Everyday terror: the bomb-making factory set up by 7/7 bombers in a council flat bedroom in Leeds. Photo: July 7 Inquests/PA
Show Hide image

David Selbourne: The challenge of Islam

The author was asked by John Kerry to write a briefing paper on the Islamist threat. He explains here what he told the US secretary of state and why he feels progressives have allowed themselves to be silenced by frightened self-censorship and the stifling of debate. Read Mona Siddiqui’s response to the piece, The Arabisation of Islam, here.

The In Anemas gas plant, Algeria, seen from the air. It was attacked by Islamists in January 2013.

 

A beheading in Woolwich, a suicide bomb in Beijing, a blown-up marathon in Boston, a shooting in the head of a young Pakistani girl seeking education, a destroyed shopping mall in Nairobi – and so it continues, in the name of Islam, from south London to Timbuktu. It is time to take stock, especially on the left, since these things are part of the world’s daily round.

Leave aside the parrot-cry of “Islamophobia” for a moment. I will return to it. Leave aside, too, the pretences that it is all beyond comprehension. “Progressives” might ask instead: what do Kabul, Karachi, Kashmir, Kunming and a Kansas airport have in common? Is it that they all begin with “K”? Yes. But all of them have been sites of recent Islamist or, in the case of Kansas, of wannabe-Islamist, attacks; at Wichita Airport planned by a Muslim convert ready to blow himself up, and others, “in support of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. “We cannot stop lone wolves,” a British counterterrorism expert told us after Woolwich. Are they “lone”? Of course not.

A gas facility in southern Algeria, a hospital in Yemen, an Egyptian police convoy in the Sinai – it’s complex all right – a New Year’s party in the southern Philippines, a railway station in the Caucasus, a bus terminal in Nigeria’s capital, and on and on, have all been hit by jihadis, with hostages taken, suicide belts detonated, cars and trucks exploded, and bodies blown to bits. And Flight MH370? Perhaps. In other places – in Red Square and Times Square, in Jakarta and New Delhi, in Amman and who-knows-where in Britain – attacks have been thwarted. But in 2013 some 18 countries got it in the neck (so to speak) from Islam’s holy warriors.

There are battlefields and battlefields in this conflict. Some are theatres of actual or potential civil war, most often when Sunnis and Shias are at each other’s throats on behalf, respectively, of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Other battlefields are in failed or failing Muslim states, others again where the “infidel” has unwisely intruded upon and assaulted Muslim lands. At the same time, weapons and warriors are in constant movement in Islam’s cause across dis­solving national boundaries, many of them of western colonialism’s creation. And in India, with its 175 million Muslims, their mujahedin will be in action soon enough if Hindu nationalists come to power this month.

Jihadist groups, from Pakistan to the Philippines, also fight each other. But for the most part they are consolidating and expanding – often as affiliates of al-Qaeda – in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Maghreb, in Somalia and Kenya, in Iraq and Syria, in Gaza, in Bangladesh and in south-east Asia. There are separatist or secessionist Islamic insurgencies, too, from Russia’s Caucasus to north-west China, in southern Thailand, in Burma, in northern Nigeria and in divided Kashmir.

Warriors for Islam, believing that they are under “infidel” threat, today range an increasingly frontier-less world. That’s “globalisation” too. A car-bombing in New York – which failed – was planned by a Pakistani-American trained in a tribal area of northern Waziristan. Many would-be warriors from western countries learned their skills from Taliban instructors, going on to fight in Iraq as they now fight in Syria. There, ubiquitous “Bearers of the Sword” and “Defenders of the Faith” from Britain and France, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Indonesia and Kazakhstan, and even Uighurs from Chinese Xinjiang, are to be found armed to the teeth in the battle against Assad while being trained for future combat in their countries of origin.

In the Islamist merry-go-round, jihadis from Libya – after the country’s collapse – went on to Syria, Tunisian holy warriors crossed into Mali, Egyptian and Canadian Muslim fighters were among the attackers on the refinery in Algeria, and Somalis from Minnesota have returned home to join al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out the Kenyan mall attack. Ugandan Islamists are in eastern Congo, and a Malaysian army captain was linked to two of the 9/11 hijackers. Beat this? No.

It is not “Islamophobia” that registers these facts. Instead, there is an objective historical need, and duty, to record radical Islam’s many-sided and determined advance upon the “infidel” world. Most still do not know what manner of force – the millions of peaceful Muslims notwithstanding – has struck it. And, with its own arms and ethics, it will continue to do so, perhaps till kingdom come.

Here US and western defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq – what else were they? – weigh heavily in the scale of things. In Afghanistan, despite the loss of many thousands of lives and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, with huge waste and corruption by military contractors and with reliance on unsavoury local satraps, the Taliban remain active throughout the land. Even the US-trained Afghan army is riddled with their supporters. Yet American illusion has seen victory in the coming retreat, and in defeat a “mission accomplished”, in David Cameron’s absurd judgement.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan, set to recover from yet another western incursion into its land, has entered a long-term security pact with Iran. Similarly in Iraq, years of death and destruction and billions in reconstruction grants mostly lost to local and US corruption have left no stable government nor a reliable western ally. Instead, there is an intensifying Shia-Sunni civil war, with thousands of dead in 2013, while al-Qaeda insurgents have reconquered areas in western Iraq previously “captured” – another illusion – by US marines.

The complexities (and double-games) of the Islamic world are a labyrinth for the “infidel”. It is a labyrinth that western reason, such as it now is, has never mastered, and that it cannot master now with hellfire missiles and unmanned drones.

