The Conservative Party’s relationship with Scotland has been turbulent to say the least. In 1955, they gained a majority of the Scottish vote – the first time this had been achieved by a party since the introduction of universal suffrage. In the 1959 election, they won the most votes, but Labour took the most seats. Things went steadily downhill from there. Whilst Thatcher’s first election partially revived their fortunes, the 1987 election saw the number of Scottish Conservative MPs reduced from 21 to 10, and the Blairite victory of 1997 saw not a single Tory elected in Scotland for the first time. As it currently stands today, David Mundell is the party’s only MP in Scotland, and even he is in a marginal seat. But the recent elections in Scotland show that the Tories are on their way back into the mainstream of Scottish politics, and this is in large part thanks to their leader, the unstoppable Ruth Davidson.
The Tories’ problem in Scotland is one of image; two ideas in particular have been ingrained in the minds of the Scottish electorate. Firstly, the idea that the party is filled solely by posh-boys from England, who lived in country manors and went to Eton. This might help explain why Jacob Rees-Mogg did so badly in the 1997 election when standing for the seat of Central Fife. He famously canvassed in a working-class neighbourhood with his nanny and won less than half of the votes of the previous Tory candidate. Secondly, the Scottish still see the party as Thatcherite: a negative thing,considering how badly Thatcherite monetary policy affected key Scottish industries.
Yet Ruth Davidson does not fit into either of these ideas. To borrow a term from Blair, she is a “moderniser” within the Conservative party; she has clearly learnt well from the first election she ever voted in (1997), in which Blair caused a washout in Scotland. She is a woman, has been a member of the Territorial Army, she is gay, outspoken, a Church of Scotland Christian, and most importantly Scottish. Many of these aspects don’t exactly fit the Tory mould and so have helped remove some of the toxicity of her party in Scotland. She’ll take up most photo opportunities that she deems as fun, moving far beyond holding babies and opening train lines to straddling bulls and yaks.
But obviously it is not just her personality that has been a cause of her success in Scotland. She has also emphasised her similarities to the Scottish public. Davidson, in a recent interview, described herself as more of a Majorite politician than a Thatcherite. Now you might say that Major didn’t exactly perform well in Scotland and you’d be right, but this wasn’t solely his fault. Major suffered in large part because a number of Scots refused to vote Tory ever again because of Thatcher, and also he was unfortunate enough to come up against the well-oiled Blair machine. But he tried to portray his ideology as a ““kinder-gentler” form of Conservativism”, and in her modern Toryism Ruth Davidson is seeking to achieve this too. Davidson, like the majority of Scots, wants to stay in the EU, she believes in gay marriage, and has been a major advocate of keeping the Union together: this policy alone is probably what has served her best. Whilst Scotland might want a “kinder, gentler” approach, Majorite politics might be the perfect solution. After all, Major unfroze child benefit, compensated those who were victims of contaminated blood, and emphasised the importance of community.
The Scottish Tories, bar the SNP, are the only party that is certain of its stance on Scottish independence. By comparison, Kezia Dugdale continues to flounder over the issue and fails to distinguish her party in any meaningful way from the SNP. As a result, Davidson has become the main advocate of the union as better than independence. If people are adamantly opposed to independence, there is no other party that they can vote for if they want a strong opposition: they must vote for Ruth. How can they vote for Dugdale when she says that voting for independence is not inconceivable? Even if voters are completely in favour of Labour’s economics, the factor at the top of the pyramid for most is the ongoing issue of independence, and if they’re dead-set against independence, then how can they vote for a party that might change its view as soon as it realises it might help it gain a few votes?
So whilst it is not entirely down to Ruth that the Conservatives have improved immensely electorally since she took office in 2011, her brand of Toryism has sold well in the current Scottish
climate. She is what Scotland needs to hold a horrendous SNP government to account whilst it tries to implement land reforms akin to those seen in Zimbabwe: a “state-guardians” scheme that is disgustingly intrusive on family life, and continually attempts to ignore the democratic will of the people from the 2014 referendum. Ruth is probably one of the best things to happen to Scotland in a long time and I am glad she now has the mandate to be the chief opposition in Scotland (although legally there is no such thing at Holyrood).
But despite my fondness of her and my wish that she would come to Westminster, she is shrewd to avoid it. The Tories have been thrown a lifeline at this election but it could quite easily be snatched away. If Ruth wants to continue her success in Scotland, she needs to keep herself separate from the Westminster machine that so many Scots see as synonymous with traditional Toryism. And if she continues to play her cards right, who knows, she might become the Iron Lassie that the Scots learn to love.