Monday 9 May 2016

The Canny Politics of Ruth Davidson

Most lefties have one or two favourite Tories. Me? I own a whole menagerie. Who can resist Nicholas Soames and his waspish tweets? Fabbers' endless self-parodying? The plastic Thatcher tributes by Anna Soubry? And Rees-Mogg's distillation of Tory toffism? Yet these colourful characters share a less appetising trait: they're all irredeemable bastards. I might titter at Fabricant and roll my eyes at our Jake, but I have no doubt these people are enemies of the labour movement. They would rather we didn't exist, and long for the days of the cap-doffing squire and the people who knew their place below stairs. And that's before you scrutinise their voting records for supporting attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable.

And then there is Ruth Davidson. Along with most of the commentariat, I can't help but have a soft spot for her. An openly gay straight-talking woman from a normal background, a politician with no airs and bullshit, a capacity to poke fun at herself, and comes across everywhere and always as unflappingly pleasant. Apart from her party affiliation, what is there not to like? So what is her secret? How is it that everyone is totally dippy when it comes to Ruth?

As an individual, Ruth seems perfectly sound. She stands out because she didn't go to politics stage school. She lacks the affectation and soundbite regurgitation of those in the game for too long, or never had a proper job before achieving office. How crap must politics be when "appearing normal" is a vote winner? Let's not be naive about this. Ruth may well be as she presents herself, but her image has gone through the wringer. It's sculpted, styled, trained, and got focus grouped to death. Ruth Davidson as a political personage is as artificial as Boris Johnson's oh-so-funny buffoonery and Dave's stage-hogging statesmanship. She's everyone's mate, the Tory whose gimmick is not looking, sounding, or behaving like a Tory.

Think on this a moment. What does Ruth Davidson stand for? Judging by the media coverage she's very pro-the union. 18 months ago, wherever there was a Better Together media opportunity, she wasn't sniffy about which Labour politician she took to the stage with. The memory abides of Gordon Brown making his bravura speech in the dying days of the referendum campaign, and there was Ruth, pictured clapping away with enthusiasm. We also know she's pro-EU, and has declared to be looking forward to working with the SNP to ensure Britain remains this June. And what else? Well, not a lot. If you must, scope out the Conservatives' Scottish Manifesto. Reading through it, there's very little you could disagree with. Seriously. Leaving aside the unionist stuff, most of it could have appeared in a SNP or Labour manifesto. It warns against centralisation, calls for more NHS funding, a more flexible social security system (which could be code for all kinds of things), addressing problems in the education system. This is not Toryism red in tooth and claw. Nor, actually, cuddly conservatism. It is an uncontroversial managerial politics with no sniff of right wingery at all.

Has this happened by accident? Absolutely not. Just as Ruth is a clean figure with no baggage at all, the Tories don't want to toxify their best bet with their own tarnished brand. So the manifesto matches her to a tee. No hard edges, no policies invoking unpleasant memories. It's straight-talking, oppositional, and above all, modest. It's a master class in political positioning. Ruth invites voters to give the blues a punt because they stand no chance of winning, but will manage a better job than Our Kez and Scottish Labour at holding the SNP to account. Opposing the SNP over the next four years isn't going to see the Tories at the eye of many political storms, there isn't much chance of them outraging public opinion. And then, come 2020 Ruth will make the same proposition again, slowly but surely building up a base for her new, reasonable Toryism until such a time it can challenge the SNP for supremacy. It's a long game, and a very smart game she's playing. Between now and then, she'll be detoxifying the Tories at every available opportunity. Why else do you think Ruth's keen to help Nicola Sturgeon make the case for Remain?

There are a few problems Ruth faces. So far she has disassociated the Scottish Tories from what's happening with the Tories at Westminster. Her very personality acts as a marker - she's a world apart from Dave and his gang of entitled dolts. But there will come times when she feels the heat for what's going on elsewhere. The devolution of further powers to Holyrood shield her to an extent, but what happens at Westminster does overdetermine the Scottish party system. Second, apart from unionism and fairly inconsequential matters like sentencing, Ruth's position absolutely depends on not taking a position, and especially one that smacks of traditional Toryism. The strategy that got the Tories second party status is quite brittle and liable to fall apart if they are forced to oppose popular policies. And there is the Scottish party itself. Of the few that are left, there's bound to be unreconstructed Tories hiding in the shadows ready with a verbal bomb or two primed to remind everyone that the modern Tory party is still the Tory party.

Ruth Davidson then. A likeable small p politician you could go for a coffee with or take down the pub quiz. But also a canny operator at the helm of the labour movement's implacable enemy in Scotland. Never forget that.


Metatone said...

I've said elsewhere that I'm disappointed in the analysis of the "Tory revival" in Scotland, because the 2nd place there isn't a stepping stone to anywhere in particular in the absence of some kind of resolution to the independence issue. Not only is that a long way away, but if independence happens, old labels become meaningless, and if resolution occurs without independence and the SNP withers, one has to ask how likely it is that the Tories will get half of the previously SNP voters. At which point, the RD phenom starts to look much more like 2010 Clegg than 2015 Cameron.

Further to that, as you note, the manifesto was anodyne in the extreme, highlighting that there just isn't much support for Thatcherite policies in Scotland. Now if that's where RD is, ideologically, I could get to like her. But she's associated with a party that is frankly delusional when you take a moment and look at the lack of evidence base for their policies. And I always have to ask why someone would associate themselves with that kind of thing...

BCFG said...

She might try to distance herself from Westminster Tory policy but she simply cannot. She is an active member of a party who are pushing through crippling austerity and attacking trade union rights etc etc.

If she attempts to put distance between cruel conservatism and her own position then she is not only a Tory but also a manipulative lying Tory.

Basically behind all the nice demographics that push all the right liberal buttons lie a deeply unpleasant individual.

asquith said...

David Davis for me, I've followed him since the 42 days row in 2008, and Ruth too obvs.

Ruth was instrumental in saving the British union, that Young Dave endangered with his cavalier approach and shameless approach to EVEL and the Ed Miliband/SNP "controversy". And she must wonder why she bothers with such cynical attitudes in Westminster.

Ken said...

Distance herself from Westminter? Hmm, someone should tell SLAB, in fact, perhaps a Scottish Lab, independent from Westminster might be good and maybe popular.

jim mclean said...

Well the last thing SLAB need is Henry and Alex prattling on about Home Rule. The Scottish Middle classes who switched from the Tories to the SNP in the 80's are returning as the Nationalists put forward their phony WC credentials too woo the Rust belt. The Middle Classes are seeing them for what they are, a political amoeba, no basis for pluralism in their single cell world. Labour must enter next years local elections as Municipal Socialists,they must show the electorate that they can be the peoples voice in the Towns, in Scotland, in the UK and finally in Europe. Nationalism is not a progressive force in any mannner.