Ruth Davidson’s exit reveals Scottish Tories’ independence secret

14 March 2021

5:23 AM

14 March 2021

5:23 AM

Ruth Davidson has used her final speech to the Scottish Conservative conference to appeal to pro-Union voters. In a video streamed on the first day of the event, the former party leader said Scotland had passed ‘peak Nat’ and that, while the SNP was bound to emerge as the largest party after the May 6 devolved elections, the Tories could still deprive Nicola Sturgeon of an overall majority.

This was imperative, she said, so that the Scottish Government could be ‘held in check’. She contended:

If there’s no check on an SNP government after May, they will put their obsession with securing a second independence referendum above Scotland’s national interest. At this uncertain time, the only priority that our governments should have is to work together to manage the Covid crisis and rebuild our country. But the SNP have made it clear, if they win a majority in May, they will try to hold another independence referendum in short order. They’ve said it could come as soon as the second half of this year. And some of them are even pushing for an illegal “wildcat” referendum.

She didn’t wade too far into the various scandals hanging over the SNP, but she dropped hints like anvils. ‘Over the last few weeks, something in Scotland has changed,’ she augured. ‘The Nationalist bandwagon – rolling unstoppably towards their dream of a second independence referendum – is now backfiring.’ While taking a swipe at ‘the SNP’s poor record of delivery across our public services’, she emphasised ‘their increasingly high-handed attitude’ and ‘a government that thinks it can do what it likes and get away with it’. This coincided with an ‘increasing stench of sleaze and scandal’. ‘All of it,’ she intoned, ‘is mounting up’.

Davidson said Covid and the recovery from it should be a priority, but that would only happen if Scots voted — including tactically — for the Tories. Deny the SNP their majority, her tacit argument ran, and you compel them to focus on matters other than independence. This is why so much of her speech was dedicated to painting the Nationalists as both obsessed with the constitution and ethically dubious: these are the themes that play best with the kind of blue-collar pro-Union voters she won over in 2016 and 2017. Her appeal to them this afternoon was direct:

No matter who you vote for in your own constituency – and I want as many people are possible to vote for their local Conservative candidate – if you want to stop that SNP majority, you must cast your party vote on the peach-coloured ballot paper for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. No other vote can be sure of preventing an SNP majority and the independence referendum they want to hold.

While the message may well cut through because of who was delivering it, it nonetheless illustrated the central contradiction of the Scottish Tory election campaign. From one corner of its mouth, the party says: Vote for us; Boris won’t give Sturgeon a second referendum. From the other, it says: Vote for us to stop Sturgeon getting a second referendum. The Scottish Tories’ dirty little secret is that the threat of independence is the best thing that’s happened to them in generations. The more Sturgeon bangs her drum, the more they bang theirs. Neither independence, nor UK Government action to prevent it, gets any closer but the grand pretence is kept up on both sides.

This wasn’t Davidson’s first final conference speech: she originally resigned as Scottish leader in 2019, citing differences over Brexit and her desire to put her family first. Then she returned a year later following the ousting of her successor and his replacement in MP Douglas Ross, creating an opening for a new (or not so new) parliamentary party leader at Holyrood. She is soon to step down again, this time as an MSP and from the awkward, jutting granite of the Scottish Parliament, she will go to the crumbling grandeur of the House of Lords.

Thanks to Covid, her remarks were not received in the usual manner. There was no yawning auditorium, no interruptive applauses, no atmosphere and no napping spinsters jolted to their feet by derring-do talk of saving the Union from the separatists. Still, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of send-off Davidson would have received from delegates in normal times. This is the woman who arrived at Holyrood, got elected leader, played a key role in the victorious Better Together campaign, made the Tories the main opposition, doubled their MSPs and won them their greatest haul of Scottish seats at a general election since 1983 — all in the span of six years.

When she took over in 2011, she was roundly dismissed by Scotland’s soft-left, soft-Nat commentariat. When she started to supply the goods, she could no longer be ignored but she was resented just as keenly. She did not apologise for being a Tory or for opposing independence. It’s a close call between which is the graver offence in the eyes of the Scottish establishment.

In 2018, I argued that, subject to various conditions, it was no longer out of the realms of possibility that Davidson could end up head of the largest party at Holyrood. A lot has changed since then, but not the woman in question. She still has it: the rhetorical flair, the Salmond-y chuckle, the stern glare for The Serious Bits and a knowing twinkle that admits she’s having fun because, after all, politics isn’t life and death. It is this combination that charmed and disarmed a decent section of the Scottish electorate and lured them towards a cosy-comfy conservatism that was for nice things and against not-nice things.

There is no Davidsonism in policy terms — though she believes in education reform, for example, the party still has no identifiable policy on it — but there is a distinctive Davidson aesthetic. It’s a blue-collar conservatism that tries to frame the Tories as the party of ordinary people, but defines ordinary people in modern terms, free from the moral and social hang-ups of yesteryear. The closest analogue is German Christian democracy, though more CSU than CDU. The problem has always been moving beyond the aesthetic to the substance but perhaps, newly ennobled and freed from the dullardry of Holyrood, she will be able to fashion a punter-friendly policy agenda for a party that talks endlessly about the Red Wall but still struggles to talk to those behind it.

For the Scottish Conservatives, their immediate concern is whether Davidson’s brand can help carry them through another election. Scottish Labour’s new leader Anas Sarwar — young, moderate, liked by Tories — is a serious threat, while their leader Douglas Ross is still an unknown quantity even to many Conservative supporters. Tory rhetoric is all about indyref2 and the Scottish Government being dodgy but their real adversary is Labour. With a fair wind — a very fair wind — Sarwar could take enough of their list vote to return his party to second place. It’s still unlikely, for now, but not wholly implausible. If Ruth Davidson was still in charge, it would be all but impossible.

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