not be the complete end of Ruth Davidson’s political career. Maybe she will entertain the idea of taking a seat in the Lords, as has already been muted, and that could be seen as offering her and her allies a London bridgehead for any Davidson revival.

But for now the Scottish Tories are going to have to get used to politics as a more bumpy ride, without the protective shield of the Davidson leadership. Her resignation leaves a huge, gaping hole in the populist, campaigning and everyday defence of the union that she sometimes seemed to effortlessly embody.

It leaves Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP eyeing up those thirteen Scottish Tory seats at any election in the near future. And even more so it will make Sturgeon and company, who have their own political problems such as length of incumbency in office and activists wanting an indyref as soon as possible, think about the hows and when of that future indyref: a contest which for now seems to have no natural champions and campaigners on the pro-union side.