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The canny politics of Ruth Davidson

RuthDavidsonMSP20120529 copyMost lefties have one or two favourite Tories. Me? I own a whole menagerie. Who can resist Nicholas Soames and his waspish tweets? Fabbers’ endless self-parodying? The plastic Thatcher tributes by Anna Soubry? And Rees-Mogg’s distillation of Tory toffism? Yet these colourful characters share a less appetising trait: they’re all irredeemable bastards. I might titter at Fabricant and roll my eyes at our Jake, but I have no doubt these people are enemies of the labour movement. They would rather we didn’t exist, and long for the days of the cap-doffing squire and the people who knew their place below stairs. And that’s before you scrutinise their voting records for supporting attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable.

And then there is Ruth Davidson. Along with most of the commentariat, I can’t help but have a soft spot for her. An openly gay straight-talking woman from a normal background, a politician with no airs and bullshit, a capacity to poke fun at herself, and comes across everywhere and always as unflappingly pleasant. Apart from her party affiliation, what is there not to like? So what is her secret? How is it that everyone is totally dippy when it comes to Ruth?

As an individual, Ruth seems perfectly sound. She stands out because she didn’t go to politics stage school. She lacks the affectation and soundbite regurgitation of those in the game for too long, or never had a proper job before achieving office. How crap must politics be when “appearing normal” is a vote winner? Let’s not be naive about this. Ruth may well be as she presents herself, but her image has gone through the wringer. It’s sculpted, styled, trained, and got focus grouped to death. Ruth Davidson as a political personage is as artificial as Boris Johnson’s oh-so-funny buffoonery and Dave’s stage-hogging statesmanship. She’s everyone’s mate, the Tory whose gimmick is not looking, sounding, or behaving like a Tory.

Think on this a moment. What does Ruth Davidson stand for? Judging by the media coverage she’s very pro-the union. 18 months ago, wherever there was a Better Together media opportunity, she wasn’t sniffy about which Labour politician she took to the stage with. The memory abides of Gordon Brown making his bravura speech in the dying days of the referendum campaign, and there was Ruth, pictured clapping away with enthusiasm.

We also know she’s pro-EU, and has declared to be looking forward to working with the SNP to ensure Britain remains this June. And what else?

Well, not a lot. If you must, scope out the Conservatives’ Scottish Manifesto. Reading through it, there’s very little you could disagree with. Seriously. Leaving aside the unionist stuff, most of it could have appeared in a SNP or Labour manifesto. It warns against centralisation, calls for more NHS funding, a more flexible social security system (which could be code for all kinds of things), addressing problems in the education system. This is not Toryism red in tooth and claw. Nor, actually, cuddly conservatism. It is an uncontroversial managerial politics with no sniff of right wingery at all.

Has this happened by accident? Absolutely not. Just as Ruth is a clean figure with no baggage at all, the Tories don’t want to toxify their best bet with their own tarnished brand. So the manifesto matches her to a tee. No hard edges, no policies invoking unpleasant memories. It’s straight-talking, oppositional, and above all, modest. It’s a master class in political positioning.

Ruth invites voters to give the blues a punt because they stand no chance of winning, but will manage a better job than Our Kez and Scottish Labour at holding the SNP to account. Opposing the SNP over the next four years isn’t going to see the Tories at the eye of many political storms, there isn’t much chance of them outraging public opinion. And then, come 2020 Ruth will make the same proposition again, slowly but surely building up a base for her new, reasonable Toryism until such a time it can challenge the SNP for supremacy.

It’s a long game, and a very smart game she’s playing. Between now and then, she’ll be detoxifying the Tories at every available opportunity. Why else do you think Ruth’s keen to help Nicola Sturgeon make the case for Remain?

There are a few problems Ruth faces. So far she has disassociated the Scottish Tories from what’s happening with the Tories at Westminster. Her very personality acts as a marker – she’s a world apart from Dave and his gang of entitled dolts. But there will come times when she feels the heat for what’s going on elsewhere. The devolution of further powers to Holyrood shield her to an extent, but what happens at Westminster does overdetermine the Scottish party system.

Second, apart from unionism and fairly inconsequential matters like sentencing, Ruth’s position absolutely depends on not taking a position, and especially one that smacks of traditional Toryism. The strategy that got the Tories second party status is quite brittle and liable to fall apart if they are forced to oppose popular policies. And there is the Scottish party itself. Of the few that are left, there’s bound to be unreconstructed Tories hiding in the shadows ready with a verbal bomb or two primed to remind everyone that the modern Tory party is still the Tory party.

