And now, goes a popular song, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain… A lot of things in British politics have faced the final curtain recently. For example, the premiership of Theresa May, and the credibility of the Change UK Party – finished as a political force by a dismal showing in the European elections even though, cruelly, the curtain had only come up on it a few months earlier.
Thanks to the arrival of Boris Johnson as prime minister, the final curtain is falling on any last shreds of respect that Britain might have commanded on the international stage – a humbling new role awaits the country as pageboy to Donald Trump. And this week’s plot by Johnson, involving the Queen, to prorogue Parliament and thwart opposition to a no-deal Brexit has shown that it’s curtains for any pretence that Britain is a functioning democracy. And it increasingly looks like curtains for any hope that Britain might depart the European Union in a fashion that stops its economy from imploding.
North of the border, the curtain has fallen too on the tenure of the hapless David Mundell as Secretary of State for Scotland – Johnson ousted him in favour of a posh tweedy hunting-and-shooting non-entity called Alister Jack, who has both shares in and financial support from Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited, the notorious imperialist opium dealers of the 19th century. Jack probably believes that the best economic future for Scottish people is to work on zero-hour contracts as grouse beaters for visiting aristocrats and oligarchs.
And now, it’s just emerged, the curtain has come down on Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Scottish politics has become Ruth-less.
Predictably, Davidson’s resignation, which she confirmed yesterday, caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Scotland’s right-wing mainstream media. For instance, Chris Deerin, latterly of the Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday and Daily Mail and now a contributor to the New Statesman, gushed on Twitter about “the energy, charisma and campaigning pizzazz of Ruth… She is also one of the most determined and gritty people I know.” Pushing the needle even further up the scale on the vomit-o-meter was Daily Mail and Spectator columnist Stephen Daisley, who wrote, “Adversity has never been far from her path but she has met it with tenacity and good humour… Personal grit has been in Davidson’s blood from the start but she has been hardened by struggle…” and called her “a 5’5” firecracker’ and ‘Boudicca in a power suit’. You can almost hear Elton John singing Candle in the Wind in the background.
Oh guys, puh–lease… If any adjective describes Ruth Davidson as a politician, it’s not ‘energetic’ or charismatic’ or ‘determined’ or ‘gritty’. It’s ‘overrated’.
Davidson was the great white hope for members of Scotland’s old political, media and civic establishments, where you used to make your name and money promoting the interests of the Conservative Party or Labour Party in a comfortable status quo – i.e. Scotland voted Labour and was ruled by mostly Conservative governments in London and nobody said ‘boo’ about anything – and where your Scottishness, in the form of kilts, malt whisky, golf, Hogmanay, Munro-bagging and so, was something you played up occasionally to make yourself seem slightly exotic. She seemed the political leader most likely to return Scotland to the sanity of the good old days. Those days were before 2007 when the Scottish National Party seized power in Edinburgh, turned political assumptions on their heads and made the prospect of Scottish independence the key issue of the day.
The hopes attached to Davidson meant she had a ridiculously easy ride in Scotland’s mainstream media – and by extension in the British media, where perceptions of her as that rare beast, a nice Tory, meant she turned up as a guest in Have I Got News for You and The Great British Bake-Off and on the sofa for cosy chats with Andrew Marr. Instead of pestering her about her party’s brutal austerity policies, Scottish journalists were happy publishing the results of photo opportunities where she’d don Highland dress and attempt to play the bagpipes, or sit on top of a buffalo, or pose on top of a tank, and were happy chuckling, “Good old Ruth! What a laugh!” Though the photo op where she rode down some steps in a mobility vehicle backfired when it emerged that, thanks to her party’s social security policies in Westminster, over 50,000 people with mobility issues had lost their right to such vehicles in the past four years.
Indeed, Davidson was so accustomed to fawning press coverage that she struggled when a reporter did ask difficult questions. Witness how she took a huff and stormed off when Channel 4’s Ciaran Jenkins tackled her about the Conservative Party’s alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – Davidson has been in a same-sex relationship for years while the DUP is notoriously homophobic.
Still, her supporters would argue, look at her record as leader of the Scottish Tories! Didn’t she achieve the impossible? Didn’t she de-toxify her party in Scotland at a time when the reason why the talentless David Mundell got the job of Secretary of State for Scotland was because he was the only Member of Parliament (out of 59 seats) that the Conservative Party had in Scotland?
Well, in the 2016 election for the Scottish Parliament, the Tories did increase their share of the vote to by 8.1% to 22%, making them the second-biggest party in that parliament – though thanks to the vagaries of the Scottish electoral system, they finished seven seats ahead of Labour, who actually got 0.6% more of the vote than they did. Needless to say, Davidson’s fans in the Scottish mainstream media made such a hullaballoo about it that you’d have thought the Tories, not Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, had won the election. (THE UNION STRIKES BACK was the headline that accompanied Alex Massie’s piece about it in the Spectator, with a picture of Davidson’s head photo-shopped onto Princess Leia’s body. Though the folk who did the striking back in the celebrated 1980 sci-fi fantasy movie were the Empire, who were space-Nazis led by Darth Vader – probably not the analogy Massie was looking for.)
