David­son must re­fo­cus union­ism

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When Ruth David­son headed off on hol­i­day last week – post­ing a cheeky tweet of Gil­lian An­der­son as she went – I think it’s fair to say that the Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tive leader was cock-a-hoop, sim­ply de­lighted with her­self, and with her party’s re­cent per­for­mance. Be­tween the gen­eral elec­tions of 2015 and 2017, the Scot­tish Tories had made the leap from one seat in Scot­land to 13, dou­bling their vote in the process.

They had in­flicted se­ri­ous dam­age on their chief en­emy, the SNP, from whom they took all of these seats; 60 per cent of those who voted in Scot­land on 8 June sup­ported Union­ist par­ties. And the elec­tion of those Scot­tish Tory MPS also, of course, saved the ba­con of Theresa May’s in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar govern­ment; with­out the loyal Scot­tish 13, even the ex­pen­sive sup­port of the Demo­cratic Union­ists would not have been enough to keep Theresa May in power.

So what kind of po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal is it, this Con­ser­va­tiveled Union­ism that for now seems to have all the mo­men­tum – if cer­tainly not all the votes – in Scot­tish pol­i­tics? So far as I can see, it has four el­e­ments, some of them strik­ingly ill-matched. The first el­e­ment, ob­vi­ous from the mo­ment of Ruth David­son’s elec­tion as leader six years ago, was her vig­or­ous at­tempt to detox­ify the Tory brand, and make the party seem more cul­tur­ally in tune with modern Scot­tish so­ci­ety. Still un­der 40, gay and hap­pily part­nered, David­son looks like a new kind of Con­ser­va­tive leader; and her force­ful de­fence of the Euro­pean Union dur­ing last year’s ref­er­en­dum cam­paign was all of a piece with her suc­cess­ful re­brand­ing of the Scot­tish Tories as a modern, out­ward-look­ing Euro­pean cen­tre-right party.

With last year’s Brexit vote, though, there came a se­cond and more vis­ceral el­e­ment, quite dif­fer­ent in tone – a pas­sion­ate, al­most ob­ses­sive op­po­si­tion to the se­cond in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum pro­posed by Ni­cola Stur­geon in re­sponse to last year’s Brexit vote. This op­po­si­tion was ar­tic­u­lated by all three main Union­ist par­ties, but pri­mar­ily by the Tories, and re­flected the very strong views of a large co­hort of mainly older Scot­tish vot­ers who may once even have voted SNP, but who now, quite sud­denly, seem to de­test the First Min­is­ter, her party and all their works; and it’s hard not to con­clude that the ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions posed by the twin ref­er­en­dums of 2014 and 2016 have reawak­ened a deep, pre­vi­ously un­spo­ken Bri­tish na­tion­al­ism in some Scot­tish vot­ers, which is not only will­ing to go along with Brexit, but in­creas­ingly re­gards all fur­ther talk of Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence as in­tol­er­a­ble.

And it’s at this point that some of the con­tra­dic­tions within this Union­ist surge start to be­come clear; be­cause what­ever Ruth David­son’s project was about, when she be­came leader, it clearly was not about lead­ing a party of pre­dom­i­nantly older Bri­tish na­tion­al­ists cling­ing in­stinc­tively to the idea of the Union, while the most chaotic and eco­nom­i­cally un­suc­cess­ful Bri­tish govern­ment in re­cent mem­ory sails us di­rectly to­wards the Brexit ice­berg. Like all na­tion­al­ist move­ments, what’s more – and this is the third strand – the Bri­tish one has its ex­trem­ist fringe, cur­rently to be seen not only swag­ger­ing with a new spring in its step through Glas­gow and other Scot­tish towns, play­ing an­cient tunes of sec­tar­ian dom­i­nance, but also smirk­ing at West­min­ster as Theresa May pays £1 bil­lion of Bri­tish tax­pay­ers’ money for the sup­port of the North­ern Ire­land Demo­cratic Union­ists, some of the most right-wing and so­cially il­lib­eral politi­cians in the UK.

Now of course, Ruth David­son will op­pose these forces of re­ac­tion, pub­licly and pri­vately, on is­sues like gay rights. But as a young politi­cian, she should surely be ask­ing her­self deeper ques­tions about what kind of fu­ture her Con­ser­va­tive Party is re­ally of­fer­ing to the people of Scot­land, with such al­lies, and with such a dis­cred­ited set of eco­nomic and so­cial poli­cies. Does Ruth David­son re­ally be­lieve, for ex­am­ple, that Scot­land can sur­vive and thrive out­side the Euro­pean sin­gle mar­ket? What are her views on tack­ling cli­mate change? And is she in favour of the UK govern­ment’s con­tin­u­ing aus­ter­ity pro­gramme, or does she agree that the re­lent­less down­ward pres­sure on Bri­tain’s pub­lic sec­tor has now gone too far?

The truth is that we hardly know the an­swers to these ques­tions, be­cause of Ruth David­son’s re­cent un­vary­ing fo­cus on just one is­sue, op­po­si­tion to a se­cond ref­er­en­dum. Over the past 25 years, by con­trast, the SNP has striven might­ily to dis­tance it­self from the more fun­da­men­tal­ist el­e­ments that at­tach them­selves to any na­tional move­ment, to de­velop a modern and in­clu­sive ap­proach to cit­i­zen­ship, and to re­frame them­selves as a prag­matic party who want in­de­pen­dence as a means to the end of de­liv­er­ing a modern so­cial-demo­cratic Scot­land.

And Ruth David­son, it seems to me, now needs to do a sim­i­lar job on modern Bri­tish na­tion­al­ism in Scot­land, re­fo­cus­ing it away from iden­tity pol­i­tics to what the Union might ac­tu­ally de­liver. Oth­er­wise she will find her­self not only stuck in charge of a nos­tal­gist move­ment full of re­ac­tionary at­ti­tudes and tropes; but also in a pol­icy-free zone, where the faith­ful re­spond to noth­ing but the fa­mil­iar chant of “We said No, and we meant it”, ac­com­pa­nied, of course, by its al­ways un­spo­ken corol­lary, “We said Re­main, and we didn’t re­ally mean it at all.”

And then lastly, as Jeremy Cor­byn’s pop­u­lar­ity con­tin­ues to surge, there is the small mat­ter of the pos­si­ble re-emer­gence of a new Labour Union­ism, pro­foundly op­posed to the new Tory-led Union­ism in al­most ev­ery area of pol­icy. We may be in the mid­dle of a re­vival of Scot­tish Union­ism, in other words. Yet so long as the lead­ing force in that re­vival seems more re­ac­tive than proac­tive, more in­ter­ested in saying “no” to in­de­pen­dence than in saying “yes” to any vi­able set of poli­cies, and bound to a UK Tory party that most young Scots pas­sion­ately re­ject, it is hard to imag­ine that its en­ergy can be sus­tained. And although it blazes with a sharp re­ac­tionary bright­ness now, it will need more fuel, of a much-more sub­stan­tial and for­ward-look­ing sort, if it is to stay the course as a lead­ing force in 21st cen­tury Scot­tish pol­i­tics.

We must hope her un­doubted elec­toral suc­cess has not blinded her to the less ap­petis­ing as­pects of her party, writes Joyce


0 While Theresa May blun­dered, Ruth David­son thun­dered but the Scot­tish Tory leader must now take a wider view

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