After all, the political wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood calls itself the “Freedom and Justice” party – well, yes and no, and it certainly offers little freedom or justice to women. Again, some of the Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia included, pose as western allies and host US air and naval bases but give covert support to selected jihadist groups. And what does the western illus­ionist make of the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and are said to have had covert financial and logistical support from Saudi diplomats and intelligence officials?

The labyrinth of nuclear-armed Pakistan is denser. Struggling with its own jihadist insurgency in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, it is attempting peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, yet there is growing Islamist radicalism in the ranks of the Pakistani army itself. The Pakistani intelligence agencies also play their own games – and are accused of sheltering some of the Afghan Taliban – while Pakistan’s parliament condemned the US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. In this labyrinth, there are other elements that will for ever be beyond US and western mastery now; the influence of China – the main source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – is growing in the region.

There is little in all this for “progressives” to cheer. Yet the left continues covertly to celebrate US foreign policy blunders and defeats, while the naive see jihadists as a minority of “fanatics”. It is not so simple. To add to the confusion, President Obama’s stances, however well intentioned, have made their own contribution to the Islamic renaissance. Or as he expressed it in a speech in Cairo in June 2009, America and Islam “share common principles . . . of justice and progress, tolerance” – tolerance? – “and the dignity of all human beings”.

 

Everyday terror: the bomb-making factory set up by 7/7 bombers in a council flat bedroom in Leeds. Photo: July 7 Inquests/PA

 

The west and the US, frightened by their defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, have lost their way in Assad’s Syria. Here the Muslim labyrinth is particularly dense. For Syria is an Iranian client state, backed by Russia and even North Korea, which is trying to fight off al-Qaeda-linked holy warriors from every corner of the Muslim (and non-Muslim) world, while a political alliance opposed to Bashar al-Assad tries to make its voice heard amid the carnage.

All the while, less-than-notable “world statesmen” have dithered over what aid to give to the anti-Assad forces, and wavered over whether to launch a military strike against Syria’s ruler. Between them, they have surrendered influence (as in Egypt) to Russia, able by skilful manoeuvre simultaneously to support Assad while moving to relieve him of his chemical weapons. As the Syrian civil war deepens, with over 150,000 dead and more than two million refugees, there have even been incoherent western attempts to treat secretly both with Assad over security co-operation and with the jihadist gangs, as heads roll in radical Islamic style and peace talks fail.

Wearied or sickened by all this? Yes. But it is the fate of the impotent western powers that is being determined by it. For the “jihad” is advancing in Syria to the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, while the muez­zin’s call to an increasingly ardent faith grows more insistent throughout the Islamic world.

In Shia Iran, memories of the historic Persian empire are quickening as Tehran’s foes flail around in the face of its ayatollahs’ ambitions and wiles. Above all, Iran has got the west on the ropes with its nuclear programme. The interim “freeze” to its uranium enrichment activities was not what it seemed; on Iranian TV on 21 February Behrouz Kamalvandi, of the national Atomic Energy Organisation, declared that the country’s nuclear commitments were “temporary and non-obligatory”. Iran still has a stockpile of enriched uranium, and still has tens of thousands of centrifuges, with nuclear research continuing, including on new advanced centrifuges. A “freeze” on further enrichment up to weapons grade, and a “downgrading” of some of its existing stockpile to less potent levels, were more tokens than substance. It left Iran usefully on the cusp of producing a nuclear weapon within a very short time, if (or when) it chooses, while it can continue to develop and test ballistic missiles.

It was also, yet again, a “deal” obtained from western weakness, not strength. After all, the alternative was an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, some now buried too deep for aerial assault, and a new war to be lost after those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Iran, the “deal” was rightly hailed by the regime as “a victory over the west”. Or as Iran’s “moderate” president, Hassan Rowhani put it on Twitter on 14 January, “the world powers surrendered to the Iranian nation’s will”. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s “supreme leader”, did not hide the Iranian position. “I am in favour of showing a champion’s leniency,” he declared of the western willingness to compromise with Iran as the Pax Americana wanes in the world.

Nothing could have been lamer than US Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion during the negotiations that the Iranians had a “choice”: to treat with the world, or to “leave themselves more isolated”. Instead, the US was once more acting in fear and in the impotent name of “outreach” to a foe. But Iran will never be the “strategic partner”of the US as some wishful thinkers hope.

With more than 500 executions, including for “waging war on God”, since the “moderate” Rowhani came to office – more per capita, one might say, than any other country – with its new pact with Afghanistan, its joint naval manoeuvres with Pakistan, its growing influence in Iraq, its behind-the-scenes accords with Russia, its improving relations with Islamising Turkey (and even with Jordan and Morocco), its dominance over Damascus, its ambitions to rule the Gulf and with two warships despatched in January to the Atlantic, Iran’s present course is clear. Moreover, the true secret of the nuclear “deal” was that Iran does not yet need a nuclear weapon, but it did urgently need sanctions relief. With its Revolutionary Guard shipping arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza, it will move on to nuclear weapons in its own good time.

As for Israel, its mere existence, threatened by both Shia and Sunni jihadists, is ready-made to serve radical Islam’s cause. Neither Israel’s belligerence on the one hand nor its seeming desire for a political settlement on the other can abate the proclaimed intent of Hamas, which is funded not only by Iran but also by Turkey and others, to “eliminate” it. Such intransigence is matched by insensate Israeli colonisation, giving further aid to the jihadis’ cause. At the same time, the truth of the Jews’ multi-millennial association – long pre-dating the existence of Islam – with Jerusalem and the “land of Israel” is flatly denied, with Palestinian militants laying claim to the same land as “our land by right”.

