29 August 2019

Ruth Davidson’s successor must show the courage that is her hallmark

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Ruth Davidson is the most modern of politicians – a gay, buffalo-riding ex-soldier and, even more unusual in her native Scotland, a Conservative.

But in important ways she is also a throw-back to an earlier, more civilised and, arguably, more rational political era. In our highly partisan political culture, where those who support other parties are regarded as enemies who must be defeated rather than people who happen to hold different opinions, it’s easy to forget that democracy only works when voters change their minds and switch their political allegiance between the parties.

In the post-war political consensus, it was entirely reasonable and normal for a significant number of those who voted Labour last time to vote Conservative next time, and vice versa. Such days are lost to memory and legend. Today that behaviour would be a cause for astonishment, would provoke cries of betrayal and treason from foot soldiers on either side.

Which is where Ruth Davidson comes in. She did something that few other political leaders – at least in Scotland – even bothered attempting: she appealed not just to her own party’s traditional supporters but to those of other parties. She invited us to switch allegiance.

To readers in England that may not seem like such a big deal, but in Scotland the Tories had been portrayed – largely unfairly – as an anti-Scottish party by successive Labour and SNP leaders. While the legacy of Margaret Thatcher – mass unemployment, the closure of factories across the land, including the demolition of the iconic Ravenscraig steel plant in Lanarkshire, and, of course, the poll tax – set her party on a downward spin in the polls, it would not have escaped Davidson’s notice that throughout the 1980s, when Thatcher’s ideology was being rolled out on rebellious Scots, the Conservatives were still more popular than all the other parties apart from Labour.

Nevertheless, when the collapse came it came quickly. The 1997 general election left Scotland a Tory-free zone in terms of parliamentary representation, and things had not improved much by the time Davidson acceded to the Scottish Tory leadership in 2011. Building on her party’s modest representation at Holyrood (thanks largely to the partly proportional electoral system for the Scottish Parliament), she began an unapologetic and non-defensive promotion of Scottish Conservative values. This was new and Scots started to take notice.

Suddenly there was a Tory in Scotland who looked modern, spoke a language ordinary folk understood, and who talked sense. Previous Tory leaders had talked some sense, of course, but Davidson was the first for a generation who earned the right to be listened to. It wasn’t just that she was gay – it would be woefully unfair if she were forever defined by her sexuality alone, although that was part of her appeal. But in an era where the SNP dominated parliament and town halls across the country, and who exhibited the arrogance that such success inevitably breeds, the most effective voice calling them out was Davidson’s.

She did it with humour, something that far too few politicians are able use to good effect. When she used it to make fun of herself or her party, it was even more effective. Little wonder that some even questioned whether she was a real Conservative. This accusation is sometimes made of her because it is the only way that some of her opponents can get their heads round the electoral success that Davidson presided over. She took her party to official opposition at Holyrood – overtaking a struggling Labour Party – and repeated the trick at the 2017 general election, returning 13 MPs to Westminster, an increase of 12.

Surely the only way to explain her party’s success was to question whether she was truly a Tory, her detractors concluded. For it is an article of faith among many politicians and commentators in Scotland that its people simply don’t vote Conservative. Therefore Davidson’s popularity betrays the fact that she cannot possibly be one.

But she is. Socially liberal, pro-EU, economically cautious, she reflects the values of a great many Scots who wouldn’t see themselves as natural Tories. But Davidson recognised from the very start that her party could only survive and prosper by doing what opposition leaders at a UK level did successfully. She appealed to her party’s former opponents and asked them to give her a second look. And they did. There are now Conservative councillors representing some of the poorest areas of Glasgow and Lanarkshire, a feat never dreamed of by any of her predecessors who were content to appeal to and placate only the Tory base.

The question now, of course, is: what happens next? Any new leader will want to build on Davidson’s work and success. There can be no going back to the image of Scottish Tories as heartless landowners yearning for a return to “traditional values”.

But the party will find it hard to fill the Ruth-shaped hole at the centre of their party. Her successor will need the same courage she showed in believing that “centre right” is not an insult, and that being gay or liberal or concerned about society’s poorest is no obstacle to placing a cross beside “Scottish Conservative candidate”.

On a personal level, as someone from a different political background and tradition to Ruth, I am filled with sadness that this devout champion of the Union has departed the stage. She has always been kind, thoughtful and very, very funny whenever I’ve been in her company. It should not be a weakness in any politician to admit that an opponent is sincere, capable and good. Ruth is all those things and the fact that she has chosen to prioritise her family over her political career proves it. I wish her well.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'