Type the words “Ruth Davidson detoxified the Tories” into Google and you get 640,000 hits. This will come as little surprise, I suspect, to anyone who lives here and has endured the right-wing columnists’ love-in with the Scottish party leader over the last few years. Even when the Orange Order was batting its eyelids at her earlier this year, Davidson was touted as the purveyor of a more compassionate Conservatism, a moderating influence on her Westminster counterparts and the one figure capable of rehabilitating the tarnished brand north of the border.
Up to a point those commentators were right; the Scottish Tories did well in the local and general elections, gaining seats in both (though arguably this had more to do with Davidson’s decision to campaign on a No to a Second Indy Ref platform than her personal magnetism). But success can be a double-edged sword and so it has proved for Davidson. Unfortunately, the new intake of Conservative representatives included some loose cannons; and when I say loose cannons, I mean bigots.
Despite its putative transformation, the Scottish party’s toxicity level is once again soaring. Last week, two Stirling councillors, Robert Davies and Alastair Majury, suspended for posting racist and sectarian tweets, were reinstated on the basis of an apology so “unreserved” no-one outside the party was allowed to hear it.
Then – while that debacle was running its course – Moray MP Douglas Ross, a man already under fire for refusing to give up his job as a referee, told an online interviewer that, were he to be appointed Prime Minister for a day, his Number One priority would be tougher action against gypsies and travellers: two of the most marginalised groups in the country.
So where was Davidson in all this? Was she reading the errant party members the riot act? She was not. For several days, the Colonel went AWOL. And when she finally appeared it was to insist everyone deserved an opportunity to change. The councillors were undergoing diversity training and would be sitting down with anti-sectarian charity Nil by Mouth, she said. Which was odd because it was the first Nil by Mouth had heard of it.
A few days earlier, Davidson had written an opinion piece about Nicola Sturgeon which began: “Every now and then someone in politics commits such an outrageous act of self-delusion the casual reader has to do a double-take to ensure they have fully understood.” But if she experienced so much as a flicker of shame at her own speciousness, she kept it well hidden.
About Ross, Davidson has, at the time of writing, said nothing. The Scottish Football Association – not known for being quick off the mark in such matters – has launched an inquiry, but from the Scottish party leader there has been nary a peep.
After Charlottesville, Davidson took to Twitter to give Trump a ticking off. “The President of the United States has just turned his face to the world to defend Nazis, Fascists and racists. For shame,” she wrote. Brave words. But failing to stand strong against bigotry in her own ranks sapped them of their potency.
No-one is suggesting the Scottish councillors are in the same league as the white supremacists; their tweets were more Yer Da, than they were the Tiki torch brandishing alt-right, but such language legitimises the kind of intolerance that last week saw abuse being hurled at Catholic schoolchildren as they walked through Glasgow Central Station.
We should always hope for redemption; Davies and Majury have now, finally, signed up to the Nil by Mouth sessions, and, if they are open to change, perhaps they will have the desired effect. But the perception that they had to be dragged there kicking and screaming – or that they are merely jumping through hoops – does not inspire confidence.
As for Ross: what can you say about a man whose horizons are so limited his greatest ambition is to bear down on an already disenfranchised community? We have all watched clips of Miss World; we know the answer to the killer “What would you do if you became PM?” question is supposed to be: “end world hunger”; “eradicate TB” or “solve the Middle East conflict”. But what the man who took Moray from the SNP’s Angus Robertson wanted most was more power to throw travellers off unauthorised sites.
In a second interview, with Good Morning Scotland, he compounded his offence. It wouldn’t actually be the first thing on his to do-list, he clarified, but it would still be in the mix. The Scottish Government has been working on strategies to increase opportunities for gypsies/travellers, who are recognised as an ethnic minority. But Ross claimed the extra protection they were afforded was making “the settled community” resentful. Moray is one of ten local authorities which don’t provide an official gypsy/traveller site, so it’s not surprising they set up camp on unauthorised ones.
Whether Ross understands it or not, his prejudice is abhorrent. Roma gypsies were the first target of Nazis. Between quarter and half a million were slaughtered before Hitler was defeated and they, and other traveller communities across Europe, continue to be persecuted. That’s fine company to keep.
Racism amongst Tories is not a peculiarly Scottish problem. Boris Johnson once called black people “piccaninnies” and there is speculation MP Anne Marie Morris who used the N-word may also be welcomed back into the fold. And why not? In a party which – nationally, at least – has exploited and fostered a distrust of immigrants for its own purposes, such bigotry is remarkable only in terms of its degree and blatancy.
Davidson, who was vocal about the SNP’s vetting procedures during the Michelle Thomson saga, now has similar questions to answer; with Amnesty International already calling for Ross’s resignation, she is likely to come under increased pressure over the next few days.
But where the controversy has the potential to inflict a more serious wound is in its undermining of Davidson’s carefully crafted image as the leader of “a more relaxed, internationalist, modern, moderate Conservatism”. Her recent challenge to May to rethink her approach on immigration proves she can talk the talk; but scratch below the surface of the party in Scotland and it’s the same old, same old.