ANALYSIS: Ruth Davidson's departure could be the moment of independence for the Scottish Tories

Posted On: 
31st August 2019

Ruth Davidson's resignation as leader could be the moment when the Scottish Conservatives strike out on their own, argues Andrew McQuillan.

Ruth Davidson visits Afghanistan during her times as Scottish Tory leader.

The maxim that politics is a ruthless business is a tried and tested one, but it has certainly taken on more relevance in the past few days following Ruth Davidson’s announcement that after eight years in post she was standing down as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

Hagiographies on what Davidson was and meant for the twin, albeit distinct, causes of Conservatism and unionism in Scotland have been plentiful since her unexpected announcement, but one thing has stood clear in all of them; that for all her irrepressible chutzpah and “Heineken” ability to reach parts of the Scottish electorate no conventional Tory could, the London party, undergoing its own psychodrama since 2016, whether by accident or design, undermined her gains at almost every turn.

Such is the lot of a leader of one of the UK parties in Scotland. A Scottish success could be undone in one swift move by the lumbering Westminster machine, reducing you to the mere status of regional manager of the “branch office” as the SNP would put it. As the Brexit mess continued to unfold, Davidson was placed in that invidious position too many times for comfort, diminishing her political dignity.

Additionally, an outworking of the 2017 electoral success when the Scottish Tories scored their best result since 1983 was Davidson’s seeming lack of authority over those MPs once they arrived at Westminster, despite her being the deciding factor in getting them there in the first place. For all the promises of a caucus promoting Scottish interests, the freelancing of the likes of Ross Thomson showed the difficulties of exerting authority from Edinburgh and striking a balance between joint loyalty to both the Scottish and UK parties.

If one lesson can be learned from Davidson’s departure, it is that the current frameworks cannot carry on as they are; the contagion from the Johnson administration could not only undermine the party but the Union itself. What, after all, is the point of striking a courageous note on Brexit only for the Matt Hancocks, Amber Rudds and Michael Goves of this world to offer honeyed words then pull the rug from beneath you?

One lesson is across the Dispatch Box at Westminster. Much separates Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, and Ruth Davidson, but there was an inherent warmth between them evidenced by Foster’s tribute to her following her resignation. For all the faults of Foster’s stewardship of Ulster unionism, which are riparian, she has demonstrated the potency of an independent, standalone unionist party holding the Conservative feet to the fire in the interest of a part of the UK, especially when it comes to money, Can any of Ruth Davidson’s achievements honestly be compared to the confidence and supply agreement?

Imagine those 13 Scottish Tories were like the DUP or the Bavarian CDU; the ability to exact a price from the national Conservative Party in a proper coalition process while at the same time being able to present themselves as acting in Scotland’s interests would go some way to spiking the branch office argument.

Some 45% of the admittedly-small membership voted this way in 2011 when Murdo Fraser stood against Davidson for the Scottish leadership on this platform and lost. Yet times have changed since then and given the evolved political landscape and imperative, the case Fraser made all those years ago arguably carries greater currency.

One potential hindrance is the “hyperunionism” that to an extent, Davidson rode the coattails of in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum. Why fight for a Union only to disassociate oneself from a purportedly pan-Union party is a feeling that many of the Scottish Tory membership may agree with.

However, developments have since shown this was a reasonable point on 18 September 2014, but not one following on from the constitutional bin fire than has ensued since the early hours of 24 June 2016. As the DUP have demonstrated since 2017, why take the whip when you can hold the whip hand in the interest of your constituents?

With the SNP making hay of the supposed democratic deficit caused by Brexit, a distinct brand of “nationalist unionism” – obviously refined from the days of the old Scottish Unionist Party – which stands for Scotland and associates with Conservatives in the rest of the UK rather than merely towing the party line may be the only viable path by which the Union could be preserved.

Davidson herself with her less than subtle relegation of the Conservative brand in favour of her own name on party literature recognised this essential fact. With her stepping aside and the party management’s admission that a review of the relationship with London has to take place, the question remains whether a leader can convince a hesitant membership in the ensuing leadership election of the necessity of the cutting the apron strings.

* Andrew McQuillan is a political commentator who regularly writes on Scotland and Northern Ireland.