Nothing, it seems, can halt the will among some for the extinction of Israel, while Iran’s Khamenei could describe it in November 2013 as the “rabid dog” of the region.

A “Jewish state” is also seen by the holy warrior (and others) as by definition “racist”; with some reason in the case of Jewish zealots. Yet some of us take the notion of a theocratic “Muslim state” governed by Islamic sharia – there are many such states – in our stride. With Israeli security and Palestinian aspiration seemingly irreconcilable, this conflict appears beyond resolution, whether by John Kerry or by any other representative of America’s fading imperium.

After the publication in the US in 2005 of my book The Losing Battle With Islam, Kerry rang me to discuss the arguments in it. When he became secretary of state I told him (with some presumption) that the non-Muslim world is too unaware of what is afoot, hobbled by its wishful thinking and lack of knowledge, and whistling in the dark. In a position paper I wrote for him, I set out a list of the failures that the west, and especially the US, has on its hands. Among them are the failure to recognise the ambition of radical Islam; the failure to condemn the silence of most Muslims at the crimes committed in their names; the failure to respond adequately to the persecution of Christians in many Muslim lands; the failure to grasp the nature of the non-military skills that are being deployed against the non-Muslim world – skills of manoeuvre, skills in deceiving the gullible, skills in making temporary truces in order to gain time (as in Iran); and, perhaps above all, the failure to realise the scale and speed of Islam’s advance.

“If things continue like this,” I told friend Kerry, “the history of our age may one day be written under a caliphate’s supervision.” I added brashly: “Get your aides to read the Quran. Keep political correctors at bay,” and “stop looking for the emergence of Jeffersonian democracies in Muslim lands”. “It has gotten me thinking,” he replied; and after further exchanges, “I agree with a great deal of what you’ve said.”

But in the rising swirl of events, the secretary of state can no more control the incoming tide than could Canute. In perpetual motion, Kerry is disabled by the chaos of indecision and interference in Obama’s White House. He is handicapped by having to make near-simultaneous moves on dozens of Muslim chessboards against generally more cunning opponents.

In the chaos, and like others in the US administration, Kerry called for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down and thus helped open the way for the Muslim Brotherhood before complaining that it had “stolen” the Egyptian election (by ballot-rigging and intimidation). Naivety, masquerading as diplomacy, also led him to compliment Pakistan for its help in tracking down al-Qaeda’s leader. Yet Bin Laden had been protected for years by Pakistan’s own security apparatus. Kerry even “pleaded” with the Iranians to sign up to a nuclear deal.

The word “plead” tells us all we need to know about America’s failing powers. But Kerry has also been buffeted to and fro by vacillation in the White House, excluded from its inner councils – an alternative state department of the mediocre whom Obama prefers to have around him – and has been briefed against to the US press.

His is an unenviable position, despite appearances. For the US to be without a coherent foreign policy strategy in the face of the complexities of the Islamic world’s advance is no surprise. But for it to be quite so disabled points to an unusual degree of confusion in high places.

In August 2013 a White House spokesman declared that al-Qaeda was “severely diminished”. A mere two months later, the director of the FBI announced that “the threat posed by al-Qaeda has become hydra-headed”. Which? And as the Pax Americana recedes into the past, there is always an ostrich – in this case, Obama’s lightweight national security adviser, Susan Rice – to tell the American public that “US leadership”, as it grows frailer and as cuts to its military bite deeper, will “continue to be unrivalled”, and that the US “will remain the most influential, powerful and important country in the world”. Really?

But at the heart of US weakness is Obama himself. In foreign fields, his strategies – in so far as they can be identified – have been dithering, improvised and uncertain. He deserves a measure of sympathy: today’s Islam is the most redoubtable adversary to the American imperium it has ever faced, the challenge of the Comintern included.

In many of its theatres, the complexities, skills and deceits of the Muslim world would have bewildered a Machiavelli. In others, American wishful thinking can reach comic levels. When Bin Laden was killed in May 2011 al-Qaeda, declared Obama, was now a “shadow of its former self”, near “decapacitated”. In May 2012, similar illusions told him that the Taliban’s momentum had been “broken”; in November last year, that Iran’s “most likely paths to a bomb” had been “cut off” or (in faux-macho style) “rolled back”. And so on.

It is the wishful thinking of a man who is a non-belligerent at heart. In normal times this is a virtue. But these are not normal times: the US is playing a decreasingly significant role in the world’s conflicts, even as Islamist ambition and reach – despite the internecine hatreds in Muslim ranks – break new bounds.

This ambition grows more confident by the day, taking reverses in its stride. In the face of Obama’s risk-aversion (or idleness), Islamists make no bones about their aspiration for “mastership of the world”, as Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, put it in December 2011. Muslim (and not merely Islamist) disdain for “the west” is also growing; in July 2012, the speaker of the Iranian parliament des­cribed it as a “dark spot in the present era”.

