Analysis: Ruth Davidson – a legacy of failure


The Scottish Tory leader leaves behind no major accomplishment beyond providing cover for the populist right which has left Britain in chaos

TIMING. According to comedians, it’s important. Turns out it can garner a few laughs in politics as well.

To read Ruth Davidson’s letter of resignation as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in good faith, the extraordinary events of this week have no bearing on her decision to abandon her post. The suspension of parliament, via a mechanism which raises questions without answer about the democratic credentials of the British state Davidson fought so frenetically to defend, supposedly did not influence her quitting. As a new mother, she has weighed her responsibilities, and with the prospect of a General Election looming – characterised, very democratically, as a “credible threat from our opponents” – she has decided to place family first. You won’t have Davidson to kick around anymore.

For the moment, her true motivation for resigning is irrelevant to public debate. What matters is the effect, and the legacy.

In anticipation of the erstwhile Scottish Tory leader’s resignation, the past 24 hours have seen a wave of retrospectives and political eulogies for Davidson, most of which have been so homogenous in style and opinion that it probably would have saved time if Scotland’s columnists had simply got together and released a hasty cover of ‘Candle in the Wind’.

Much of this commentary has been what you’d expect. “A disaster not just for the Conservative Party in Scotland but also for the Union at a moment of great peril,” warns Kenny Farquharson in the Times. So fulsome were some of the tributes, one might be forgiven for thinking their writers were in mourning not just for Davidson’s leadership, but for all that they had invested in that project.

Little over a year ago, the New Statesman’s Chris Deerin was anticipating the second stage of “a wildly successful career” for the Scottish Tory leader who was “the genuine article, the real deal, a politician of surpassing talent”, and who must surely be bound for the glory of Westminster, rather than remaining in the parochial confines of Holyrood. The possibility of a leader who never got her party above 30 per cent of the vote as not just a future first minister, but a potential occupant of Downing Street, was treated as credible by a great many allegedly credible people. Alas, all those moments will be lost. Tears in rain, etc.

As pointed out by Alex Massie – who, unlike many of his Spectator colleagues, does not consider unionism a replacement for sanity – a lot of these earlier appraisals were reliant upon wishful thinking, and ignored what Massie politely terms “the structural and personal hurdles that needed to be overcome” to bring any fantasies of Ruth Triumphant into being. So, now that reality has squashed such dreams, what is – or rather, was – the reality of Ruth Davidson’s tenure?

READ MORE: Analysis: Could the Scottish Tories break-away? 

What did Ruth Davidson achieve? What major policy can she point to and claim responsibility? What impact did she make that will last beyond the voting public’s next turn at the polling booth? Other than increasing the Tory vote share in Scotland, what was the point of her?

For some within the party, getting votes was enough. The chief thing the Conservative Party seeks to conserve is itself, followed closely by any version of Britain that is most amenable to keeping it in power. Ruth pulled off the first – a genuinely impressive PR coup that involved great claims of modernisation, backed up by scant evidence – but, in a Scotland we are forever told is just as right-wing as the rest of the UK but unaccountably refuses to vote like it, could never manage the latter.

Of course, there was her famous ‘detoxification’ of the Conservative brand in Scotland. Like relabelling a bottle of bleach as lemonade, this did not change the reality of what the party was, what it stood for, or what it did. Davidson was always, a la John McCain, an outsider that the establishment could live with, and they did, even if many of those on the sharp end of Tory austerity did not. A smiling photo of Ruth astride a tank did not make the rape clause any less repulsive; chummy banter never helped anyone in need of a food bank; tax cuts for the rich don’t make any more economic sense coming from a ‘blue collar’ Tory than from an Etonian patrician.

Writing in January last year, the Scottish political journalist Jamie Maxwell laid out the charges damningly, and they remain true today. Highlighting the 2017 council elections, Maxwell pointed out that the Tories under Davidson elected “a slew of candidates who either had a track-record of making racist remarks on social media or who had links to far-right groups such as Britain First, the BNP and the English Defence League”. Davidson’s loveable, faux-moderate, media-savvy image gave her cover to “exploit and amplify some of the worst chauvinistic instincts of the Scottish electorate” – and reap the benefits for her own political advancement.

READ MORE: Scottish Tories slammed after reinstating councillors embroiled in racism storm

In the search for an actual achievement upon which to hang Davidson’s legacy, this may be as good as it gets – the introduction of a Trumpian triangulation between personality cult and the far-right to Scottish politics. For all the gossip about Davidson’s infamously chilly relationship with Boris Johnson, they are similar in this regard – except Johnson, like the US president, has always been far more comfortable assuming the persona of the unreconstructed, reactionary base he relies upon. Davidson, on the other hand, could only retreat into hardline unionism.

Her rationale for doing so lay in the 2014 referendum, which Davidson herself highlights in her resignation letter as the most important contribution of her working life. True, Davidson was there – memorably warning that an independent Scotland’s abolition of Trident would pave the way for Russian invasion – but then again, so was Willie Rennie. To suggest that her role was anything more than marginal rather undercuts the idea that the case for the Union is ironclad.

As for Brexit, there is no doubt that it posed a problem for Davidson – but then, in one way or another, it did the same for Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and pretty much everyone else. Davidson deserves no special sympathy there, and any suggestion that her response to Brexit signifies a worthwhile achievement deserves even less. Those who have watched Brexit’s troubled evolution will be hard-pressed to specify what impact any of her vaunted interventions had on the whole tawdry process. You can only call a lame duck an eagle for so long before political ornithologists start asking awkward questions.

So, if there is little achievement of note to be found in the past, what impact might Davidson’s resignation have on the future, be it of the Scottish Tories or Scotland itself?

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A leadership contest is now inevitable, but beyond that, nothing is certain. The divide between Davidson and the Scottish Tory grassroots that became impossible to ignore – over Brexit, Johnson, whether or not either of these phenomena placed the Union in danger, and whether Scottish Tories should care – might be replicated should her deputy Jackson Carlaw throw his hat in.

Elsewhere, the changeable Adam Tomkins – he’s an academic, you know – may find that there’s only so many times you can be portrayed by your cheerleaders as a titanic intellect before you eventually have to prove it, especially if you’re a so-called expert in constitutional matters in the midst of a constitutional crisis without end.

Hilariously, Murdo Fraser – who, on an issue-by-issue basis, is one of the most right wing MSPs ever to haunt Holyrood’s chambers – is still widely perceived within the party as some kind of liberal reformer, a characterisation that will do him no favours if he tries to take another swing at the leadership.

Smilin’ Ross Thomson, armed with the political instincts of an overripe banana, may benefit with both the Scottish Tory grassroots and the party’s UK leadership from being a Johnson loyalist, but neither of these endorsements guarantee much success amongst the Scottish electorate at large.

The possibility of a schism exists, though the party will be keen to deny it. It should be remembered that ‘Operation Arse’, the Scottish Tories’ staggeringly unsuccessful attempt to prevent Boris Johnson from becoming the Conservatives’ leader, was not a one-woman operation. Others who had a hand in it will either speak up or keep their heads down – and judging by how scrupulously Scottish Tories have avoided interacting with the media since reports of their leader’s resignation first emerged, it is unlikely to be the former.

READ MORE: Analysis: The British constitution is broken – now it should be dismantled completely

What about Scotland and its constitutional future? According to her more sympathetic eulogisers, Davidson’s departure represents a serious blow to the unionist cause. This is not necessarily untrue, though it requires some qualification. Few would bet that her absence will increase Tory chances in either a snap General Election or the 2021 Holyrood elections, and nobody will be more aware of this than the SNP (even if, after the disappointments of 2017, their campaign operatives should have warnings against complacency tattooed on the brain).

However, the Escher-like roadmap to a second referendum has not become less complicated by Davidson’s retreat from frontline politics; a Tory government in London which treats chaotic confrontation and a resistance to both compromise and democracy as its modus operandi still holds power, and a Section 30 order is no more likely this week than it was last week. The proroguing of parliament may inspire the Scottish people to think afresh about whether the British political system is something they really want to be a part of, but for now, public sentiment is not the deciding factor in achieving a vote.

Oddly enough, Davidson’s resignation may ultimately prove less significant to the independence movement than the deal which has reportedly been hashed out between the beleaguered Richard Leonard and the UK Labour leadership, which establishes that permission for a second referendum, while not being ruled out, would not be granted within the “formative years” of a potential Labour government. What an epitaph for Davidson’s career that would be – ‘somewhat less important than Richard Leonard’.

What else can be said? Here was a politician who could not and did not change her party, her country or the direction in which either of them went; who, as demonstrated by her final pledge to “support the party, the Prime Minister and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom from the backbenches and beyond”, always gave in and defended the indefensible when the chance to dissent presented itself. Davidson sought to finally end constitutional discourse in Scottish politics, and now leaves it discussing little else.

If this is a legacy, then it is a legacy of failure.

Picture courtesy of mrgarethm

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