No escape from Mammon? London is increasing in power as a money magnet but we are not planning for more people with better quality of life. Image: Cityscape Digital
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The London problem: has the capital become too dominant?

The dominance of the capital threatens to choke the life from the rest  of the United Kingdom. We must act before it is too late

The referendum on Scottish independence is, at heart, not a vote about Scotland. It’s a vote about London. The choice facing Scots is whether they trust each other enough to sever the umbilical cord: London largesse, London-based decision-making, London hegemony. London divides the UK in a way that no other country in Europe is divided.

Indeed, London is a divided city in its own right: it is home to the greatest concentration of poverty in western Europe. At least two of its boroughs – Hackney and Tower Hamlets – are among the ten most deprived in England. And yet politicians such as Greg Clark, the minister for universities, science and cities, tell us that Londoners are 69 per cent more productive, in GDP generated per head, than citizens elsewhere in the UK.

It is worth dwelling on Clark’s figures (below), both for what they reveal and for what they hide. Clark used the figure of 69 per cent to try to demonstrate that London was not so different from other capital cities in terms of economic dominance. But he did not take into account the size of London’s population relative to the rest of the UK. London is small compared to, say, Seoul, or Tokyo; consequently its economic dominance is even more pronounced.

The only city that takes a greater share of national product than London is Moscow. Paris takes a large but slightly lower proportion and so, for well over half a century, the French have referred to “Paris et le désert français”. The English talk about their own division simply, and less dramatically, as the problem of “the north”. A plan is needed for the north, we are often told; but that is impossible if there is no plan for London.

There is nothing inevitable about living with high rates of national inequality. We are not in some imaginary global race where everywhere is becoming similarly unequal. At the lower end of Clark’s list is Vienna, whose citizens were apparently only 30 per cent more productive than the average Austrian; even more equitable is Stockholm, at 23 per cent; and Tokyo and Seoul, each with a rate below 15 per cent. Of course, almost all that extra London money flows into the pockets of the richest residents. The median Londoner is not much better off than the average citizen of the UK.

What exercises many Scots right now is that the rich Londoners they hear most from appear to believe that there is no alternative to these inequalities and that the rest of the UK may even benefit from the trickle-down of some of the wealth of an ever richer capital. Growing inequalities undermine the case that Scotland is “better together” with London and the idea that Scots might moderate the arrogance of London’s elite should they remain in the Union with England.

It is taking a long time for the English chatter to turn towards the realisation that the Scottish vote is a judgement on London – and on the desirability of being linked so closely to what can appear to be a selfish, often stupid and always dominating force. It is hard to think of a scenario that would shake London from its trajectory of growing inequality and drift towards being a tax haven for the world’s super-rich.

Of all the scenarios I can imagine, and each is unlikely to occur, it is Scotland voting Yes to independence that might most obviously dent the English capital’s prestige. How will Londoners explain why, if being attached in some way to London is so beneficial, the Scots chose to leave? What other event, more than such a rejection, would encourage the introspection needed among the English about where they are heading?

Other scenarios are easy to imagine but are more unpredictable in outcome, and not necessarily desirable in the short term. A run on sterling is seldom mentioned today, but sterling is a weak currency backed up by an indebted set of one small and three very small nations. A second banking crisis is far from impossible and would hurt London more than anywhere else on the planet. Or think of climate change bringing persistent rain, followed by the flood waters of the Thames meeting a particularly high spring tide coupled with a storm surge. You can begin to imagine some of the scenarios that the cabinet’s emergency Cobra committee might find a little tricky to deal with.

So what would a serious “London plan” be? What could offer a more sustainable future for the English capital and English regions, irrespective of the choice being made north of the border in September?

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Technically, a London plan already exists in the form of the Mayor of London’s Spatial Development Strategy. In many ways this is a laughable document; though mostly tedious, it serves to demonstrate that there is no plan. To save you the trouble of searching for the best jokes it’s worth knowing that paragraph 3.22 of the latest version (October 2013) states, on provision of housing, that: “The probability-based approach adopted in London to address this has already been tested and found to be robust.”

In truth, there hasn’t been a proper London plan for some time. The Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) studied regional trends in the UK under New Labour and came to the conclusion that London stood out in stark contrast: “There was no autonomous private-sector job creation in decaying regions like the North-East or West Midlands during this period; and precious little full-time job growth anywhere outside London. Between 1997 and 2010, London on its own accounted for 43 per cent of all extra full-time jobs created in the UK, and London is now the only region of the UK capable of creating new full-time private jobs. And, again frighteningly, there is no movement of surplus population from the periphery to the centre.”

The CRESC researchers explained that London grows through immigration from the rest of Europe. It does not soak up surplus labour from the rest of the UK but, instead, sees more people leave it to settle in the rest of the UK than those who come in. And it is not just for jobs that people are coming to London. It is now thought that in a good year for overseas recruitment London universities may admit more students from outside the UK than from places in the UK outside London. The more frequently people move across borders and the longer the distances they travel, the less closely tied the capital becomes to the rest of Britain.

By early this year, the trends identified by CRESC had become embedded with the help of the coalition government after the 2008 crash. The Centre for Cities reported that London had accounted for 80 per cent of private-sector job growth between 2010 and 2012. That was ten times more than for the second-fastest-growing city in that period, the UK’s second city of finance: Edinburgh. Whereas there had been public-sector job cuts in most cities, the national government was increasing the number of state-funded jobs in London by 66,300. By contrast, Edinburgh lost more than 3,000 jobs of this type over the same period.

The north-south divide widened more rapidly after 2010 and started to become a stable feature of many British maps. This is evident from the geographical patterns seen with so many trends, from the rise in shoplifting (see Figures 2 and 3 below) through to the proportion of people who had bought a home for the first time in 2007 and who were still in negative equity seven years later. In the early 1990s, negative equity was worse in London, not in the north.

As London moves away from the rest of Britain economically, other areas begin to drop off the map. Scotland is often missing from the most recent maps used by social scientists, because data is no longer collected in the same way there.

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What can be done about London’s economic dominance? The first thing might be to accept a few truths. The second is to act on that understanding. The third is to speculate on what might happen if we don’t act.

What happens when one does not plan? It is worth looking at the more laissez-faire attitude in some US cities. Look at the low-density sprawl and absolute car dependency of Los Angeles and the power blackouts of California. Look at poorly planned megacities in poorer parts of the world to see how bad crowding on pavements can become and how long a commute can get, and look to all the worst-planned cities for where ordinary people pay the most simply for the right to live and work in the city.

The truths we must accept in order to avoid this future are not unpleasant, but certainly many of us do not want to accept them. London is growing and poised to grow quickly. It is Europe’s only megacity, though in less than a century it has dropped in rank from the largest city in the world by population to 25th largest. Its nearest competitors for megacity status, Cairo, Istanbul and Moscow, lie on the edge of Europe and are not getting that much closer politically or demographically.

It is not so much the success of London’s financial industry that is causing its wealth and influence to grow as the curiosity and aspiration of a huge number of mostly young adults from around the world. These youngsters have set their heart on living and working in London, at least for a few years. Forty years ago it was the Irish, Welsh and above all the Scots who came to live in London in unusually high numbers.

From Danes or Frenchmen who believe their country is holding back their entrepreneurial zeal, through to the nouveaux riches of China and India looking for a luxury second home, and even refugees without papers who need somewhere to work for a pittance but have a chance, London is attractive to millions. London speaks the world’s second language and the first language of the internet. No matter who you are, you won’t stand out as odd in London. It has surpassed even New York and Singapore as the favour­ite global bolt-hole of the super-rich.

London will grow; the only question is by how much, and how well-planned that growth will be. Government rhetoric suggests that nationally we will soon be building 200,000 homes a year but will have zero net migration. Given recent trends, both claims insult the voters’ intelligence. Nor, together, are they tenable. There is one good reason to build houses and it is for the immigrants we should expect to come, those who have been coming for many years now and whose numbers were boosted by the financial crash. If emigration were greater than immigration in future years there would be very little need to build new houses. Soon, given the age structure, many more people will die each year than will be born in England, even if fertility rates do not fall further as they have done across the rest of Europe. Simply refurbishing the old stock would result in enough homes for all of “Generation Rent”. And so many would not have to rent if they did not allow their elected politicians to help landlords evade so much tax, and make it desirable to be a private landlord. England has enough homes for everyone living here but not enough to cover those whose likely arrival we should plan for.

The last time the UK had a recession and net inward migration was in the 1930s, an effect of the 1929 crash. It was then that we built many of London’s suburbs. Partly we built them as fewer people emigrated from England: there were fewer opportunities abroad during the Great Depression. We built them also because migration from even more depressed Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as immigration from further afield, was increasing demand. Today is similar, except people are travelling from further within Europe. Policymakers in the European Commission refer to this internal movement of people as “mobility” across the EU rather than migration, but it will be some time before such language from across the Channel permeates our thinking.

Without immigration, there is no sensible reason to build new homes rather than renovate old ones – unless we want to see our existing housing stock shared out even more unfairly. We need “Pocket homes” for singles and couples without children. We need to time our building of homes in London to fit in with expansion of public transport and cycle routes. We need to encourage the value put on walking so as not to increase our levels of air pollution, already the highest recorded in western Europe. (Some argue that levels are higher in central Paris.) But all this would require a decent plan. The free market does not co-ordinate spatially and temporally; it reacts rather than instigates.

Acting on the understanding that London is going to grow requires recognising where London’s real boundaries lie. Oxford and Cambridge are de facto outlying suburbs of the capital. Oxford’s soon-to-be-opened second mainline rail station will be just over an hour’s commute from central London. If we do not provide better housing closer to the centre of the capital, the effects will be felt a very long way out. London relies on far too much long-distance commuting, to the detriment of many people’s lives.

We must build high-density, high-quality housing that is affordable. The smoke and mirrors of those with a vested interest in house-price inflation and high rents makes this sound impossible. Given that so many people are willing to pay so much to live in London, couldn’t they all be housed there a little more cheaply, yet still have the actual costs of providing that housing more than adequately covered? They could – but not at rates of return that would allow the richest 1 per cent to carry on getting richer as quickly as they do now. London needs both rent regulation and enhanced housebuilding.

But where are we to build? Our greenbelts were designated at a time when we did not understand the extent of the floodplain. Existing greenbelt land needs to be swapped, acre for acre, for land that really should never be built on; land where we should expect more floods as rainfall becomes more erratic. We should protect ecologically valuable land that is under threat. All that should become true greenbelt, not uninspiring farmland. As London expands, it should build not only upwards, but also on some of the higher land on the edges – but only where there is an environmental argument to do so; and not in small, car-dependent towns further away from the centre of London.

At present, the policies set out by the coalition government’s “Ecosystem Markets Task Force” allow builders to offset the destruction of Sites of Special Scientific Interest by, for instance, planting a new oak wood if they build over an ancient one. This has to be stopped. Greenbelts don’t prevent urban sprawl; the sprawl just hops over them, increasing commuting times outside them and house prices inside. Good-quality, high-density living prevents sprawl.

Much of the building that will be needed for the new migrants who will come (and help reduce our national debt) should be within the present boundary of Greater London. Many people argue that there is little justification for giving planning permission for new buildings within London with fewer than five storeys. At these densities, enough people arrive to sustain local street life. Cafés and local shops are found across Barcelona, a city that is four times as dense as London in its heart. But London also needs wider pavements, more cycle lanes, more one-way streets with just a single lane for cars, and far fewer lorries and taxis trying to squeeze through its streets.

Far more imaginative policies than better traffic control can be thought up to make the capital more liveable. There is no need to try to pack every last national institution into London. Why not move parliament somewhere more affordable, to a place where MPs won’t need huge housing allowances to be able to live and work while distancing their lives from those of their constituents? But if parliament were to be relocated outside London, where would that be?

One obvious answer is the first stop from London on High Speed 2, Birmingham. Members of the House of Lords, such as Norman Tebbit, who complain that they couldn’t live anywhere near their workplace could easily find a home in Coventry, or nearby Sparkhill, with perhaps more homes built on brownfield sites there, relieving the pressure on London. The old buildings in the capital could be kept for ceremonial occasions and as tourist attractions, but there is no need to require our elected representatives to battle their way through to the neighbourhoods least representative of the lives of almost all of their constituents.

There is much else in London that does not need to be there. Much can move out to make way for the almost inevitable influx. (It is worth remembering here that there are at least two possibilities that would make that influx not inevitable. The first would be Britain leaving the EU and revoking the free movement of labour. The second would be an economic crash in London that was not part of a worldwide financial meltdown – due to a generally unforeseen run on sterling that required sharp hikes in interest rates. The effects of either would be similar.)

Finally, what might make for a better-planned future? We seldom consider the most liveable megacity in the world, the one with the lowest crime rate and highest life expectancies: Tokyo. What helped Tokyo become what it is today? Very equitable income distribution certainly helps, but that was not all. It was after the great property crash of 1992-93 that Tokyo’s planners were able to say, with some force, that following the money and doing what the market suggested did not result in the best overall outcome. Satisfying the wishes of innumerable pairs of buyers and sellers never results in an equilibrium. Only someone as mathematically unimaginative as an orthodox economist could believe that.

The great London residential property-value crash may be years away, but what is our plan for its aftermath, if indeed it happens? A Japanese colleague sent me data showing how the average price of residential land in Tokyo more than doubled in value in the year to 1987, stayed very high until 1990, but then fell back to 1986 prices by 1996 and has remained low ever since (see Figure 4, below). Life as they knew it did not end in Japan when the value of land in Tokyo plummeted. The following two decades weren’t actually “lost”. It just became easier and cheaper to live, and far more obviously necessary to plan.

Without a plan, life in cities becomes chaotic, prices surge, congestion rises and dissent grows to the point where parts of the state begin to calculate that it is in their interest to leave. Not planning for London to grow in a world that is ever more urbanised is planning to preserve a living museum, one with aspects of Dickensian-level inequality. Planning to allow almost anything the markets and overseas investors desire is planning for a Blade Runner-style future.

Between these two extremes lie many other possibilities. But if you were living in Scotland now would you trust the English elite to have the sense to consider them? 

Danny Dorling’s “All That Is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster” is published by Allen Lane (£20)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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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.

 

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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.”

 

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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.

 

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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