Such confidence, or arrogance, is easily understood. For these are times in which conversions to Islam in western countries are accelerating. Today, one-quarter of humanity is Muslim. It is a proportion that is rising steadily, making possible a Muslim majority in Russia, for example, by the century’s end. To the marginalised and lost in free societies, Islam increasingly offers an identity, an ethic, and a home. In the eyes of the Muslim Brotherhood, America “does not champion moral and human values” and “cannot lead humanity”. Agree or not, it is clear that “freedom ’n’ liberty”, especially in the form of the “free market” with its crazed impulse to endless “growth”, will turn out one day to have been no match for the faith. Tony Blair’s anxious speech to Bloomberg the other day suggests that the big corporate interests that he represents are beginning to be aware of it.

To the aid of Islam has also come the betrayal by much of today’s left of its notionally humane principles, as Christians are assaulted and murdered (shades of what was done to the Jews in the 1930s) and their churches desecrated and destroyed from Egypt to the Central African Republic, from Iran to Indonesia, and from Pakistan to Nigeria. Islam can kill its own apostates, too; in many Muslim countries denies reciprocity to other faiths in rights of worship; and seeks to prevent reasoned discussion about its beliefs by attempted resort to blasphemy laws.

So where is the old left’s centuries-long espousal of free speech and free thought? Where is the spirit of Tom Paine? The answer is simple. It has been curbed by frightened self-censorship and by the stifling of debate, in a betrayal of the principles for which “progressives” were once prepared to go to the stake. And just as some Jews are too quick to call anti-Zionists “anti-Semites”,
so some leftists are too quick to tar critics of Islam as “Islamophobes”.

To add to such falsehoods come the illusionists of every stripe, with their unknowing, simplistic or false descriptions of Islam as a “religion of peace”. Even today’s Pope – as the Christian faithful were being harried, persecuted or put to the sword in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and beyond – told the world in November 2013 that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence”. But read the text yourself, and you will see that jihadists can find plenty justification for the acts they commit, even if most Muslims are pacific.

Karl Marx was wiser than the Pope. In March 1854, he wrote that for “Islamism” – the word was already in use – “the Infidel is the enemy” and that the Quran “treats all foreigners as foes”.

The present renaissance of Islam, additionally provoked, as ever, by western aggressions against its lands, is an old story of swift movement and conquest, as in the 7th century. Is something like it stirring again? Perhaps; you decide. In 50 years’ time the world will know for sure.

David Selbourne is a political philosopher and commentator. “The Losing Battle With Islam” is published by Prometheus Books

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Is it Ruth Davidson's destiny to save the Union?

Ruth Davidson is a Christian, gay, kick-boxing army reservist who made a passionate case for the EU and has transformed the fortunes of the Tories in Scotland.

In the end it made no difference, but during the EU referendum campaign Ruth Davidson achieved something that nobody else did: she made the case for Remain sound thrillingly righteous. In a live, televised BBC debate at Wembley Arena in London, she denounced the “lies” of the Leave campaign, turning to the crowd to declare, twice: “You deserve the truth!” Funny, fervent and pugnacious, Davidson pounced on the bluff assertions of Boris Johnson with gusto, a terrier savaging a shaggy dog. As she departed the podium, flashing a light-bulb grin, she left a question hanging in the air: how far can Ruth Davidson go?

On the face of it, it was a risk for the ­Remain campaign to send the leader of the Scottish Conservatives to Wembley, when most of its persuadable voters lived in England. Yet, according to Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s pollster and an influential Remain strategist, “Ruth’s name was inked in from the beginning.” After the debate, nobody called this confidence misplaced. Davidson was acclaimed as the star of the night. English observers began to appraise her as a major player in national politics, even as a possible future prime minister.

The EU debate was, for Davidson and for Scots, the least energetically contested of four recent contests, following the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the general election in 2015 and the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016. In the last one, Davidson led her party to second place, overtaking Labour, and the Conservatives became the main opposition to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalists. It was their best result in nearly 60 years and evidence of an astonishing turnaround.

When Davidson was elected leader in 2011, it was like being declared the mayor of a ghost town. Her party’s core voters had long fled, first to Labour and then to the SNP. Margaret Thatcher and successive national Tory leaders had made it almost impossible for Scots to admit to voting Conservative, or even to being friends with anyone who did. It wasn’t just that the Tories were poisonous to the touch; they were on the verge of irrelevance. They held 15 out of the 129 seats at Holyrood. They barely mattered.

They matter now. The stigma of voting Tory has not been entirely erased, but the Conservative brand has been saved, or perhaps subsumed by its Scottish leader’s personal brand. On the ballot paper in May, voters were invited to put a cross next to the slogan “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”; party activists knocking on doors introduced themselves as being from “Team Ruth”. A recent poll found that Davidson was the most popular politician in Scotland, surpassing Sturgeon.

Ruth Davidson has been a politician for just five years. If you need reminding of how hard it is, even if you are clever and able, to become a high-level political performer on half a decade’s experience, recall the defining moments of a few Labour MPs of the 2010 generation: Liz Kendall’s flameout, Chuka Umunna’s failure to launch, Owen Smith’s bellyflop. David Cameron’s rise might seem to have been comparably quick, but he had been working in Westminster politics, on and off, for 13 years before he ­became an MP. Three years before being elected leader of the Scottish Tories, Davidson hadn’t even joined a political party.

Davidson may be the most gifted politician in Britain. “She’s a natural, and they are very rare in politics,” Cooper told me. The question for her is whether she will ever convert talent into power.

 

*****

In August, I went to see Davidson speak in Belfast at an event organised by Amnesty International on behalf of the campaign for gay marriage in Northern Ireland. She made a case for equal marriage that was also a case for the institution of marriage. “More than 40 years married and my parents still love each other – and I look at what they have and I want that, too, and I want it to be recognised in the same way,” she said.

