Joyce McMillan: Ruth Davidson must move Unionism away from indyref2

We must hope her undoubted electoral success has no blinded her to the less appetising aspects of her party, writes Joyce McMillan
While Theresa May blundered, Ruth Davidson thundered but the Scottish Tory leader must now take a wider view. Picture: Getty ImagesWhile Theresa May blundered, Ruth Davidson thundered but the Scottish Tory leader must now take a wider view. Picture: Getty Images
While Theresa May blundered, Ruth Davidson thundered but the Scottish Tory leader must now take a wider view. Picture: Getty Images

When Ruth Davidson headed off on holiday last week – posting a cheeky tweet of Gillian Anderson as she went – I think it’s fair to say that the Scottish Conservative leader was cock-a-hoop, simply delighted with herself, and with her party’s recent performance.

Between the general elections of 2015 and 2017, the Scottish Tories had made the leap from one seat in Scotland to 13, doubling their vote in the process.

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They had inflicted serious damage on their chief enemy, the SNP, from whom they took all of these seats; 60 per cent of those who voted in Scotland on 8 June supported Unionist parties.

And the election of those Scottish Tory MPs also, of course, saved the bacon of Theresa May’s increasingly unpopular government; without the loyal Scottish 13, even the expensive support of the Democratic Unionists would not have been enough to keep Theresa May in power.

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So what kind of political animal is it, this Conservative-led Unionism that for now seems to have all the momentum – if certainly not all the votes – in Scottish politics?

So far as I can see, it has four elements, some of them strikingly ill-matched. The first element, obvious from the moment of Ruth Davidson’s election as leader six years ago, was her vigorous attempt to detoxify the Tory brand, and make the party seem more culturally in tune with modern Scottish society.

Still under 40, gay and happily partnered, Davidson looks like a new kind of Conservative leader; and her forceful defence of the European Union during last year’s referendum campaign was all of a piece with her successful rebranding of the Scottish Tories as a modern, outward-looking European centre-right party.

With last year’s Brexit vote, though, there came a second and more visceral element, quite different in tone – a passionate, almost obsessive opposition to the second independence referendum proposed by Nicola Sturgeon in response to last year’s Brexit vote.

This opposition was articulated by all three main Unionist parties, but primarily by the Tories, and reflected the very strong views of a large cohort of mainly older Scottish voters who may once even have voted SNP, but who now, quite suddenly, seem to detest the First Minister, her party and all their works; and it’s hard not to conclude that the existential questions posed by the twin referendums of 2014 and 2016 have reawakened a deep, previously unspoken British nationalism in some Scottish voters, which is not only willing to go along with Brexit, but increasingly regards all further talk of Scottish independence as intolerable.

And it’s at this point that some of the contradictions within this Unionist surge start to become clear; because whatever Ruth Davidson’s project was about, when she became leader, it clearly was not about leading a party of predominantly older British nationalists clinging instinctively to the idea of the Union, while the most chaotic and economically unsuccessful British government in recent memory sails us directly towards the Brexit iceberg.

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Like all nationalist movements, what’s more – and this is the third strand – the British one has its extremist fringe, currently to be seen not only swaggering with a new spring in its step through Glasgow and other Scottish towns, playing ancient tunes of sectarian dominance, but also smirking at Westminster as Theresa May pays £1 billion of British taxpayers’ money for the support of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists, some of the most right-wing and socially illiberal politicians in the UK.

Now of course, Ruth Davidson will oppose these forces of reaction, publicly and privately, on issues like gay rights.

But as a young politician, she should surely be asking herself deeper questions about what kind of future her Conservative Party is really offering to the people of Scotland, with such allies, and with such a discredited set of economic and social policies.

Does Ruth Davidson really believe, for example, that Scotland can survive and thrive outside the European single market? What are her views on tackling climate change? And is she in favour of the UK government’s continuing austerity programme, or does she agree that the relentless downward pressure on Britain’s public sector has now gone too far?

The truth is that we hardly know the answers to these questions, because of Ruth Davidson’s recent unvarying focus on just one issue, opposition to a second referendum.

Over the past 25 years, by contrast, the SNP has striven mightily to distance itself from the more fundamentalist elements that attach themselves to any national movement, to develop a modern and inclusive approach to citizenship, and to reframe themselves as a pragmatic party who want independence as a means to the end of delivering a modern social-democratic Scotland.

And Ruth Davidson, it seems to me, now needs to do a similar job on modern British nationalism in Scotland, refocusing it away from identity politics to what the Union might actually deliver.

Otherwise she will find herself not only stuck in charge of a nostalgist movement full of reactionary attitudes and tropes; but also in a policy-free zone, where the faithful respond to nothing but the familiar chant of “We said No, and we meant it”, accompanied, of course, by its always unspoken corollary, “We said Remain, and we didn’t really mean it at all.”

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And then lastly, as Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity continues to surge, there is the small matter of the possible re-emergence of a new Labour Unionism, profoundly opposed to the new Tory-led Unionism in almost every area of policy. We may be in the middle of a revival of Scottish Unionism, in other words.

Yet so long as the leading force in that revival seems more reactive than proactive, more interested in saying “no” to independence than in saying “yes” to any viable set of policies, and bound to a UK Tory party that most young Scots passionately reject, it is hard to imagine that its energy can be sustained.

And although it blazes with a sharp reactionary brightness now, it will need more fuel, of a much-more substantial and forward-looking sort, if it is to stay the course as a leading force in 21st century Scottish politics.