In the British general election of 2017, Scotland’s army of right-wing columnists, commentators and journalists seemed to collectively come in their tweed breeks when the Scottish Tories increased their number of MPs from one to 13 – helped no doubt by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale urging voters in certain constituencies to vote Tory and stick it to the SNP. Again, such was the puffery that you’d have thought Davidson was now First Minister of Scotland, not Nicola Sturgeon. There was much blather about how Davidson’s cohort of 13 MPs were going to exert a moderating and pro-Scottish influence over Theresa May’s minority government. It came as no surprise when they didn’t. Indeed, by 2019, most of them were ignoring the wishes of their pro-EU constituencies and voting in parliament to keep open the option of a disastrous no-deal Brexit.
One thing that Davidson was good at was conveying a simple message – all her other policies being either nebulous or negotiable – which was, “Vote for me, say no to Scottish independence and say yes to the British Union!” This appeal to British nationalism helped her party win the support of the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting faction of the Scottish population that had strong sympathies with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland. It also reeled in supporters of the extremist likes of UKIP and Britain First. (Webzine Bella Caledonia has an interesting article called 30 Toxic Tories, listing the most racist bampots who ended up in the Scottish Conservative fold under Davidson’s watch.)
© Channel 4
No doubt the Northern Irish angle was why in 2018 she and her buddy David Mundell threatened they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal. By November 2018 Theresa May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland, but – surprise! – Davidson and Mundell decided not to resign after all.
This brings us to the subject of Davidson’s principles, which have been flexible to say the least. Prior to the 2016 vote Britain’s membership of the EU, she won praise for taking part in a public debate where she defended the EU and railed against the Brexiting likes of Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom. “The other side have said throughout this debate that they don’t like experts,” she argued, “but when it comes to keeping this country safe and secure I want to listen to the experts. So when the head of GCHQ says we are safer in the EU I listen. When five former NATO chiefs say we are safer in the EU I listen. When the head of Interpol, who is a Brit, says we are safer in the EU I listen. When the head of MI5 and MI6 says we are safer in the EU I listen.”
But Davidson’s enthusiasm for continued EU membership didn’t survive when the vote went the other way and her new political boss in Westminster, Theresa May, committed herself to Brexit. (Symbolic of Davidson’s about-turn on the issue were the Conservative Party leaflets distributed during campaigning for the recent Scottish parliamentary by-election in the Shetlands. They bore a picture of her grinning features above a claim that the Tory candidate was the person to vote for ‘if you want to LEAVE the EU’.) For a while she made noises about the UK staying in the EU’s single market, which she said was something Scotland should have “the largest amount of access to.” But those noises changed too when Theresa May declared that Britain “cannot possibly” remain in the single market because it would mean “not leaving the EU at all.” On cue, Davidson suddenly poo-pooed the idea because it wouldn’t “allow for independent trade deals to be struck with third countries” and would mean accepting “freedom of movement”.
Davidson’s career, in fact, has been a series of instances where she expressed liberal sentiments because they were popular at the time but then fell silent when the wind – and the opinions of her political masters – changed direction. In 2015, when a certain orange-skinned gobshite looked like he had zero chance of getting anywhere near the White House, she quoted Henry IV Part One and tweeted that Donald Trump was a ‘clay-brained, guts, knotted-pated, whoreson, obscene greasy tallow-patch’. Inevitably, when Trump became US president and Theresa May jetted over to Washington DC to kiss his arse and beg for a post-Brexit trade deal, she made no further references to Trump’s obsceneness, greasiness, etc.
However, the arrival of Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party was too much even for someone of Davidson’s elasticity. Even she would have problems defending Johnson going full-steam-ahead for a disastrous no-deal Brexit on October 31st – especially as her Scottish parliamentary constituency is in Edinburgh, the most pro-EU city in the UK. Johnson’s sacking of her good chum Mundell probably didn’t help. Although rather than seize the moment yesterday and castigate Johnson for all the damage he’s caused, she claimed her reasons for stepping down were family-related ones.
So what will Ruth Davidson do now? Perhaps Boris Johnson will show some magnanimity and give her a seat in the House of Lords, where she can rub ermine-draped shoulders with such former titans of Scottish politics as Baron George Foulkes of Cumnock and Baron Michael Forsyth of Drumlean. Aye, hanging out with her intellectual equals in an institution of insufferable privilege and entitlement – that’s the best place for her.