Ruth Davidson then. A likeable small p politician you could go for a coffee with or take down the pub quiz. But also a canny operator at the helm of the labour movement’s implacable enemy in Scotland. Never forget that.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid


  1. and what exactly was the Tory result in Scotland last Thursday? For those who don’t get Scottish newspapers, the return of Scottish voters to the Tory fold was hard to track. The failure of Labour was absolute. And Scotland has become, for both BLairites (who lost it) and Corbynites (who didn’t get it back) its a no go area

    The politics are essentially the same for the SNP and TOries. Destroy Labour. The Tories have learnt how to use the SNP both sides of the border – who can forget the Alex Salmond pocket picking poster in marginal seats? In case comrades have forgotten it, I have several pics, all taken on billboards in WEst Midlands Marginals.

    And the Tories, being far better at practical politics than Labour, are getting their act together in Scotland, making Labour majorities at Westminster more and more unlikely.

    So lets talk about Scotland. It can no longer be a no go area for Labour.

    Trevor FIsher

    1. David Pavett says:

      It is important to say, as you do, that it was the Blairites who lost Scotland. It is a bit much though, in my view, to say that the Corbynites didn’t get it back. Which Corbynites would that be? Are you suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn in England can attract Scottish vote to Scottish Labour over the heads of Scottish Labour itself (which remains in its lack lustre pre-Corbyn mould). Kezia Dugdale is no Cobryn supporter and Scottish Labour has got a long way to go to even start a recovery process. How can that be pinned on Corbyn.

      I agree though that we need to talk about the situation of Labour in Scotland. The collapse of Scottish Labour was well-deserved and now we need a careful analysis of how a once dominant party could be so completely routed. No hints are provided on the Scottish Labour website.

  2. I would never suggest that Corbyn could win back Scotland, or indeed that the results in England or even in London have much to do with the current leadership. But it is easy to find those who want to argue the contrary, and the debate on whether Labour can have any future has to start with the failure to detect a Corbyn surge. The statement by the man himself – “we held on” is true for most of England and parts of Wales, and he has not been the disaster that the Blairites predicted and are arguing the results last Thursday showed (eg Tristram Hunt in the Stoke Sentinel “across the country with an unpopular Government, and having a new leader in place, we should be expecting to see hundreds of gains rather than losses” May 7th). But then we read “Labour’s national share of the vote was up on that achieved by Ed Miliband in last year’s General Election. Of course further gains have to be made if we are to regain power in 2020”. Your own comment David and as you are a mathematician you should know that the turnout is so much lower the vote share is meaningless – even without factoring in the lack of a uniform election, towns like Stoke not having a vote last week. And as for ‘regaining power in 2020’…. sensible analysis starts from this being politically and statistically impossible, and then begins a longer and more sober look at the future.

    Labour has no chance of a majority in the Westminster parliament with Scotland lost. But that is not the end of political strategy – just the end of the illusion that there is a way for anyone, Corbyn or any other member of the PLP, to continue with the one more heave variety of politics.

    Trevor FIsher.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Trevor, I agree entirely that a “one more heave” approach will get us nowhere. I also don’t want to minimise the problems Labour faces and I am sure that you are right to say that without being able to win back many Scottish voters the prospect for a Labour government are not bright.

      So, I agree with much of what you say. I am not sure about the mathematical reference though. What was it that I said? All I would say is that in the face of a divided party and relentless media hostility it was an achievement that Labour was able to “hold on” (not a choice expression) to its strong position in local government (ending up with 1291 councillors compared to the Tory 828).

      Not enough clearly but coming after a very difficult 8 months after Corbyn’s election I think that this should be regarded as providing a basis on which to build. That building cannot, as you say just consist of one more heave, but has to include a raft of new, radical and detailed policies. On that front, as I have argued several times in these columns, the picture is so far not looking very good.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Sorry to Phil BC. I have broken my own rule above by going straight off topic. Yes, I agree that the Ruth Davidson phenomenon is worth taking very seriously. Many people on the left rely on a ridiculous image of out-of-date Tories living in the past. When Tories live up to that image then everything is easy and no thought is required. But there is no reason why a Tory should not be up to date and reject many of the Tory prejudices of the past. Ruth Davidson seems to fit that bill. That means that the left has to get down to thinking both about political philosophy and about the policies that can lead to a radical left government. If Left Futures is any sort of litmus test on this then the result is rather depressing. Most left activists can get very excited about personalities and issues like alleged anti-Semitism but don’t, it seems, have much time for thinking about the practical policies we need to advocate to make Labour live up to its claim to be a democratic socialist party.

    1. John Penney says:

      Very true David. There is also another huge ” political elephant in the room” on the current Scottish labour collapse issue. That is the harsh reality that a large subset of exactly the same type of self-identifying “radical socialists ” who populate this discussion forum, and make up a proportion at least of the activist core of Momentum members in England and Wales I suspect, have in Scotland, been entirely seduced by the (largely illusory) Left Nationalist ideology of the SNP, and have actually abandoned genuine socialist politics.

