Writer Neil McLeod says the media fawning over Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives doesn't stand up to scrutiny
CENTRAL to what we apparently have to call the "Tory surge" in Scotland is the popularity of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.
There was huge acclaim for their showing in the local elections and a tidal wave of hyperbole ("a Ruthquake," exclaimed Alex Massie in The Spectator) over their comparatively impressive General Election return of 12 Scots MPs.
Such was the cult of personality that Theresa May was sensibly cast aside by the Scottish Conservatives and their prospective parliamentarians branded 'Ruth Davidson candidates'.
What exactly is so different about Davidson’s political ethos and how does it differ from the dominant strain of Conservatism in the UK party?
Gone were the sneering, nasty old clichés that were so hated in recent decades, like Iain Lang and Michael Forsyth. Here we have someone who is not only young and female but also a lesbian. So if the leader herself is so apparently different from the previous exemplars of Scottish Toryism, then surely the policies themselves are also far different, the logic of the media presentation seems to unsubtly suggest.
What exactly is so different about Davidson’s political ethos and how does it differ from the dominant strain of Conservatism in the UK party? This can be difficult to ascertain from either local or General Election campaign material, as there were no discernible policies, simply a vow to stand against a second independence referendum.
It was a galling irony that Davidson alleged throughout the election campaign that the SNP was obsessed with independence to the detriment of all else, when it was they who preached pathologically on this single issue.
Davidson called Nicola Sturgeon a "one trick pony" last week in one of the starkest examples imaginable of pots highlighting the blackness of kettles.
Preserving the union and avoiding a second referendum was the one-note campaign, and for many voters this was sufficient to overlook the bulk of actual policies. "I’m not really in favour of more benefit cutbacks and hard Brexit but 'no independence referendum' sells it for me," seems to be the typical Scottish Tory voter mantra.
This can be difficult to ascertain from either local or General Election campaign material, as there were no discernible policies, simply a vow to stand against a second independence referendum.
So little scrutiny was given to anything beyond the unionist sentiment that the Tories could probably have had a plan of mass euthanasia of domestic pets and grandparents and people would have turned a blind eye to it and focused on the anti-independence element: "It’s a shame they’re going to murder granny but at least we’ll still be able to take part in the Great British Bake Off."
Playing on fears is now a common Tory tactic. Gone is the aspirational, entrepreneurial 'get rich, get a house and a car' approach of Thatcherism. Now it’s all about stopping things getting worse, preserving the union and not letting a foreigner take your job - and be thankful for small mercies like a roof over your head even if it is leaking, because things will be worse if there’s independence or the UK falls into the hands of a monstrous socialist vegetarian.
That’s the smokescreen anyway, while they continue their patented robbing from the poor to give to the rich.
Make no mistake, Ruth Davidson is the figurehead for the Scottish wing of the party of austerity and foxhunting, yet from the presentation in the media you’d think it was the party of free cake and unicorns.
The lack of mainstream media scrutiny uncritically allows Davidson to operate a contradictory set of stances, a Schroedinger’s cat set of policies and beliefs, being both for free prescriptions and simultaneously against free prescriptions, pro-European Union and pro-Brexit.
A prime example of Davidson’s hypocrisy came on 24 April when she tweeted a photo of herself on a vehicle that helps those with mobility issues in the Trossachs National Park, commenting how great it was "to help those with mobility issues get out into the countryside and hills".
There should have been a backdrop flashing the word 'irony', as this was coming from a representative of a government which has taken away an average of 900 motability vehicles per week. But let’s not let facts like this get in the way of a photo opportunity and a cheap soundbite.
There is no end of cheerleaders willing to pen hackneyed hagiographies to keep up the façade. Alex Bell, former BBC correspondent and head of policy and speechwriter to Alex Salmond, wrote recently in the Guardian that, compared to the "awkwardness" of May, Davidson is "authentically charming" and "normal" compared to Boris Johnson.
I’m pretty sure both of these things are true but the list of people more charming than May and more normal than Johnson is endless.
The New Statesman’s Scottish editor, Chris Deerin, ups the ante considerably by asserting that when assessing Davidson, "the word that springs to mind is Churchillian", which ranks as a quite epically nonsensical piece of hyperbole – unless he means that she once threatened to fight someone on a beach or nods a lot and sells insurance.
Davidson’s personal politics on matters of sexuality and gender are progressive, but what broader impact does that have when it fails to invoke any obvious dissent against the actions of her own party?
The New Statesman article quotes a Davidson aide as saying: "Ruth sees the fight of the future not between left and right but between open and closed – and she’s a cheerleader for open." This sounds fair enough at first glance, but on scrutiny it is a disingenuous nonsensical nugget, no more meaningful than saying "Ruth doesn’t see differences between left and right, she believes in up and down and is a champion of the up".
Her supporters assert her alternative Conservative ethos as support for foreign aid, free trade, student visas and even humanitarian interventionism. "She is philosophically a Tory version of Tony Blair," Deerin concludes.
This is all very easy to allege when referring to matters on the world or the Westminster stage, outwith her jurisdiction and which she therefore has no track record to be genuinely tested.
There is little in Davidson’s domestic record that suggests openness. Objecting to tax credit cuts for working families but still broadly falling into line with every austerity policy her party seeks to implement - including the invidious tax credit two-child cap and subsequent 'rape clause', which starkly highlighted the reality of her politics over the received wisdom.
Obviously there can be no doubt that her personal politics on matters of sexuality and gender are progressive, but what broader impact does that have when it fails to invoke any obvious dissent against the actions of her own party?
One suspects Davidson is content to be just different enough to stand out from the crowd, just principled enough to make a token dissenting point, but only as long as it doesn’t stand in the way of her political ambitions.
Davidson admirably lectured on the importance of equal marriage at a meeting in Northern Ireland, but not to the extent she’d speak out against a deal with the DUP or cast a criticism of trade and arms deals with Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality can be punished by the death penalty.
All of this may lead one to suspect that Davidson is content to be just different enough to stand out from the crowd, just principled enough to make a token dissenting point, but only as long as it doesn’t stand in the way of her political ambitions.
These are lamentably familiar traits among recent prominent politicians and far from qualifying criteria to support the bold claim by Alex Bell that "Ruth Davidson is one the few credible politicians left standing".
Credibility in those terms is obviously not measured by policies or principles; truly a politician for the times, style over substance and defined by what they are opposed to not what they actually stand for.
The Scottish Conservatives and Davidson herself are a campaigning, oppositional entity, offering almost nothing proactive or constructive.
In true Emperor’s New Clothes style, her cheerleaders in the media would have us believe that Davidson is strutting around in the newest finery, but beneath the hype is just naked Conservatism.
Picture courtesy of the Scottish Parliament
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