Will row over councillors damage Ruth Davidson?

To say that Ruth Davidson has performed well over the past 18 months is to understate the direction of travel in Scottish politics massively.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Scottish Conservative leaders since devolution haven’t necessarily been disasters, with Ms Davidson’s predecessor Annabel Goldie improving the party’s lot and enjoying impressive approval ratings across the country.

However few politicians in that time frame have had as successful a progression as Ms Davidson, now spoken of in some circles as a potential Prime Minister.

Now, the sheen could be coming off the former journalist, who is praised regularly by journalists across the political spectrum.

Two Conservative councillors, who were elected as the party made progress in May’s local elections, have been reinstated after being suspended for a series of offensive comments made before they won their seats.

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The move sparked fury among political opponents, and it could yet negatively affect the popular Scottish Tory leader, and here is why.

Offense Levels

Perhaps most damaging to the Scottish Conservatives is the sheer offensiveness of the comments that the two Stirling councillors, Alastair Majury and Robert Davies, made.

While one tabloid tried to make more of a salacious story out of the brags about manhood Majury made on his dating profile, the real story was his shocking comments about Catholics.

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Majury wrote in 2012: “Why is the Catholic Church against birth control? Because they’ll wrote out of children to molest”, an apparent reference to the sex abuse scandals in the church.

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He also used the word ‘tarrier’, a derogatory term that is used against Catholics.

The anti-Catholic slurs are made all the more shocking when set against a background in Scotland that has seen a rise in abuse.

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Figures show that 57 per cent of all religiously aggravated hate crime in Scotland is directed towards Catholics, despite the religious group making up less than 20 per cent of the Scottish population.

An accusation of hypocrisy could also be levelled at Ms Davidson, considering that in 2011 she sacked a parliamentary aide who was caught on camera burning the EU flag with a group of friends, one of whom used the same term.

Davies’ tweets were directed at black people, captioning pictures seemingly taken of groups with racist jokes about spears, loincloths, and cannibalism.

The shocking comments are so far beyond what made be considered ‘regular’ offensiveness even in barbed political discourse, that the position of Ms Davidson is so hard to reconcile with her progressive public profile.

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Going to ground

There isn’t much sympathy among Ms Davidson’s political opponents as she finds herself in the uncharacteristic position of being on the back foot.

With both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments in recess, stories that take place during the summer often take on greater significance than the ordinarily would.

The SNP in particular is ramping up criticism of the Tory leader, perhaps motivated by having offensive comments by their own supporters seized upon by opponents.

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A tweet by BBC Radio Scotland reporter Gary Robertson that claimed Ms Davidson would be unavailable for interview on his morning show for the entirety of this week and next week formed the basis of criticism from Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

The SNP claim that Ms Davidson has been ‘posted missing’.

Their MSP James Dornan said: “Sooner or later, she will have to explain her decision to reinstate these two councillors – or people across Scotland will draw the conclusion that bigotry, sectarianism and racism are all more than welcome in Ruth Davidson’s Tory party.”

If her opponents continue to make this an issue, it will be hard for Ruth Davidson to continue to maintain radio silence.

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The Reality

Of course, matters like this are still small potatoes in political terms, and it is more than likely another story will simply come along and the issue will be more or less forgotten about.

Ms Davidson has previously looked ill-at-ease despite regularly putting in assured performances in debates, most notably in defending the so-called Rape Clause during a General Election debate.

Her party will went on to make sweeping gains in Scotland, taking a number of SNP scalps including former First Minister Alex Salmond.

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The Scottish Tory leader has made clear she is gunning for Nicola Sturgeon’s job as First Minister, while commentators see her reaching even higher office.

But if she wants to get through the door of Bute House, or even Downing Street, issues such as allowing two councillors with a history of offensive comments back into a modernised Scottish Tory party could yet hold her back.