She paused to note that the passage was taken from an address that she made at Holyrood during the first reading of Scotland’s equal marriage bill in 2013: “I’ll be honest. I was absolutely bricking it.”

Davidson met her partner, Jen Wilson, in 2014. The couple got engaged this year on holiday in Paris, just after the May election campaign. Wilson, who is 34 and from County Wexford, Ireland, works in the charity sector. In 2015, she appeared with Davidson in a party political broadcast, which showed the couple strolling along Elie Harbour, Fife, and taking selfies with Davidson’s parents. It wasn’t a big deal and yet, at the same time, it felt significant. As Davidson noted in her speech, homosexuality was still a prosecutable offence in Scotland in the year she was born (it was not decriminalised north of the border until 1980).

After the event, I met her for a drink with members of her team at the bar of her hotel. She had returned to Edinburgh from a holiday in Spain in the early hours of that morning, shortly before boarding a plane to Belfast for a full day of engagements. Yet she bristled with energy, giving the illusion of movement even when she was sitting still, her attention distributed between emails on her phone, the conversation at the table and the level of everyone’s drinks. She had enjoyed the event, she said, although she had been hoping for more argument.

In September, we met again for a longer conversation in her small office at Holyrood. In person, she is friendly in a businesslike way, mentally fast (often starting her response before the question is finished) and generous with her answers. As she talks, her eyes fix you in your seat. “Ruth is a brilliant reader of people, including our opponents, and spots weaknesses very early,” her colleague Adam Tomkins told me. “She can see through me. I would hate to play poker with her.”

Before our meeting, I watched First Minister’s Questions, the first after the summer recess. The atmosphere in the chamber at Holyrood is very different from that in the Commons: quieter, less theatrical. The leaders of the main parties are not cheered to their seat. Sturgeon, dressed in black, walked to her desk at the front of the hall, unacknowledged by her colleagues, as a cabinet secretary answered a question on national parks. Davidson entered shortly afterwards, in a violently pink jacket that contrasted vividly with the muted tones preferred by most MSPs.

In the chamber, Davidson often holds her own against the First Minister. The two have contrasting styles: Sturgeon poised and coolly effective, Davidson a study in controlled fury. “Ruth has a real aggression to her,” says the journalist Kenny Farquharson, a columnist for the Times in Scotland. “She’s always looking for the next fight.”

 

*****

Ruth Elizabeth Davidson was born at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion in Edinburgh in 1978, the second of two daughters to Douglas and Elizabeth Davidson. Her family lived in Selkirk, where her father worked at the wool mill. This was Douglas’s second career: his first had been as a professional footballer, for Partick Thistle and Selkirk FC. The Davidsons moved to Fife when Ruth was a child, after the mill closed. Her parents were Tory voters, without being especially political.

When Ruth Davidson was five years old, she was run over by a truck near her home and nearly killed. The accident shattered her leg, fractured her pelvis and severed her femoral artery, leading to a huge loss of blood. In interviews, she makes quick work of what other politicians might be tempted to craft into a narrative turning point. “My legs are still a bit squint . . . but it has never really stopped me from doing anything,” she told the Scotsman in 2012.

Her family was Presbyterian, in the Church of Scotland, a more austere and morally fiery tradition than Anglicanism. (A Scottish journalist remarked to me, “To us, Anglicanism is Christianity with all the fibre removed.”) Davidson is a practising Christian. Her piety does not extend to abstention from alcohol or profanity – she is a world-class swearer – but it is manifest in her moral muscularity, preacher-like cadences and horror of malingering.

In Fife, Davidson attended Buckhaven High School, a large comprehensive with a working-class intake. She is often referred to as working class, which isn’t quite right. Her mother and father were working-class Glaswegians. Her mother left school at 15, her father at 16. Douglas grew up on an estate in Castlemilk, a district then infamous for its deprivation and crime. He was one of the few Protestants in a solidly Catholic community, during a time of deep divisions.

The Davidsons, however, were upwardly mobile. Douglas had been a manager at the mill in Selkirk and then ran a whisky distillery on the Isle of Arran. The children had the importance of effort and self-improvement drummed into them. Ruth has recalled getting a school report that gave her a 1 for results in science – the best possible mark – and a 2 for effort. “I got a mini-bollocking for that. My mum would have been much happier if it had been the other way round.” Both children attended university (Ruth’s sister is now a doctor).

Davidson did well at school and excelled at sport. She played squash for her county and tennis to a level at which she can teach it. In adulthood, she took up kick-boxing, condemning herself to be forever tagged as a “kick-boxing lesbian” in the British press. Sport has been central in her life, not so much a leisure activity as a method of striving for new goals.

After graduating from Edinburgh University, where she studied English literature and took part in debating competitions, ­Davidson moved to Glasgow and started a career in journalism. In 2002 she joined BBC Scotland, becoming a radio presenter on a drive-time show, reporting on gifted pets one minute and traffic disasters the next. By all accounts, she was excellent: fluent, well prepared, interested in whomever she was talking to. Her producer Pat Stevenson remembers her as “a fantastic interviewer, incisive and forensic, able to spot bullshit a mile off. And she was fun.” Her abiding image of Davidson at the microphone is of a head thrown back in laughter.

