29 April 2015

Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson are miles ahead of the Westminster Oxford boys


The two best politicians in Britain right now aren’t at Westminster. They didn’t go to Oxbridge. They haven’t been special advisers. They didn’t attend expensive public schools. They aren’t from wealthy families or intimidatingly intellectual households. Neither has been compared to Flashman or a Gromit-less Wallace or a colourless Eurocrat.

Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson are ordinary Scottish women. Understand this and you begin to understand their remarkable success. They share that priceless attribute of being liked across political boundaries – not just by the fellow members of the clubby Edinburgh Parliament where both sit, but by voters across Scotland and, increasingly, the UK.

Our politics has a crisis of leadership. The traditional route to eminence – private education or the tonier state establishments, PPE at one of the big two, spad, MP, junior minister, Cabinet – has produced a generation of entitled, charisma-free, playbook-driven drones. Look at the front bench of the Labour Party and pick out a single individual with whom you’d like to have a drink, who appeals on a basic, human level, who doesn’t strike you as a bit, well, weird. So much for the People’s Party.

It hardly needs saying that the Tories are equally odd. Thatcher’s party of meritocracy, with its focus on the responsible strivers of the working and middle class, has fallen back into the uncalloused hands of gilded scions of privilege. The front bench reeks of money.

In an era in which people have the digital means to speak with their own voice, in their own way, the professionalisation of our political class, with its bland rules, hoary old stunts, bleedin’ obvious soundbites and tired tropes, has never seemed so out of step. People no longer want to be talked down to by those who are plainly richer or ostensibly cleverer than they are. They don’t want to be told what to think or what’s good for them. Last year’s Scottish referendum made this clear, as will May 7: the electorate wants to take control, to reset the dial, to be governed by One of Us.

This is why Sturgeon, the SNP leader and First Minister, and Davidson, leader of Scotland’s Conservatives, have come into their own. They are undeniably of the people – they have the accents, the humour, the patter, the demotic. They are unspun, approachable, game for a laugh. Both are active and engaging on Twitter. Both are undeniably passionate, but also reasonable and emotionally intelligent. They are not prisoners of the era of Big Data, as are so many of the political Guild in London, but continue to use instinct and personal judgement.

The best political photocall of recent years took place in a Cumbernauld public gymnasium earlier this week, when Sturgeon, in jeans and a white blouse, kicked off her shoes and walked barefoot along a high beam. Miliband would have wobbled along for a few steps before tumbling off. The second best was last week, when Davidson grabbed a male Buzzfeed reporter and recreated the now infamous photograph of Alex Salmond creepily feeding an ice lolly to a young woman (Davidson played Salmond).

Only connect. This is what connecting means in the second decade of the 21st century. Peer-to-peer communication, the decline of traditional institutions and deference, easy access to wide and varied sources of information – the public has run ahead of most politicians. Sturgeon and Davidson are the only ones, apart from Boris Johnson, who seem to be able to keep pace. The nature of leadership is changing and inevitably it is the major parties, like blind giants, that are slowest to sense this, and react accordingly. Their big figures don’t seem like regular joes because they are not regular joes. They have forgotten what it is to be authentic, real, themselves, and they are about to pay a heavy price.

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.