The Conservative leader is revitalising her party – and can offer Unionist voters a real home, writes Brian Monteith
As the deserved celebrations by Ruth Davidson and her supporters begin to ease off, the question of why the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party not only leapt into second place in the Holyrood elections, but did it so convincingly has yet to be answered adequately.
To have a revival that kicks firmly into the past the idea that the Scottish Conservatives are toxic is no mean achievement in itself. To do it by pushing Labour into third place by winning 31 seats is a political landmark. There are some who, rather churlishly, suggest that the Tory campaign downplayed its Conservative credentials and relied on Ruth Davidson as a person to improve their vote. There are a number of reasons why this is wrong, and begrudgingly so.
The obvious point is that David McLetchie and Annabel Goldie were both well-liked figures – by which I mean they enjoyed popularity and respect beyond their party faithful. Polling regularly showed they had greater appeal than the Conservative Party in Scotland. Indeed, the latter was almost treated as a national treasure; the nation’s favourite auntie, no less.
The last three Conservative Holyrood campaigns, before Davidson’s leadership, sought to maximise this advantage by excluding other Tory figures and focusing on the leader, but all to no avail. Election after election the Conservative vote share plumbed new depths – to the point where Murdo Fraser and others, including myself, thought a new Scottish centre-right party was the solution.
The second point is that no-one could doubt Davidson is a Conservative (or even an “expletive deleted” Tory). Admirably, she has never hidden her Conservative credentials, but has instead played up her blue-collar background and been open about her sexuality, although from my experience many in her party would have more difficulty with her previous employment at the BBC. Davidson is therefore a Tory moderniser, just as back in the day Teddy Taylor, Alex Fletcher and Michael Forsyth were modernisers, although it was never a term they would have thought of using.
Being a moderniser has meant that Davidson could redefine what being a Conservative in Scotland means – and this is the key point, for she has redefined the party as the leading proponent of unionism. Her party is now not so much the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party as simply the Unionist Party.
Ironically, this particular branding was being considered for the possible launch of a new Scottish party, but Davidson has done it herself by simply changing perceptions about what her party stands for. Ironically, her greatest support in this has not been the Orange Order, followers of the “Teddy Bears” or Presbyterian believers – no, it has been the Scottish National Party and Nicola Sturgeon in particular.
By pushing the demand for independence so high up the agenda that a referendum took place and polarised the nation, the SNP helped Scottish unionism find its long-missing mojo. By not accepting the outcome with dignity and grace but raising the spectre of a second referendum, Sturgeon focused the electorate’s collective mind. Sturgeon had used the ploy of a Brexit “triggering” a second referendum not just to placate her impatient supporters but also because she knew it would guarantee her UK media coverage in the run-up to the Holyrood elections.
It was Sturgeon pitching against David Cameron on UK television – and doing a better job of it than Ed Miliband – that had earned her the reputation as a formidable opponent, so finding a way to keep that pot simmering was undoubtedly smart. Consciously or not, Sturgeon and her team were using the Donald Trump playbook of saying something outrageous so you don’t have to spend a penny in advertising, as the media will report it for free. And oh, how they did, the London papers raising repeatedly the prospect of the UK breaking up if Brexit became a reality.
As the Holyrood election neared its climax, so for Sturgeon her threat became the “go-to” issue – a second referendum would be more likely, she kept telling us and it would all be the dreaded Tories’ own fault.
Unfortunately the strategy unravelled, because the majority of Scots who voted No to independence do not want another referendum.
This reality collided with the other reality from Holyrood elections in the past – held (crucially) before the independence referendum – where Scots who are not Nationalists would often vote for the SNP as a way to get Labour out, or because the SNP might speak up for Scotland. Faced with this clash of choices it is clear from analysis of the polling in SNP seats, where there were big swings from the SNP to the Tories (of all parties), that many SNP voters had simply had enough of the First Minister’s sabre rattling.
With the Labour and Liberal Democrats both equivocal about their unionism there was only one place for them to go: Ruth Davidson’s devoutly Unionist Conservative Party.
A happy confluence of an able leader who was a willing sport for all the necessary photocalls, but then robust in debate – where she excelled at putting the First Minister’s feet to the fire for her disrespect to the Edinburgh Agreement and the choice of the Scottish electorate in the referendum – gave her an edge over the other leaders.
Davidson is likeable. She calls a spade a spade and she wears her Unionism with pride.
No longer can people say that the Tories are an old people’s party that is dying off. There will be tens of thousands of voters that gave their support to the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party for the first time, and tens of thousands of them will be below 40 and willing to consider voting Tory again.
Rather than dwindling away to nothing as it had been doing, achieving support in the range of 22-23 per cent of vote share is a position that can be built upon so that Ruth Davidson’s party can actually challenge the SNP for power the next time around.
It is for this reason Davidson is attracting all the headlines; it is too early to say the SNP is in decline, but there is every reason to believe the Scottish Tories are in the ascendency. At last.
• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain