Show Hide image

How the miners’ strike of 1984-85 changed Britain for ever

Thirty years later questions still haunt many of those who took part. Could the outcome have been different?

Murton Colliery in County Durham, 1992. The pit ceased production the previous November. Photograph: Bob Anderson/Rex Features

One recent grey afternoon I visit the site of the old Shirebrook colliery in north-east Derbyshire with a former miner, Alan Gascoyne. “This was where we picketed . . . that was the union office, there were the shafts, and that was the coal preparation plant.” We are looking through his car windscreen at a huge steel warehouse containing Sports Direct’s central “distribution unit”.

Sports Direct is owned, like Newcastle United Football Club, by the billionaire Mike Ashley. “I’ve never met him but he comes here by helicopter,” Gascoyne says. The unit is a very 21st-century operation; its retail staff are mainly on zero-hours contracts, and most of the 5,000 people working at the warehouse are supplied by two big manpower agencies. On New Year’s Day, a newborn baby was found abandoned in a lavatory; the young mother, thought to be from eastern Europe, was arrested but later released. Employees complained to the local paper about a “strikes” policy under which six minor infringements – such as lateness or failure to meet targets – were punished with summary dismissal. The young mother was rumoured to have been close to six strikes and threatened with the sack if she took time off, late in her pregnancy. Of the colliery, which closed in 1993 and was replaced 12 years later by the warehouse as the town’s largest employer, there is no trace.

But the mine is not forgotten. Gascoyne, a forceful 59-year-old ex-faceworker who swears a lot, was the branch secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers throughout the strike of 1984-85 and until the pit closed. The son of a communist miner, he has kept its memory alive at the Shirebrook Miners’ Welfare Social Club, founded in 1920. The bar and the hire of its large hall help to finance the local Alzheimer’s group, OAP dance classes, a disco for the disabled and Outward Bound courses for the primary school. The bar and adjoining rooms are heavily decorated with mementos, including a rare photograph of a shirtsleeved A J Cook, the miners’ leader in the great lockout of 1926, inscribed in copperplate with lines from Idris Davies’s poetic chronicle of that heroic defeat, “The Angry Summer”:

Here is Arthur Cook, a red rose in his lapel
Astride on a wall, arousing his people . . .
And tomorrow in all the hostile papers
there will be sneers at Cook and all his capers
and cowardly scribblers will be busy tonight
besmirching a warrior with the mud of their spite.

There wasn’t another such “angry summer” (or as “besmirched” a miners’ leader) until 1984. In the pivotal episode of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the families of “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s army and beat Hitler’s army” – in the words of the 90-year-old Harold Macmillan’s agonised speech to the House of Lords in November 1984 – endured extreme hardship, hunger, lack of fuel and police harassment. In the process, colliery communities powerfully refreshed their traditions of collective self-help. Women, in a notably male-dominated society, not only formed a transformative and unpredicted network of support groups, raising funds to feed and sustain the most financially pressed in almost every mining village, but asserted themselves politically, travelling across the country to make the miners’ case, appeal for support and join the picket lines.

Yet that great struggle ended, like the 1926 lockout, in failure. Thirty years later two questions still haunt many of those who took part. Could the outcome have been different? And what were its long-term consequences?

On the first, those who with hindsight see the 1985 defeat as inevitable point to the unprecedentedly comprehensive arm­oury of the state mobilised by Thatcher. Her biographer Charles Moore records how she summoned Willie Whitelaw immediately on taking office in 1979 and announced: “The last Conservative government was destroyed by the miners’ strike. We’ll have another and we’ll win.” Thatcher sought not only to avenge the miners’ victories of 1972 and 1974, but also to erase the mystique attaching to the NUM, its solidarity reinforced by the small and cohesive communities in which miners lived, by the mutual dependence required by the dangers underground, and by widespread public admiration.

Moore says that the Whitehall Civil Contingencies unit in 1979 thought that “if there was to be a strike, it should begin in the spring and . . . be over pit closures, which tended to divide the union, rather than over pay, which tended to unite them”.

These two conditions were eventually fulfilled, though not until three years after an attempted pit closure programme ended in a climbdown. The government had not yet implemented Nicholas Ridley’s infamous 1977 confidential note on how to defeat the miners. This included stockpiling of coal, increasing power-station capacity to switch from coal to oil, use of non-union haulage drivers and cuts in supplementary benefit to strikers’ families. But the government was determined to be ready next time.

In her notorious characterisation of the “enemy within”, Thatcher did less than some of Arthur Scargill’s more fastidious critics to distinguish between the NUM president and its members. Unsurprisingly, given that while she repeatedly portrayed Scargill as a revolutionary Marxist seeking to bring down an elected government (a depiction that Scargill did little to disavow) she was also determined to break what she saw as the NUM’s unhealthily corporatist relationship with the National Coal Board. Dating back to nationalisation in 1946, the relationship between the union and the NCB not only contradicted her view of how an industry should be run, but also symbolised the Attlee postwar consensus she was intent on overturning.

To listen to the ex-miners coming through Gascoyne’s office today for help with social security and pneumoconiosis claims is to be aware of a historic level of union protection that would be incomprehensible to the unorganised Sports Direct workforce. A genial man called Graham Elliot recalls his first lesson in the strength of the NUM branch. In 1972, he and another 17-year-old apprentice fitter, under indentures that explicitly precluded strike action, were walking to the pit baths when they were confronted by the branch secretary. “And he said: ‘Now where are you going, lads? We’re on strike, starting today.’ And we said, ‘Yes, but they’ve told us if we go on strike that’ll end our apprenticeship.’ And he pointed up [to the winding gear]. ‘I’ll tell you summat now, son. If you lose your apprenticeship, those wheels won’t turn until you get your jobs back.’ ”

Gascoyne insists that he co-operated with the NCB in raising production, occasionally by stamping out sectional strikes. “If you’re not producing owt, you can’t make money. To me it were important the pit was a success.”

The secret plan – denied during the strike but admitted by Thatcher in her memoirs – of Ian MacGregor, imported from the United States and appointed NCB chairman in 1983, had been to cut 75,000 jobs over three years. This was slightly more than Scargill was later ridiculed for predicting.

On 1 March 1984, the South Yorkshire NCB announced plans to close Cortonwood Colliery, a challenge to the NUM’s policy of opposing all pit closures on any grounds other than geological exhaustion. With this, and MacGregor’s admission five days later that he envisaged closing, on “economic” grounds, about 20 pits over the next year at a cost of 20,000 jobs, strikes in Yorkshire and Scotland spread to 81 of the country’s 163 pits by 12 March.

At the Shirebrook Miners’ Welfare Social Club, Gordon Butler, NUM area secretary for North Derbyshire, urged a packed and noisy meeting of miners to strike. “The young ’uns were all for striking,” Gascoyne says, “but others were shouting about a [national strike] ballot.”

The status as the “barometer” British coalfield of North Derbyshire, historically led by the left-wing of the two NUM factions, is partly a function of geography. Shirebrook, its biggest pit, was in a north-eastern wedge between South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, the area always least likely to strike. The mass meeting was all the stormier because a North Derbyshire ballot had already evenly split the area with a mere 16-vote majority against a strike. But with a militant, trusted local leadership under Gascoyne warning that it would be better to walk out than be “picketed out” by Yorkshire miners, Butler’s call succeeded. Later Shirebrook became so divided that a Metropolitan Police officer called it “the Belfast of England”. But, for now, a large majority of its 1,995 miners went on strike.
 

****
 

To Nicholas Ridley’s prescription, Thatcher had added the appointment of Peter Walker as energy secretary. He was a Tory “wet”, a skilled communicator and ambitious. A clever choice. Working miners and coal-dependent businesses were encouraged to use the government’s new employment laws, which resulted in the sequestration of NUM funds. But it was another Ridley proposal, for “large mobile squads” of police, that would prove crucial. Besides their often huge presence at pitheads and other picketing targets, “mobile squads” were deployed on roads across the country to halt pickets seeking to prevent the movement of coal and would-be working miners.

In the book Settling Scores, Nicholas Jones, then the BBC’s outstanding labour correspondent, reviews cabinet documents that show how a frustrated Thatcher, told by Leon Brittan, the home secretary, that he had gone to “the limit of what [he] could do while respecting the constitutional independence of police forces”, urged him to “stiffen the resolve” of chief constables to adopt “the more vigorous interpretation of their duties which was being sought”. Keeping the peace was subordinated to the paramilitary role of forcing a way through for those breaking the strike – even in South Wales, where the walkout was most solid.

On a moonlit December night in 1984, I joined a group of NUM pickets who were avoiding the checkpoints in a clandestine cross-country yomp up Mynydd Merthyr, a wooded ridge above the village of Aberfan, where just two miners were going to work at Merthyr Vale colliery. The background to the mission was sombre because one of the two miners, David Williams, had been in a taxi a fortnight earlier when two strikers dropped a concrete post from a footbridge on to the car, killing the driver, David Wilkie. I remember how, early the next morning, the police charged on the pickets as the working miners’ new taxi came into view. They trampled my photographer colleague Hugh Alexander to the ground, cracking several of his ribs.

But this was trifling beside the scores of incidents across Britain in which truncheon-wielding policemen – often in riot gear, and making numerous arrests – confronted and diverted pickets. The biggest set-piece battle, now the subject of a “scoping” exercise by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to determine whether there should be a full investigation, was at the British Steel coking works at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, in June 1984.

About 10,000 NUM pickets (Scargill among them), seeking to halt the transfer of coal into the plant and coke out of it, were allowed to assemble – suggesting a set-up – and were then forced back by at least 5,000 police officers, using horseback baton charges and snatch squads. It was a payback for Scargill’s greatest triumph, the Saltley coke works closure in Birmingham during the 1972 strike. But the payback came at a severe cost. The prosecutions against 93 arrested pickets collapsed because the police evidence was unreliable. South Yorkshire Police, sued for malicious prosecution and assault, later paid £425,000 compensation and £100,000 in legal costs to 39 pickets in an out-of-court settlement. The force referred itself to the IPCC in 2012 after a BBC Yorkshire Inside Out documentary discovered identical wording in 34 separate statements by police, triggering an energetic campaign for a full public inquiry.

At Shirebrook, the police were crucial in securing a gradual return to work. This did not reach critical mass until November, by which time the NCB North Derbyshire area director, Ken Moses, had mounted a systematic effort to bus miners back.
 

****
 

To help me “understand” how it had been, Alan Gascoyne gave me a DVD of a June 1984 ITN film made in the village. It shows fighting between pickets and police escorting working miners. From the pavement, women and children shout “Scab”; working miners’ wives complain about intimidation: smashed windows at their homes, bullying of their children at school; a striker is hospitalised for several days after an attack by a working miner. The young, long-haired Gascoyne tells ITN: “We had a meeting – there were 700 there – and we decided that our members wouldn’t work with people who had crossed picket lines.”

It didn’t turn out like that. Gascoyne still despises those who worked from the start of the strike. But he took a different view of those who returned from November 1984 onwards – by which time Scargill’s promise of dwindling coal stocks and “General Winter” coming to their rescue was, Gascoyne says, “all bollocks”. By February 2005, 70 per cent of Shirebrook miners, many of them desperate, had gone back to work.

