Despite Ruth Davidson’s popularity, the Conservatives have lost a once-sophisticated sense of what keeps this kingdom united, partly because of their obsession with Brexit, says Joyce McMillan.
Last weekend in Windsor, with the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, the best and subtlest minds of the British establishment gave the idea of a new, modern, forward-looking, post-Brexit Britain their very best shot. They couldn’t, of course, disguise the fact that this was all about hereditary monarchy; and they couldn’t hide the unpleasant sniggering of some in the A-list congregation as the preacher, Bishop Michael Curry, talked boldly of love and justice, in classic black gospel style.
They could, though, give black musicians and that mighty sermon a more than equal part in the service. They could show Prince Charles extending a very warm family welcome to both Meghan and her mother, Doria Ragland. They could stitch the national flowers of all the countries of the Commonwealth into Meghan’s 15-foot veil; and they could focus on the beautiful couple themselves, marrying across national, social and ethnic boundaries that once seemed unbreachable. The weather played along, flag-waving British patriots were in their element, and even more sceptical types found themselves briefly and surprisingly moved by the symbolism of it all.
And I thought again of the contradictions surrounding the royal wedding when I read the speech given by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson on Monday, at a London conference on the Future Of Unionism staged by the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank. Ruth Davidson is one of the politicians of the hour, and for good reason. In a party which she herself described this week, as often seeming “joyless and authoritarian”, and unattractive to young people, she is herself young, at just 39. She is gay, and about to have a baby with her partner, whom she intends to marry; and she is leading a Conservative Party in Scotland which, after decades in the wilderness, managed at the 2017 general election – on the strength of a sudden anti-SNP backlash – to rise to the giddy heights of 13 Westminster MPs out of 59 in Scotland.
Yet for all her many reasons to be cheerful, Ruth Davidson came to London not with reassurance but with a warning about the need for the Union – like royalty – to adapt in order to survive; and in many ways, her speech represented a more effective charge-sheet against her own party than against her SNP opponents. She said, in attacking the SNP, that wasting a decade discussing constitutional matters was bad for the Scottish economy, schools and hospitals; yet she must know that her own Brexit-obsessed party is currently wrestling with a prolonged outbreak of constitutional fundamentalism more economically damaging than anything the SNP has proposed in the last half-century.
She all but conceded that she thought, like Nicola Sturgeon, that Scotland’s decisive vote to Remain in the EU referendum would trigger a surge for support for independence; an insight that chimes weirdly with frequent Tory assertions that the First Minister’s decision to seek a second independence referendum is somehow the act of a crazed constitutional obsessive. She asserts that the Scottish government has no right to ignore the million Scots who voted to Leave the EU, a concern which suggests she also believes the UK Government has no right to ignore the much larger minority in the UK – 16 million – who voted to Remain. And she diagnoses, with some accuracy, the failure of the UK Government to adjust, both psychologically and structurally, to the new age of devolution which it inaugurated 20 years ago; she says that most Scots don’t want more constitutional division, but do want the UK state to act in a manner which respects their interests, and seeks to make life better for us all.
And what is strange about this is that many Scots who now find themselves in the pro-independence camp would say much the same; the difference is that they have concluded, from long experience, that most UK politicians know little and care less about Scotland’s interests, and that the most successful party in UK politics – the Conservatives – can almost be relied on to make things not better, but worse, for those in our society who most need the gentle touch of better times.
Today, of course, Ruth Davidson’s opponents in the SNP launch their new Wilson Report into the possible future of Scotland’s economy, after independence; and she and her colleagues in the Unionist parties will not be slow to dismiss it as yet another attempt to bamboozle the people of Scotland with independence pipe-dreams.
Yet to judge by her speech in London this week, Ruth Davidson knows that there is, in reality, much more of a case to answer on the potential of an independent Scotland than most Unionist politicians will ever concede in public. To put it bluntly, if Ruth Davidson is a believer in the politics of optimism and hope, then she will have to deal, in the coming months, with the inconvenient truth that the Wilson Report probably offers Scotland a positive vision of the future that is rather more credible than the breezy all-right-on-the-night assumptions of many in her own party about Britain’s future after Brexit – a major constitutional change undertaken, let’s remember, without its advocates producing even a single side of A4 about how it would work, far less a 600-page White Paper.
The paradox for Ruth Davidson, in other words, is that while she could probably romp to a convincing win in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2021, against a tired SNP as the young and liberal leader of a Scottish Conservative Party in an independent Scotland, she is unlikely to achieve any such decisive success so long as she remains tethered to the brawling, nostalgic, arrogant, Brexit-obsessed and wealth-driven mess that is current British Conservatism. It is her party, and no other, that for the last 40 years has been gradually driving Scotland out of the Union. And unlike the royal family, which has always known how to adapt and survive, so far it shows no signs of changing its spots; or of rediscovering its once-sophisticated understanding of what the words United Kingdom mean to the four nations that make up our increasingly battered and unconvincing nation-state.