Euan McColm: Ruth Davidson must think positive if rise to top is to continue

THE parallels are uncanny.

Ruth Davidson has stated her wish to be First Minister, although some of her English colleagues would rather she set her sights on Westminster. Phootgraph: SWNS
Ruth Davidson has stated her wish to be First Minister, although some of her English colleagues would rather she set her sights on Westminster. Phootgraph: SWNS

After Alex Salmond returned as SNP leader in 2004, he did not enjoy instant success. Rather, he had a bloody miserable two years of trying and failing to make progress before his fortunes took a turn for the better.

Similarly, when Ruth Davidson became leader of the Scottish Conservatives in 2011 she was to endure a prolonged bleak period when it seemed she could neither unite her party nor inspire voters.

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In the cases of both politicians, things began looking up when they revised their approaches. Salmond’s poll ratings began to rise when he ditched grievance and started to tell an optimistic story of a progressive, energetic Scotland. Davidson’s star rose when she cast herself as the defender of the Union. The referendum made her, just as it ended Salmond.

In order to fall from power, Salmond first had to get to the top. This he did by talking confidently about what he would do for Scotland when (never if) he became First Minister. This confident optimistic Salmond (missing in action since the summer of 2014) engaged voters and led his party to government.

Now it’s up to Davidson to try to follow the former First Minister by winning an election.

When MSPs returned to Holyrood last week, there was barely a whisper about independence. After years – long, slow years – of the constitution dominating our politics, the prospect of a second independence referendum is no more. Unionist parties won a clear majority of votes in June, while the SNP lost 21 seats as weary voters demanded that the Scottish Government respect the result of the 2014 vote.

Davidson, who last year led the Tories past Labour and into second place in the Scottish parliamentary elections, saw the number of Scottish Conservative MPs soar from just one to 13. This was some way behind the SNP’s 35 but it certainly seemed to confirm the impression that Davidson is a politician on the up.

I wonder whether she will be able to maintain this momentum for long.

What we know for certain about Davidson is that she is a first class opposition politician. We know that she can take an issue – in her case, independence – and make it her own. We know that she can identify an opponent’s weakness (in the case of Labour, its position on the constitution; in the case of the Conservative Party, its position on the constitution) and exploit that to full effect.

But if nobody’s talking about independence, the need for relentless vocal opposition to it is surely no longer the priority it was until recently for unionist voters.

And, anyway, if you’re serious about being in government, you have to do a damned sight more than simply point out what’s wrong with that lot in power.

Salmond’s rise to power began when he stopped attacking and began describing a vision for Scotland. Davidson wants to do the same.

Until now untested on policy, the Scottish Conservative leader will have to develop and sell ideas to reform the NHS, improve the education system, and grow the economy.

Even if Davidson does come up with a raft of new policies that offer a credible alternative to the SNP, there are other problems to be overcome.

The Scottish Tories may have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in the general election but those victories they scored involved seats in areas they had once dominated. Davidson’s Tories are not yet – aside from a few exceptions including herself – making real progress in urban areas.

The refusal of the Scottish Labour Party to live up to expectations and die saw it return seven MPs in June – a modest number but, given predictions that Scottish Labour was heading for a complete wipeout, a significant one. In west and central Scotland, the political battle is between Labour and the SNP and the Tories remain squeezed out.

How Davidson can overcome the combination in urban Scotland of antipathy towards her party and resurgent support for Labour is not at all clear.

But let’s say the Scottish Tory leader does come up with a way of connecting with significant numbers of voters in areas that traditionally voted Labour before going SNP before flirting with Labour again. Would that ensure her victory in the 2021 Holyrood election? Of course not. Because, even if Davidson does start to win over support from other parties, she will continue to be at risk of suffering serious damage because of the policies and actions of Tory colleagues at Westminster.

The Scottish Tory leader might personify a modern, socially liberal conservatism but what progress she might make among younger, more moderate voters is always in danger of being undone by, say, an excruciating television interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg. Might not Davidson’s credentials as a Conservative for enlightened times be tarnished in the eyes of some by the fact she shares a party with people who hold views on homosexuality or women’s reproductive rights that were more common decades ago?

Ruth Davidson as an unstoppable political force is a hugely popular story, these days. She’s become a household name far beyond the border with England. Depressed Tories suffering a useless Prime Minister talk plaintively of how they wish she’d come to the rescue and take over the leadership of the UK party.

Even among the most enthusiastic Brexiteers, you will find Tory MPs who’d back Davidson for Prime Minister without a moment of hesitation.

So, the image is good. Now it’s time to see whether there’s any substance.

Those close to the Tory leader says she is acutely aware of the need to develop new policies and insist she is doing just that.

They insist, too – well, of course they would – that she is quite serious about becoming First Minister.

People laughed at Alex Salmond when he said he wanted to be First Minister. And, true, those people are laughing now. But they weren’t for a good few years.

Can Ruth Davidson follow in his footsteps? Nothing’s impossible in politics, these days, but the Scottish Tory leader faces greater hurdles than the former SNP leader ever did on his path to the top.