      This makes the vitally necessary long term task of reconstructing the still entirely neoliberal “Murphyite/Blairite” Scottish Labour Party via a radical change in personnel a truly elephantine task.

  4. purely on the statistical front, the results are only comparable with the 2012 results, good for Labour in both years, suggesting that these councils were particularly fertile territory for Labour in both years. Pro and anti- Corbybn commentators should realize that Local Government elections are arbitrary and seem in this round to be somewhat pro Labour. Same as Oldham. I was sad when my old comrade Michael Meacher died last year, but pleased he handed over a solid Labour seat to the party. Had the election been in Newcastle Under Lyme (majority 650) it would have been harder to win.

    But the wider issue. The Tories learn from defeat. Ruth Davidson seems to be another example of a party morphing to adapt chameleon like to its territory. WHen Michael Gove was abandoned for Nicky Morgan at Education, what changed? Nothing, but Tristram Hunt lost any chance to make headway on education. The Tories understand the importance of presentation. Present the same message with a feminist touch – Morgan kept her old job at Equalities, and no one noticed – and the poison is drawn. Cameron is now starting to fail and it is astonishing that Buck House release videos to his detriment to the media.

    So expect a change at the top which will happen whether or not Cameron comes out on top in the EU referendum. If he still can’t get ahead in the polls, that is.

    Trevor Fisher.

  5. Tony says:

    The revival of the Conservative party in Scotland is deeply regrettable.
    It could to a large extent have been avoided.

    Let us not forget that Ruth Davidson is a fanatical supporter of nuclear weapons and claimed during the general election debate that there were no targets for hounding unemployed people off benefits.

    This latter point can only be true if they do not actually use the word ‘target’.

    Oh, and I nearly forgot, she also claimed that wealthy people now pay a high share of income tax and that this is evidence of how the Conservatives are the party of fairness.

    Other Conservatives have made the same point. But, here’s the clever part, income tax is only 35% of government revenue.

    As Republican pollster Frank Luntz has said, it is not what you say that counts. It is what people hear. The clear intention is that people hear ‘tax’ rather than ‘income tax’.

    The devious politics of Ruth Davidson would be a more appropriate title for this article.

  6. Karl Stewart says:

    Thanks for the article PhilBC.

    What I find interesting about Scottish politics at the moment is the strong polarisation that has developed between nationalism and unionism.

    Clearly, Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Tories have settled on a strategy which seeks to capture as much as possible of the ‘unionist’ constituency.

    And they seem to be having some success with this. It’s as if they’ve looked at how the SNP has captured the vast bulk of Scotland’s ‘Yes’ voters and decided to be a mirror image of them.

    We can talk a lot about the past and the reasons for Labour’s dramatic decline – yes, most of Labour’s Scottish MPs, with some noble exceptions such as Katy Clark – were a pretty bad bunch who were right-wing voting fodder for the Blairites (tuition fees for example).

    But to look at what’s needed now, I think Labour at the moment in Scotland seems to be unsuccessfully trying to straddle the nationalist/unionist divide, arguing for more ‘home rule’ and ‘autonomy’ but opposing independence.

    I think Scottish Labour needs to carve out its own identity in clear opposition to both unionism and nationalism. Don’t try to be both, oppose both.

    Make a big issue of our political and ideological opposition to and difference from both the nats and the Tories.

    Keep on telling people we’re internationalists and socialists. We don’t want new nation states and new borders dividing people, but neither do we want to deny people their self-determination or to wrap ourselves in the Union Jack and reactionary loyalist-unionism.

    I think there is a real political opportunity for Scottish Labour – and it lies in rediscovering its internationalist socialism.

  7. Bazza says:

    Davidson who I find an irritating public performer as she constantly interrupts other speakers actually won by 610 votes in the first past the post part of the Scottish system.
    (Davidson is an ex-radio presenter so is confident in public).
    It was the PR part top up system which helped the Tories, Labour & Greens.
    Right Wing Labour Scotland ran from social democracy (which Scotland liked) to embrace Blairism and the rest is history.
    Labour needs a Scottish Corbyn and membership – someone who would say “We need a political revolution!”
    Then left wing democratic socialism could take on the fake SNP social democrats.
    With as much power to nation states as possible within the framework of a UK we also perhaps need things like a common UK defence policy, a common UK living wage, a common UK corporation tax so big business and TNCs can’t set nation against nation in a race to the bottom.!

  8. Neil W. says:

    What? Do you mean.. Tories are ‘people’, too? *shudder*

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