Stevenson recalls being vaguely aware that Davidson held right-of-centre views, though these were less of a talking point with her BBC colleagues than her Christianity, or, even more so, her weekends spent deep in a forest, being shouted at while trying to read a map. Davidson served as a signaller in the Territorial Army for three years from 2003 and trained to be an officer. “It was very tough,” says Steve Bargeton, who oversaw the officers’ course. “Most fail or drop out, but Ruth flew through. She had tremendous character.” Davidson won a place at Sandhurst but broke her back during a training exercise, forcing her to end her military career.

She soon set herself a new goal: to be elected to parliament by the time she was 40. In 2009, she left the BBC and joined the Tory party. Davidson has attributed her career change to David Cameron’s call, after the MPs’ expenses scandal, for people who had never been political to get involved, but it is likely she had already decided that politics was the next hill to climb. Either way, she quickly acquired influential sponsors in Edinburgh and London. By the 2010 election, she was head of the private office of Annabel Goldie, the then leader of the Scottish Tories. She stood for an unwinnable Commons seat in Glasgow, twice, both times winning barely 5 per cent of the vote.

Even as the elections to Holyrood came around in May 2011, she was not expected to make it to parliament. She was second on Glasgow’s regional list, which all but ruled her out. A couple of months before the vote, however, the candidate at the top of the list was removed following allegations of past financial problems. The Conservative Party chairman promptly promoted Davidson, who was elected to Holyrood (she won a constituency seat of her own this year in Edinburgh, where she now lives).

In the 2011 election, the SNP, under Alex Salmond, won an unprecedented overall majority in Holyrood. This success transformed the politics of Scotland, and thus that of the UK. Labour’s grip on the votes of working-class Scots was broken. The Conservative Party, already a corpse, failed to twitch. It at once became clear that Salmond had won a mandate for a referendum on independence and that this would be the defining question of Scottish politics until it was resolved.

On the Monday after the election, Annabel Goldie announced that she was resigning. Four days after her election to the Scottish Parliament, Davidson began to consider a run at the leadership of her party. She was encouraged by senior figures, including David Mundell (then a Scotland Office minister, now the Scottish party’s sole MP in Westminster) and David Cameron. In her way stood the Scottish Tories’ deputy leader, Murdo Fraser, an Edinburgh-based lawyer who had been a Conservative activist for a quarter of a century. It was, by common consent, his turn.

Fraser, sensing a threat, committed to an act of excessive radicalism that proved to be his undoing: he proposed that the party ditch the name “Conservative” and break entirely from its southern counterpart. He argued that this measure (Alex Massie, writing in the Spectator, called it the euthanasia option) was the only way to move on from the past and compete with the SNP as a truly Scottish party. He did not recommend a new name; mooted alternatives included the Scottish Reform Party, the Caledonians and Scotland First.

Fraser’s gambit propelled Davidson into the race. She felt that his proposal would unmoor the Scottish Conservatives from their purpose, and also that it was politically naive, as there was little chance that voters would not realise that this was the same party in different clothes. In tactical terms, Fraser had opened up space for a candidate to run on preserving the status quo, rarely an unpopular position among Tories. For his challenger, it was a ripe alignment of conviction and opportunity, a ball bouncing into the perfect position for a killer forehand. Davidson declared on 4 September 2011 and won the final round against Fraser, 55 per cent to 45 per cent. She was 32.

 

****

It is easy to underestimate how much politics, in opposition, is simply about getting noticed. When Davidson became leader, Scottish politics was a (rather one-sided) battle between the SNP and Labour. She needed to fight her way to centre stage and into the calculations of voters – there wasn’t much point repositioning the Tory brand if nobody was watching. As Andrew Cooper put it to me, “You didn’t get to the toxic problem until you dealt with the irrelevant problem.”

Davidson excels at getting noticed. She has – even if she would not appreciate the comparison – a Donald Trump-like understanding of how to get and keep attention. She is at home on social media, something that is true of all the Scottish party leaders, though Davidson’s tweets are the most fearless and funny. She is also an artist of the photo opportunity: here she is in a pink scarf, bestriding the gun of a tank, a Union flag fluttering in the background; playing the bagpipes, or being played by them, eyes popping out of her head; smashing a football into the back of the net.

Such photos do more than get attention. They reinforce the sense of a person unintimidated by the rules of political protocol; indeed, of someone who scorns limitations. There is something almost cartoonish about Davidson’s public profile: the big eyes, the flashing grin, the unstoppable, barrelling walk. In debates, as she winds up to a clinching point, you can, if you half close your eyes, see her swinging her arm through a hundred revolutions before extending it across the stage to smack an opponent. She is one of us, and not like us at all. Flattened by a truck, she gets up and walks away.

Davidson’s willingness to play the fool wouldn’t work if she was not able to convey seriousness at the same time. The leadership race set the template for her political profile as an untraditional traditionalist. Davidson doesn’t look or talk like a typical Tory, but her ideological touchstones are profoundly Conservative. She is a British patriot, a churchgoer, a passionate supporter of the armed forces, an advocate for marriage, a believer in self-reliance. On becoming leader, she set about reviving a type of blue-collar Conservatism not seen since the 1980s. The former Scottish Tory MP Sir Teddy Taylor coined the expression “tenement Tories”: working-class voters with conservative instincts, sceptical of high taxes, patriotic but not nationalist. Davidson, the daughter of tenement Tories, is able to pitch herself as one of them.

To do so has required performing a balancing act with respect to her party in Westminster. She admired Cameron and, politically speaking, was in his debt. Her leadership is staked on the unity of the Scottish and English branches of the party. Yet she has managed, somehow, to position herself against the party’s privileged English elite – the “private-school boys”. Her evident animus against Boris Johnson is both strategic and personal. During the EU campaign, as the polls tightened, she asked Downing Street if it wanted her to go on a “suicide mission” against Johnson, a senior aide to the former prime minister says.

 

****

In Ruth Davidson’s first year as leader, her inexperience showed. She made a prolonged and embarrassing climbdown from a foolhardy promise, made during the leadership campaign, to draw a “line in the sand” against further devolution. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, a skilled and pitiless debater, successfully patronised her every week at First Minister’s Questions. An impression that she had been promoted prematurely was discreetly given credence by members of her own party (most Scottish Tory MSPs had voted for Fraser).

Davidson was learning not only how to be a leader in public, but how to manage an organisation, a skill for which journalism had not prepared her. A rule change that came into effect when she took over gave her far-reaching powers over the party. As she says, she suddenly found herself responsible for MSPs, staff and activists, but with “no idea how to manage”. She fell back on her training in the Territorial Army. “I had to apply what I learned about leadership in the British army. The toolkit I used was from officer training: how to identify problems, make decisions, bring people with you.”

At Wembley this summer, debating national security, Davidson remarked icily, “I think I’m the only one on this panel who’s ever worn the Queen’s uniform.” Her TA training provides her with a rhetorical trump card and legitimises photo opportunities on tanks, but it does more for her than that. Military metaphors pervade her thinking and fire her imagination. One of her favourite books is Defeat into Victory, an account of the Allied forces campaign in Burma in the Second World War, by William Slim, a British field marshal. “It is the best examination of leadership you’ll ever find,” she told me, and then related, excitedly, an encounter she once had with a Second World War veteran who had witnessed Slim addressing his troops.

After getting heard, Davidson’s most urgent task as leader was to overhaul a demoralised and moribund institution. She focused on candidate recruitment – looking for better signallers. “I wanted to rebuild around the message carriers,” Davidson told me. After their run of bad elections, the Tories had stopped trying to pick winners: “They were asking good, hard-working foot soldiers to stand, just to get a name on the ballot.” Long-standing members would be asked to put their name down and reassured that they wouldn’t have to do anything, and so, by and large, they didn’t.

Davidson put together a new candidates’ board: a former human resources director for Royal Mail, a QC who had been a world champion debater, an expert in corporate leadership. She designed a series of tests based on the officer assessment test that she underwent before Sandhurst (“minus the assault course and press-ups”).

Applicants were asked to sit around a ­table with three others, each with a piece of paper in front of them. When they turned it over, they discovered who they were and what they needed to solve. A new policy was about to affect voters in four neighbouring constituencies, but in different ways: it would be detrimental to those in the first constituency, neutral for those in the second and third and advantageous for those in the fourth. Each candidate represented a different constituency. How would they agree a position?

“It was about making people interact in a way they hadn’t before,” Davidson said. “I made every sitting MSP go through it, including myself.” Her aim was to assemble a team of experts, from business, law, the armed forces and the third sector.

Among her recruits was Adam Tomkins, a professor of public law at Glasgow University, now an MSP and one of Davidson’s closest allies. “By late 2011, it was clear the referendum was coming. I wasn’t involved in party politics but I was a strong believer in the Union and I knew I wanted to do something. I wasn’t a Tory, though. In fact, I had been pretty hostile to them.” He offered his expertise to Labour but came away from meetings with the party’s leaders depressed by their tribalism. Davidson was different: intellectually curious, open-minded, eager to take advice. In 2013, she formally asked him to help the Tories formulate a constitutional policy and he agreed. On New Year’s Day 2014, he joined the Conservatives.

The Scottish independence referendum was the making of Davidson as a national leader, as it was of Nicola Sturgeon, who escaped Salmond’s shadow to become a force in her own right. In TV debates during the campaign, Davidson was the most compelling defender of the Union, capable of winning sympathy for even its most unpopular ingredients. “Ruth emerged as someone who could defend Trident and get applause,” says the journalist David Torrance.

After the referendum in September 2014, she once again had to battle for attention. She needed to convince the media that the Conservatives might yet play a big role at Holyrood – that she was more than an amusing sideshow. The referendum had shown her how decayed Labour’s relationship was with its own voters, and this gave her renewed impetus. She also grasped that, far from enabling Scottish politics to move on from independence, the referendum was still having the opposite effect.

In September 2015 the new Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, announced that Labour MSPs would have a free vote on independence in the event of another referendum. In April 2016, she committed to an increase in the top rate of income tax. Together, the two moves were an attempt to move past the issue of independence. “I want people who voted both Yes and No to see that the Labour Party is the vehicle for progressive change in this country,” she said. Yet Dugdale misjudged the relentlessly centrifugal dynamic of Scottish politics after the referendum. Every policy position – from tax rates to tuition fees – returned to the question of what it signalled about Scotland’s relationship with England.

Davidson understood that if Labour was softening its position on the Union, she need only harden and amplify hers. At this year’s Holyrood election, she presented herself not as an alternative first minister, but as the most forceful voice of opposition to Sturgeon. In the campaign debates, she demonstrated it. By doing so, she was able to convince enough pro-Union Labour voters to defect to achieve second place.

For someone who is still relatively new to politics, Davidson has well-tuned strategic instincts. When I asked Tomkins what she excels at, he said: “Her framework is politics, not policy as such. She is brilliant at tactics, messaging, strategy.”

