Liberal, centrist revival can happen following the resignation of Ruth Davidson as Scottish Conservative leader, says Alex Cole-Hamilton.
For years, as a political activist in Edinburgh and then latterly as a parliamentary candidate, I have been haunted by three words. “I. Like. Ruth.”
Often used as a suffix to sentences that would begin “I’m not a Tory, but...” or “I’d probably vote Lib Dem but...” those three words “I like Ruth” have seen me turn ruefully away from many a door and chalk up another Edinburgh voter to the Blue team.
The personal appeal of the erstwhile Tory leader was such that her name nearly replaced the Conservative brand in Scotland entirely. She was simultaneously a shield and a salve between her party in Scotland and the bad press it so richly deserved in London, from the incompetence of Theresa May, the jingoism of the ERG and the hideous calamity of Brexit.
I have worked with many MSPs, both before I entered parliament and since, but Ruth is the only one that has actually frightened me. I don’t really mean it like that, I’ve always been very fond of her, but her brilliance scared me. She had the uncanny ability to stand on an increasingly right-wing platform, yet continue to sound reasonable. Moderate even.
The extent of her likability was such that she successfully cornered the market on the pro-UK vote, despite a clear, unionist offer from the Lib Dems and Labour and she did so (if you’ll pardon the pun) absolutely ruthlessly. She was quite willing to twist the words of Willie Rennie or (insert name of Labour leader here) to suggest a softening of their position on independence that was entirely fictitious and she laughed all the way to the ballot box because of it.
Truth be told, Ruth Davidson has acted as a sea anchor on any centrist, liberal revival in Scotland, so whilst Parliament will be all the poorer without her contribution as Tory leader, inside I’m doing somersaults.
Following her departure, the Scottish press laid out the full scale of the loss that her resignation will mean for the Scottish Conservatives. That started with the noticeably short list of men (and they were all men) who might replace her. I’ve worked with each of those names, I regard at least three of them as personal friends, but none can hold a candle to their immediate predecessor and most have already ruled themselves out of the running.
Small wonder that all of the Tory MSPs I’ve seen since the announcement have the look of players in the premiership facing inevitable relegation at the end of the season.
Her resignation leaves a massive gulf, not only in the Tory Party but for all those people who were prepared to back the Blues because of her. Ruth used to be the dominant voice in Scotland for those people in the centre ground, who liked the UK, but liked Europe as well.
Nobody who takes over the reins of the Scottish Tory party will be able to make such an offer again. The way is finally open for that Liberal, centrist revival in Scotland. Someone once said that most political careers end in failure, but Ruth is leaving the stage at the height of her powers. Literally dozens of parliamentarians who sit behind her on benches at Holyrood and at Westminster owe their careers to her. Her reasons for going, too, were both reasonable and endearing. She stuck to her principles, she wasn’t going to champion no-deal and she recognised the brutal toll that the prospect of two more elections, held in quick succession might have on her family. Good on her.
I’m sorry that she won’t be landing blows on the First Minister any more, but I won’t be haunted by those three words again.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.