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Think before you act: against the modern cult of spontaneity

Truly living in the moment and being utterly spontaneous would render you unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others.

Illustration: Ciara Phelan for the New Statesman

Live for the moment. Be spontaneous. Be free and happy. Don’t worry about the future. Act as though it’s your last day on earth. Such is one modern conception of the good life. Adverts encourage us to drop everything and jet off for a city break at the last moment, or to walk at random into a bar where we are sure to meet a new gang of stock-photo besties, all ostentatiously sipping the same brand of transparent liquor. People are reluctant to make concrete social arrangements, so just say, “Text me.” Serendipity is our friend; planning is for losers. “Spontaneity” is rhetorically offered as the reason to celebrate both online social media and last-minute travel bucket shops.

It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others. You’d turn into someone like the amusing but oddly disturbing character Old Merrythought in Francis Beaumont’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (recently revived to hilarious effect at the Globe in London). Merrythought spends all his time singing and drinking ale, because he assumes there will always be meat on the table come dinnertime. Being so spontaneous would make you, in short, a fantastically annoying and irresponsible flibbertigibbet.

Why, then, is the dream of spontaneity so attractive? It is perhaps because most of our lives are so corralled and timetabled, and our workdays increasingly subject to silent, automated time-and-motion studies conducted by data-harvesting computers for the purpose of what is euphemised as “workforce science”, that we dream all the more of being able to be spontaneous – at least in our free time. Our “free” time, of course, as Guy Debord noted, is just that time which is left to us after the violent expropriation of most of it. And so the idea of spontaneity is a dream of liberty.

But true freedom, as Jean-Paul Sartre noted, is also terrifying. And spontaneity, it seems, is a virtue that we sorely wish to have ascribed to us but don’t actually want to act out rigorously. To be thought of as a spontaneous person is to own a certain kind of devil-may-care cool, to seem open to new experiences. Actually to be a spontaneous person, though, might be a frightful mess. Well, there’s an app for that. Indeed, a whole new class of smartphone apps offers what can be thought of as a kind of mediated, filtered spontaneity – a kind of just-in-time planning that still gives the desired impression of impetuosity. Thus, location-aware dating apps such as Tinder sell the possibility of meeting someone in a nearby bar that evening – almost like people used to do before the age of ambient internet, using only their faces. (According to my informants, a not insignificant number of Tinder users describe themselves as “spontaneous” on their carefully curated profiles.) Meanwhile, a mobile booking start-up called Hotel Tonight recently added a feature allowing users to peek at probable same-day rates a few days ahead. The company announced on its blog, deadpan, that this planning feature was part of “our never-ending quest to empower people to be more spontaneous”.

Consumer spontaneity, you might suspect, is at least very good for business. It seems as though it would be very much in the interest of people selling things if a habit of recklessly spending money at a moment’s notice were considered part of a desirable personality. As it happens, a friend’s Twitter feed was recently interrupted by a “promoted tweet” (that is, advert) from an account calling itself “Be Spontaneous UK”, and chirruping: “Go Brazilian this summer with free Ipanema flip-flops when you pick up our bikini razor now.” Perhaps the purchase of a “bikini razor” is meant to count as an investment in future spontaneity of a vaguely porny kind, though the spontaneity that really counts here is that of immediately clicking on an ad to buy a product. It turns out that “Be Spontaneous UK” is a marketing account owned by Wilkinson Sword.

Probably not coincidentally, either, one finds that recent “spontaneity surveys” showing that Britons really wish they were more spontaneous are predominantly carried out on behalf of companies for which more spontaneity equals more business: train operators and retailers. Or take the advert for Delta Private Jets, described in a recent essay by Ian Bogost, the tagline of which reads: “Perfect moments are often made on a moment’s notice.” Here, spontaneity becomes a kind of meta-luxury.

 

The rhetorical invitation to spontaneity by commercial interests exists in a productive relationship with the modern dualism of psychological science. This is not classical mind-body dualism, but the dualism of more-or-less-allegorical brain systems. In the influential lingo of the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, we have a “System 1” brain that delivers snap, intuitive judgements through unconscious processing, and a “System 2” brain that does the slow, cold reasoning.

Now, which of those brains is the “spontaneous” one? Why, System 1, of course, the blinking, unthinking brain, the site of “hot cognition”. The weirdly anti-rational weather of our age, indeed, insists that this intuitive System 1 is “who we really are”. Because our rationality can be infected with errors by System 1 biases, or so this story goes, we should give up all hope of being reliably rational.

This is certainly a convenient hypothesis for boosters of “nudge” politics, who seek to make citizens do the right thing (save for retirement, buy healthy food) by exploiting the subconscious biases and errors to which System 1 is prone. The wise folk who design the nudges are pleased to call themselves “choice architects”. As we are led unsuspectingly along their mazy garden path, on which what they consider the “right” choices are the easiest ones for us to make – the healthy meal is at eye level; we are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless we can be bothered to opt out – we casually make the decisions that they have already chosen for us. Thus, through careful engineering of the alternatives presented, the liberal paternalists of nudge ideology want to exploit our lazily automatic behaviour.

This might be a resistible challenge to our autonomy as long as the specific choice architecture and its rationale are made available in an open and transparent way, but that is not the way the field is developing. The British government’s Behavioural Insights Team, aka the Nudge Unit, was part-privatised this year, and hopes to profit from advising foreign governments, local authorities and commercial interests, now that it is immune from Freedom of Information requests from ordinary citizens who might wish to scrutinise its methods. To embrace spontaneity, then, might be to let a cadre of unaccountable behaviour engineers make important economic and political choices for us.

This seems all the more plausible when we remember that to praise another’s “spon­taneity” often carries an infantilising or otherwise condescending undertone. Black musicians of the Jazz Age were routinely praised by white critics for their supposedly innate “spontaneity”, in rhetoric that cast them almost as idiots savants, untrained yet miraculously skilful in the moment. The literary critic F R Leavis, meanwhile, wielded “spontaneous” and its cognates as terms of his highest praise when discussing writers, such as D H Lawrence, who he felt were conduits (as it were almost unreflective) of Life Itself.

In his recent book How to Read Literature, the former boy terror of literary theory Terry Eagleton surprisingly revives this Leavisite virtue as one of the positive qualities he says we should learn to recognise in fiction. Eagleton quotes a passage from John Updike and complains: “There is nothing spontaneous about it.” Casting himself as a kind of prosodic Antiques Roadshow expert, able to spot a fake at ten paces, he cites a passage of William Faulkner and diagnoses the fault thus: it has “an air of spontaneity about it which is almost entirely fabricated”.

Never mind that every “air” in a piece of writing must be fabricated, in the sense that all prose effects must be built from the careful choice and placement of words. It is probably bootless to wonder how a Leavis or an Eagleton could possibly know, absent surveillance footage and brain scans of the target writers at work, exactly how “spontaneous” this or that passage’s creation was. Further, of course, the most “spontaneous” writing is likely to be the worst writing, as long as you agree that writing benefits from thought. Many literary stories of spontaneous composition are myths. Jack Kerouac – celebrated by Allen Ginsberg for his miraculous “spontaneous bop prosody” – did bash out a typescript of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot-long scroll of paper, but the novel had already been through several versions and rewrites for more than two years before that first full-length draft was “spontaneously” composed.

One of the most pleasant things about writing, indeed, is that spontaneity is corrigible: something that seems like a good idea on the spur of the moment, as one’s fingers are banging out a paragraph, can be quietly got rid of in the sober tranquillity of revision, when it becomes clear that it’s rubbish. To elevate spontaneity to a central literary virtue is as anti-intellectual as its diagnosis is whimsically subjective.

 

The invitation to citizens to luxuriate in a pleasurable absence of deliberation perhaps connects, too, the rhetorical fashion for spontaneity with the sudden promotion of “mindfulness” by corporate and state interests. A parliamentary working group was even set up this spring to explore the potential for mindfulness in health, education and the criminal justice system. Breath-centred mindfulness meditation is no doubt beneficial for many individuals, sharing as it does certain aspects with similar practices such as yoga and qigong. But it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy. And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

Mindfulness and spontaneity are both, as psychic ideals, opposed to worry and effort, which we can easily think are what daily life actually requires of us. They could thus be understood alternatively, in an emancipatory way. Perhaps there is a secular version available of the kind of evangelical Protestantism that embraces an ecstatic approach to life, a kind of Dionysian spontaneity that trusts in God’s will. Edward Slingerland’s interesting recent book Trying Not to Try: the Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity, for example, contrasts the overscheduled busywork of a modern productivity freak with what he calls “body thinking”, defined essentially in the same way as the System 1 brain: “tacit, fast and semi-automatic behaviour that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference”. This is certainly desirable for a tennis player facing a 130mph serve, or a martial artist, or an improvising musician, but Slingerland wants to argue that social action can become just as virtuously “spontaneous” as well-drilled athletic or artistic action. In support of this thesis, he cites the opinions of several classical Chinese thinkers (including Confucius) on the traditional virtue of “wu-wei” – the principle of non-action. Slingerland characterises it as “the dynamic, effortless and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective”.

It turns out, as you might guess, that in the opinion of all the tradition’s eminences, such grace can be achieved only through rationally deliberate practice. The true and valuable kind of spontaneity for which Slingerland argues must, paradoxically, be the result of long, conscious training. This is as true of graceful behaviour as it is of mastery in tennis or jazz – no musician becomes a brilliantly “spontaneous” improviser without spending thousands of unobserved hours running through scales. (After an early humiliation when he had the confidence but not the chops to sit with a pro band, Charlie Parker locked himself away to practise for years before he ventured on stage again.) In the matter of respectable behaviour, more­over, the result – desirable though it surely is – is not really “spontaneity” at all but good character, formed through habitual virtuous action, as Aristotle was arguing in another ancient philosophical culture altogether. “The Way of Heaven”, according to one Chinese sage, even excels in “planning for the future, though it is always relaxed”. It doesn’t sound very spontaneous, does it? Wu-wei leads to gracefully appropriate action, but not thoughtlessly random action.

We do seem to have the idea that authentic virtue is spontaneous – being “spontaneously” kind is considered more real than being kind after conscious reflection, though it is hard to see why. Conversely, one may spontaneously offer a hurtful insult or a violent assault. Spontaneity cannot be a good in itself, yet we feel that it somehow makes a good action better. The obvious explanation for this would be to say that an action performed this way implies a history of doing similar things, which is how it became spontaneous in the first place. This is not, however, the point Slingerland emphasises. Instead he wants to praise spontaneous action precisely because it is allegedly unfiltered by the nasty conscious mind.

“We have a very strong intuition,” he writes, “increasingly confirmed by work in cognitive science, that the conscious, verbal mind is often a sneaky, conniving liar, whereas spontaneous, unselfconscious gestures are reliable indicators of what’s really going on inside another person.”

Well, sometimes, perhaps. But of course the conscious, verbal mind can often write interesting books about how one can consciously and verbally achieve the state of social elegance they recommend to their readers, who must similarly absorb such information consciously and verbally, and then act on it. Indeed, since the kind of trained spontaneity Slingerland values is achieved through rational practice, it seems inconsistent to attempt to valorise the one by means of denigrating the other.

The dream of spontaneity is one of escape, but the truth might be that the more time we spend in a self-built cage, the better we can escape. Other work in psychology reported at the premium end of the self-help spectrum seems to indicate, indeed, that pursuing spontaneity at all costs ensures we will be less happy. As Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, has written, the problem with a devotion to spontaneity is that we are all subject to “decision fatigue”, the existential lethargy that sets in quickly when we are forced to make too many trivial choices. The antidote might be, then, to stick even more closely to a timetable. “It’s ironic that people resist schedules because they want to be spontaneous and savour the moment,” Burkeman writes, “given that your average Zen monk – whose whole job, to simplify somewhat, is to savour the moment – abides by a rigorous schedule”.

Freed from the self-imposed pressure to do an awesome thing spontaneously, so this argument goes, we will actually experience more pleasure. “Stop worrying about living spontaneously,” Burkeman advises, “and you might start having more fun.”

But if more fun is our goal, the lure of spontaneity might creep back in. Is our overvaluation of spontaneity not, after all, born of a deep-seated fear – the fear of missing out? If we commit to one social plan for the whole evening, we might be missing out on something cooler happening just around the corner. So the mediated-spontaneity tools of the smartphone comfort us with the idea that it is always possible to bail out in favour of something better. And this is pleasant, too, for the hipster entrepreneurs who have just launched the nearby pop-up absinthe bar or dude-food smokehouse. As Jacob Burak reports in a recent essay, the fear of missing out “occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security”. Too overwhelming a fear of missing out – a generalised attitude of always looking over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to in case there is someone more interesting or attractive at the party – can rob the victim of the ability to take pleasure in anything.

And so it might be that those dedicated to the spontaneous lifestyle will continue to be frazzled and unhappy, however many bikini razors and pairs of Brazilian flip-flops they own – while their masters, whose plans are anything but spontaneous, look on with dark satisfaction.

Steven Poole’s most recent book is “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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.

 

*****

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