Davidson seems to have developed a serious interest in politics only as an adult, and then only because she thought that it presented a worthy challenge for her abilities (by contrast, most of the leading Scottish Nationalists joined the SNP before they were 18). A little like David Cameron, she just thought that she would be good at it. When I asked her to name her political heroes, or politicians whom she particularly admired, she struggled to come up with any from real life, naming Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare’s Henry V and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. She wasn’t being coy – it’s just that, like most people, she has never looked to politics for role models. With prompting, she eventually named Peter Mandelson, for his part in making the Labour Party electable again, and William Hague, for his work on women’s rights while foreign secretary.

This lack of political nerdery is part of what makes her able to connect so directly with voters, but it is also a limitation. A consistent criticism of Davidson, even among those who admire her, is that she is not interested in policy, or at least that she does not have a set of distinctive policy ideas. This isn’t quite fair – she has published a paper on education and successfully focused attention on the attainment gap between poor and middle-class students. But she has not yet committed to a detailed alternative (a school vouchers policy was raised and then quietly dropped). Other than “maintain the Union”, it is difficult to know what a Davidson-led government would do.

The word everyone uses about her is “authentic”; like Sturgeon, she projects comfort in her own skin. But in a sense Davidson is a lucky politician, as well as a precociously accomplished one. It is much easier to be yourself in politics when what you believe matches so neatly with what you need to do to win. Her decision to present herself in the Holyrood elections as an effective opponent, rather than an alternative first minister, was tactically smart, but it raised a larger question. As one observer put it to me, “We know what she’s against. But what is Ruth Davidson for?”

 

*****

On 12 July, the day after it became clear that Theresa May would be the new Conservative leader, Davidson spoke at a Press Gallery lunch in Westminster and delivered what was, in essence, a stand-up comedy set. Even by her standards, it was indiscreet. On the difference between the Tories’ truncated leadership contest and Labour’s lengthy deliberation, she remarked: “Labour’s still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying a post-coital cigarette after withdrawing our massive Johnson.”

It is difficult to say it without sounding like a stick in the mud, but to me this routine felt misjudged. Political leaders can be funny but not that funny – not without compromising our sense of their stability. Nor was it wise to be so rude. Johnson is in the same party as she is, after all, and may yet become leader (nobody, possibly least of all Davidson, is sure what she would have done had Johnson succeeded Cameron). Like many funny people, Davidson metabolises anger into humour and I suspect that, after Brexit, her anger was surging.

It wasn’t just that she thought the decision was profoundly wrong, or that she was contemptuous of Leave’s tactics. It was also that she was being forced to rethink her future. If Remain had won, the chance of another independence referendum may well have receded, allowing Scottish politics to normalise. The SNP would have found it harder to present itself as being simultaneously in office and opposition. Davidson could have embarked on the last stage of the Scottish Tory recovery: making it an alternative government. She might even have considered the option of taking a Westminster seat – after which, who knows?

The vote in favour of Brexit knocked all of this on the head. It put independence firmly back on the agenda. Instead of either disappearing or becoming imminent, the prospect of a second referendum will squat in the middle distance of Scottish politics for years to come. In a sense, this is convenient for Davidson, because she will remain the strongest voice on one side of the only real issue in town. She can make further inroads into the heartlands of a Labour Party that, at a UK-wide level, is strangling itself to death, while picking up SNP voters who lose patience with Sturgeon when she blames every problem with the National Health Service or schools on London.

Theresa May is not nearly so good a bogeyman for Sturgeon as Cameron was. Davidson gets on well with her despite some stylistic differences. Both are observant Christians and care about their duties to the Tory flock. When May came to Scotland to meet Sturgeon in the week after she became Prime Minister, she also attended a meeting of local Conservative members, which Davidson greatly appreciated (Cameron wouldn’t have done such a thing). Davidson has not, as May has, marinated for years in local Tory association meetings but she takes her responsibility to the membership seriously, in the manner of a general concerned with the troops’ morale.

Yet a referendum that is always two years away is one that she can never win or lose. It is hard for her to come up with distinctive ideas when there is little point devoting effort to envisioning a policy agenda that will be distorted through the prism of independence. Given the odds that she overcame to take her party to where it is now, nobody should dismiss the chance that she might one day become first minister. But Scottish politics is defined by long periods of single-party hegemony and the SNP under Sturgeon may well have just started its turn.

Then there is the option of running for a (Scottish) seat in Westminster. Davidson says that she has no interest in swapping Edinburgh for London, either politically or personally, and I believe her. Yet there may come a point at which she is forced to confront the possibility that this is the only way to escape a career in permanent opposition. She might also come to see it as the best way to defend the Union. Sturgeon has suggested that there is no longer any such thing as British politics. What a rebuke it could be to that idea to have one of Scotland’s most popular politicians in the cabinet at Westminster, or, indeed, in 10 Downing Street (a possibility hardly less plausible than Davidson’s elevation to first minister). On the other hand, Davidson may leave politics altogether. She was strikingly keen to emphasise, in our interview, that at some point she will seek an entirely new challenge.

We like to think that the best politicians will somehow find their way to power – that talent will rise to its appropriate level. But Davidson has only two paths to high office open to her: becoming first minister, or quitting Edinburgh for Westminster. Both are exceedingly steep. If she cannot or will not take either, in decades to come she may be remembered as we now recall her performance at Wembley: a firework show, lighting up the landscape without changing it.

Ian Leslie’s “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” is published by Quercus. Twitter: @mrianleslie

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories