The Tory cause in Scotland is not so lost as some English Conservatives fear. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, is a more formidable figure than one might guess from her youth and inexperience.
She is only 35 years old, has only belonged to the party since 2009, and was only elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011, a few months before becoming leader. Among the few biographical details about her which have attained some currency are the information that she is a lesbian and enjoys kickboxing.
During my interview with her, I asked her to confirm the story I had heard the night before of how she dealt during the leadership election with the question of her sexuality. Here is her account:
“When I announced that I was standing for the leadership of the party, I said that in terms of embarrassing personal details that I wanted to get out of the way and address first of all, the rumours are true, yes, I did used to work for the BBC.”
She worked for BBC Scotland as a radio journalist from 2002-2009, a job which precluded engaging in party politics. But she describes herself as a life-long Conservative whose politics are in part inherited from her parents, themselves sprung from the “blue-collar Toryism” of Glasgow which used to be so strong.
One of the profoundly Conservative features of Davidson is her love of various institutions to which she has belonged. She spoke with great affection of Buckhaven High School, the comprehensive school in a deprived part of Fife which she attended: “There was a real focus on trying to bring out the best in everyone.”
And she spoke with enormous enthusiasm of the Territorial Army, in which she served as a signaller before her career was cut short by a back injury which led her commanding officer to inform her that she had become an insurance risk: an absurd idea, given that she would never have dreamed of suing the TA because of any injury she might sustain.
Nor in political terms does she look to me like an insurance risk. She is instead doing all she can to ensure that in the referendum on independence which will be held in September, Alex Salmond and the Scottish Nationalists will be defeated. Conservative votes will be needed to do this, for as Davidson points out, the party stands at about 20 per cent in the polls (in YouGov’s daily tracker poll for Scotland, Labour are on 39 per cent, the SNP on 27, the Lib Dems on 6 and UKIP on 4).
Almost to a man and woman, Tory voters in Scotland intend to vote “No” to independence. This solidarity compares favourably not only to Labour voters, a quarter of whom say they might vote in favour of independence, but also to SNP voters, only two thirds of whom are actually in favour of independence:
“Our people are pretty rock solid. And what’s really interesting to me is you regularly see polls of only two-thirds of SNP voters are confirmed Yes voters. So there’s a strong number of people in Scotland who will vote SNP, who prefer for example Alex Salmond as First Minister to a Labour First Minister, but don’t actually believe in independence. A significant proportion of them have voted Conservative in the past, the Tartan Tories that exist within the SNP as they call them, and part of my job is to secure them for the No side as well. And I think we’ve got the weight of evidence, not just in terms of the intellectual arguments, the economic arguments, but I think we’ve got the arguments of the heart as well. The United Kingdom is ours too, we helped build it, and all of its successes are our successes and we should be proud of them.”
Davidson speaks very highly of Alistair Darling, the Labour politician who is leading the “No” campaign, officially known as “Better Together”. But she is also alert to the opportunity which the threat to the Union has given to the Scottish Conservatives:
“We have now been given permission to talk to people who had stopped listening to us. My first, last and only priority for the next eight months is to keep our country together. However, I am not blind to the fact that support for the United Kingdom is much higher than support for the Conservative Party. And playing a strong and full part in that campaign does benefit us. One of the things I’ve done is set up a campaigning group called Conservative Friends of the Union across Scotland. We wrote out to hundreds of thousands of people across the country and said look, we are going to be campaigning and campaigning hard as part of Better Together but also for technical Electoral Commission rules the individual parties also have to do separate campaigning, and we knew that that was going to happen so we got in kind of ahead of that and said look, would you like to be involved with us and help us with this fight. And more than 80,000 people came back to us. Now that’s significantly higher than our membership let me tell you in Scotland. Many sent money, which wasn’t necessarily what we asked for, but it was people standing up and saying we want to stand with you on this issue. And that’s a huge amount of people, and because we’ve done that, we’ve been able over the last 18 months to start a dialogue with them and get them to help us in terms of campaigning.”
According to Davidson, Tory membership in Scotland stands at about 11,000, compared to 9,000 when she was elected leader in 2011. But she says that over the last five or six years “the change of tone for the Conservatives has been massive”. She pointed out that “the dividing line in Scotland at the moment is Unionist-Nationalist, and we are on the right side of that line”. And she referred to Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling, published as Cameron’s Caledonian Conundrum, which “consistently showed that a third of people in Scotland are now willing to listen to the Conservatives and could possibly at some point be converted to voting Conservative”, though while some of these “just need a little nudge, some need an awful lot of convincing”.
In the European elections in May, Davidson “would expect the Scottish Conservative vote to go up – I would expect the rest of the UK Conservative vote to go down.” North of the border, she points out, angry nationalists vote for the SNP, while south of the border they go for UKIP. In the 2009 European elections, the Scottish Tories got 16.9 per cent of the vote, while in the general election of 2010 they got 16.7 per cent.
But they only got one MP. Davidson says this very bad result sprang in part from a lack of professionalism:
“I fully accept that good organisation and campaigning does not on its own win elections, but bad organisation and campaigning can lose you them. In 2010 we got 413,000 votes across Scotland and got one MP; the Liberal Democrats got 465,000 votes across Scotland and got 11 seats. The difference between winning and losing is 2,000 votes in some seats. For too long we have come close and have just not competed enough.”
When I put it to Davidson that she needed some new candidates, she replied that she has set up a new candidate selection system, including open primaries in some of the party’s key seats, and has also brought in a new assessment board which is applying strict minimum standards even to candidates who have already been elected.
Davidson refrained from predicting success in 2015: “We’re not making the same mistake as in 2010 when we went round telling everyone we’re in a good position to win 12 seats, and promptly returned only one. We’re being a bit cannier this year, but I think most people would acknowledge that was an error.”
Four Scottish seats appear on the Conservatives’ 40:40 target list, and will therefore get extra help: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (currently held by Michael Moore for the Lib Dems); Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell, Conservative); Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart, SNP); West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith, Lib Dem).
According to Davidson, the Scottish Tories are adding “another couple of seats which we’re going to be giving special assistance to”. But these she would rather not name. She said the Scottish Conservatives had in the past been “rather light” on policy, a deficiency she has set out to remedy, for she sees great merit in being the party which attacks the mediocre consensus that has so long prevailed in areas such as education and welfare.
But what of the party’s policy on devolution? In 2011, when she defeated Murdo Fraser and others for the leadership, Davidson was opposed to the devolution of any further powers. Her position now is harder to determine. In March 2013 she set up a commission chaired by Lord Strathclyde to examine the issue. She confirmed that she has not herself made any submission to this commission. When asked why not she said:
“Well I’m in constant conversation with Tom Strathclyde, who’s running it, and several of the commissioners. The only remit I gave him was that he would come back in good time for the referendum. There’s lots of work ongoing. It’s a pretty serious commission. Heavyweight business people from Scotland. The political settlement has to work for the prosperity of our nation. That’s the point. This isn’t a pointy-headed academic exercise. We’ve got another meeting in the next couple of weeks on tax, which is going to be quite a knotty issue. I’d expect them to come back with some pretty interesting proposals. The remit was to come back with ideas about making devolution work better for the people of Scotland.”
She declined to confirm that Lord Strathclyde is not enjoying running this commission: “I think he’s enjoying not being Chief Whip. The last time we spoke he said he was approached by this chap in Tesco in Kilmarnock who was telling him what we need to do to make sure we keep our country together. So he’s incredibly engaged in the fight. And while it is not an easy task I have given him, he doesn’t take on tasks he’s not going to fulfil.”
Davidson felt more comfortable talking about Salmond’s weak points: “He’s not got a great grasp of detail. He doesn’t like being challenged. He I think has the sort of personality where if you get out under his skin he will quite rashly claim some things, for example like of course we’ll renationalise the Royal Mail, because he was being prodded on it. Challenged in there one too many times he just comes out with things. Hubris, potentially.”
ConHome: “Somebody said to me he’s not good with women.”
Davidson: “There is a gender divide. But take nothing away from him, he is a formidable political operator and no one’s underestimating his abilities. But he’s not invincible and he’s on the wrong side of this argument.”
ConHome: “Is there a danger that Salmond will lose the referendum but get devo max which amounts to almost the same thing?”
Davidson: “Well I think you point to a really interesting dilemma for the nationalist movement, which is that it’s being led by someone who’s trying to make this into an argument that everything will change but nothing will change. The pitch from the SNP is that we will deliver the same currency, the same regulatory regime, the same central bank, the same head of state, the same lender of last resort, so although they’re offering something, it’s not independence. I think the question for some of their fundamentalists is if that is their retail offer and they lose, is it the sort of recriminations you saw after the 1983 manifesto for Labour, where it’s yes, we lost because we weren’t nationalist enough.”
ConHome: “Are you going to go for this constitutional convention idea put forward by Douglas Alexander?”
Davidson: “Yes, but I would like it very much on a UK-wide basis. I think we have to have a discussion in the UK of what nationhood is. What is it that keeps us together? What are the fundamental tenets?”
ConHome: “So you think it’s an English question as well as a Scottish question.”
Davidson: “Yes absolutely. It’s not a question or debate we’ve had in any great depth. And it’s one whose time has certainly come. What we’re seeing is the development of devolution that’s done in a binary way, so it’s done Holyrood-Westminster, Cardiff Bay-Westminster, Stormont-Westminster. Actually what we’ve not done is got everyone round the table and talked about United Kingdom membership and what the United Kingdom is as an entity.”
I came away from my talk with Davidson feeling more optimistic than I had expected. Although great dangers lie ahead, it is possible that Salmond’s attempt to destroy the United Kingdom will instead have the effect of making it stronger.