There is a moment in the film Billy Elliot when Jackie, a loyal NUM member, crosses the picket line to fund his son’s dream of becoming a ballet dancer. Something similar was happening here. “I had a guy come to me at Christmas, a face chargeman, in tears. He was losing his house. His wife was going to go, he’d got all these debts. So I said: ‘We’ve lost, kid, so get back to work.’ ”

Gascoyne, on strike until the end, was re-elected the following July. While his hatred of Thatcher is undimmed – “I wish she’d been burned at the stake” – he retains a certain respect for the late Ken Moses, whom he confronted at a secret night-time meeting convened during the strike by Stephen Verney, the then bishop of Repton, who had served undercover with Greek guerrillas in Nazi-occupied Crete and wanted to hear “both sides of the argument”.

Gascoyne had come from the trial of six young striking miners (who like most of the thousands arrested had never been in trouble with the police before), jailed for setting fire to empty buses used to bring working miners to the pit.

“Moses said: ‘They’ll never work again, them lads. We don’t want arsonists.’

“So I said, ‘Bishop Stephen, he thinks he’s higher than your boss, the Lord. Society says these lads are going to prison but he’s not satisfied with that.’ So the bishop, he was nice and quietly spoken, says: ‘Kenneth, I think you should reconsider that.’ ”

Which Moses promised he would – and eventually agree three years later that the men could be “set back on” at Shirebrook. Unlike MacGregor, Moses had started out at the coalface.

South Yorkshire Police grapple with the pickets outside the Doncaster NCB headquarters, March 1984. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Could another strategy have produced a different outcome? Gascoyne doesn’t think a national ballot would have helped the miners, and argues that Nottinghamshire still would not have joined the strike. But there is a strong counter-case. A successful ballot would have afforded the last chance to bring Nottingham out, and so increased support from other unionists who were wary of risking their own jobs when even the miners were continuing to work in the second-largest coalfield. The NUM leadership’s argument against a ballot was that a man in one area did not have the right to vote a man in another out of a job – which could happen if the members rejected a strike, as the NUM leadership reasoned they might.

After all, a year earlier, in 1983, a national ballot had heavily rejected a strike against the closure of Lewis Merthyr Colliery in the Rhondda Valley. Unlike at Shirebrook, the old Lewis Merthyr mineworkings have been preserved in the Rhondda Heritage Park. You can see the winding house with its 1890 steam engine, visit the lamp-room, put on a miner’s helmet and descend to the pit bottom in the cage. Above ground, an elegiac printed notice describes the “two most dramatic episodes” in the pit’s history – a 1956 gas explosion that killed nine men, and a three-day underground sit-in protest by 27 miners in 1983, emerging to a “tumultuous heroes’ welcome”. The notice also says that pits “continued to be closed . . . until a . . . strike by the NUM in 1984-85 ended in bitterness and failure. Yet what else could the miners have done?”

A smaller metal plaque commemorates the official inauguration of the heritage park after the 1987 general election by the minister who, despite his triumphs in the strike, had failed to win promotion: “Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Wales”. The man who had helped to turn the industry into a museum piece got to open the museum.

But mining at Lewis Merthyr was especially difficult and dangerous, a legacy of Victorian coal-owners who plundered the best seams with scant regard for sound engineering principles. Peter Heathfield, then still the North Derbyshire area secretary, told me that his members were saying they would not work in the pit, let alone strike to keep it open.

So the No vote on Lewis Merthyr was not necessarily a persuasive precedent. Two MORI polls of miners – in March and April 1984 – showed majorities of over 60 per cent in favour of a strike. Accepting that a ballot might well have been won, Ken Capstick, an NUM ally of Scargill’s, argued after the strike that organising a vote would have seemed “like giving in”, adding: “You’ve got to remember that we had lads . . . who were picketing every day, total commitment. And they were saying, ‘Shove your ballot up your arse.’ They looked at it that Margaret Thatcher wanted a ballot, Ian MacGregor wanted a ballot, the media wanted a ballot, and they weren’t going to have one.”

But while it was assumed that the government was confident that a ballot would be lost, it is now clear from the cabinet papers that ministers were anything but.

Another criticism, levelled with hindsight by some prominent NUM left-wingers, was over mass picketing: that the highly publicised violence it generated came at the expense of the task of building wider public support for the case for coal. Early in the strike, moreover, NUM South Wales leaders agreed with the steel unions that enough coal would be allowed into the Llanwern steelworks to keep the blast furnaces working. Scargill outlawed such “sweetheart deals” and insisted on picketing to try to stop all supplies to the steelworks. The result was up to 150 trucks loaded with coal and iron ore trundling daily up the M4 from Port Talbot and, thanks to a huge police presence, in to Llanwern.
 

****
 

“It’s all down to one man?” the Queen asked the Times’s labour editor, Paul Routledge, on a visit to the paper late in the strike. Routledge answered that he did not think one man could bring 100,000 men out on strike; but later wrote that he “owed the Queen an apology” and that “by this time” it was down to one man. He was right both times; many tens of thousands of miners were not “brought out” by Scargill but struck to save the industry, or out of loyalty to their local leaders, or because not crossing a picket line was in the DNA, or all of these. But Routledge was also right that “one word” from him could have ended the strike before the scarcely believable hardship of the final months. “And that’s really why people turned against Arthur as a leader,” Gascoyne says now. “There’s a time when enough is enough.”

The last hope, at least of compromise, had passed in late October 1984, when a deal was reached with the pit deputies’ union Nacods (the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers) after it threatened an all-out strike. Because of its members’ statutory safety responsibilities, this would have shut down the Nottinghamshire coalfield.

At a 30th-anniversary conference at King’s College London this year, Neil Kinnock, still scarred by the torments inflicted on him by the strike, and John Monks, at the time head of the Congress House industrial relations department, described their efforts through the summer and early autumn of 1984 to persuade Scargill to overcome his insistence that no pit could close on economic grounds. Much of this discussion revolved around a proposal that pits would be subject to closure if they could not be “beneficially” (the word was used deliberately instead of “economically”) mined. This was a masterpiece of creative ambiguity which TUC officials thought would allow the NUM president to claim victory, on the grounds that it took into account a pit’s social value as well as its mere profitability. Certainly a hawkish Times leader at the time complained about exactly that, arguing that “beneficial” was not an “innocent word”.

Finally, the TUC’s efforts to leverage the Nacods strike threat into a settlement with the NUM foundered when Scargill summarily rejected the deal accepted by Nacods. This would have provided for any planned pit closure to go before an independent, if non-binding, review body. That review procedure did not save a single pit. But TUC officials believed that with the NUM’s (and their own) authority behind it, it would have had much greater traction. Either way, with the Nacods danger passed, MacGregor and the government were now intent on all-out victory.

Scargill was right in foreseeing the industry’s ultimate destruction. Gascoyne says: “They hate miners, Tories. Always have done. Always will do.” He believes the last hope for the industry evaporated with Labour’s defeat in the 1992 general election – and is convinced that the reduction of the 160 UK deep mines in 1984 to just three today (and a single one by next year), with the loss of 142,000 jobs, “will come back to haunt” the Conservatives.
 

****
 

Deeply unfashionable because of carbon emissions, coal is nevertheless still the single fuel most commonly used (41 per cent) to generate electricity in Britain. It’s hard for ex-miners to accept that today 90 per cent of our power-station coal is imported, the largest single source being Russia (38 per cent). David Cameron, for geopolitical reasons flowing from the Ukraine crisis, is now arguing that Britain should be less dependent on Russia, and should therefore pursue the unproven domestic alternative of shale gas extracted through fracking.

The cost argument prevailed, though it’s a moot point whether the market intervention required for large-scale investment in the most potentially productive Midlands and Yorkshire coalfields, coupled with the development of clean coal technology, would have been any greater than the present one for nuclear power, with EDF now guaranteed twice the standard wholesale electricity price for building the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant. At the very least, the British coal industry could have been obliged – as its counterpart in much more “corporatist” and co-determinist Germany has done – to diversify into other industries employing ex-miners, and retraining them before they become redundant, with much less damage to pit communities.

So what were the legacies beyond the coal industry? One arose from the aggressive policing of the strike and was woefully under-reported at the time.

Settling Scores makes a persuasive case on what its editor, Granville Williams, calls the “many parallels” between the role of the “media, South Yorkshire Police and politicians” over Hillsborough and the steelworks battle five years earlier. Indeed, it is hard to challenge the belief of many former miners that, without Orgreave, the lethal malfeasance – and subsequent cover-up – by South Yorkshire Police at Hillsborough would not have happened. The Thatcher government’s elevation of the police above the norms of local accountability, not to mention the law, surely helped to instil in them a lasting sense of impunity, which is only, slowly, unravelling today.

In her memoirs Thatcher summed up how she saw the strike’s outcome:

From 1972 to 1985 the conventional wisdom was that Britain could only be governed with the consent of the trade unions . . . Even as we were reforming trade union law and overcoming lesser disputes . . . many on the left and outside it continued to believe that the miners had the ultimate veto and would one day use it. That day had now come and gone.

While Scargill’s most devoted supporters rejected it, Thatcher’s boast was not seriously challenged elsewhere, not even by several in the NUM’s own Labour-left/communist caucus – any more than was her confident belief that she had seen off the consensus that had prevailed, however modified by Tory governments since Attlee. The union was not destroyed when the miners went back without an agreement in March 1985. Thatcher continued to think a second national strike over closures possible. Yet it is hard now to see how the union could have commanded support for one. Terry Thomas, the left-wing NUM vice-president in South Wales during the strike and a supporter of Scargill’s presidential campaign in 1982, successfully proposed the return to work resolution at the special conference in March. He told me 30 years later at his home in Gowerton, near Swansea:

The men returned to work not because they had stopped believing in what they were fighting for . . . Houses were being repossessed, marriages were breaking up, the kids were going without, and there was no end in sight. We were not now picketing steelworkers to try and stop coal or steel. We were picketing people who had stood on the picket lines with us for a whole year. Proud, strong miners crying because they were going back to work. We had no right to demand that they continue with the strike.

Thomas sees it as a “defeat for the whole working class, a defeat for us all”, without which the battery of exploitative employment practices, such as zero-hours contracts, would not have been possible a generation later. “If ever the trade union movement needed a victory which could prove to people that they need to protect their rights, it’s now.”

It is certainly impossible to separate yawning income inequality from the halving of union membership since its 1979 peak. By ending the syndicalist dream, the defeat “clarified” for the left, to the eventual benefit of a transformed Labour Party, that the ballot box was the only way to effect political change in Britain. But something else, more social democratic than syndicalist, got lost, too. Because the NUM was the trade unions’ praetorian guard, the defeat robbed organised labour of an important source of its self-confidence. It hastened the erosion of the trade unions’ role in a political settlement that had lasted not only since 1972, or even 1945, but – for all its ups and downs – since Edwardian times.

In saying that the NUM had “blown its industrial strength”, David Basnett, the then leader of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, had in mind not only the coal industry but the TUC’s wider authority, underpinned by the power of its strongest affiliate. The National Economic Development Council and the Manpower Services Commission (set up by the Macmillan and Heath governments), on which the unions had sat on equal terms with the employers, were just two casualties.

For Thatcher, and probably for Scargill, these tripartite bodies were undesirably corporatist. But they provided a platform from which to challenge, or at least counterbalance, the increasing influence of a deregulated City of London, to lend institutional respectability to protests at the grotesque distortion, recently depicted by Oxfam, that today leaves five families, including Mike Ashley’s, owning more in wealth and assets than the 20 per cent of Britons – 12.6 million people – who are worst-off.

Much of Margaret Thatcher’s new neoliberal settlement, replacing the old social-democratic one, survived and indeed helped to shape New Labour. As she saw it, the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-85 cut the brake on the application of largely unrestrained market forces, not only in energy but in the wider ordering of society. At a time, post-2008 crash, when it is no longer so taboo to question the efficacy of unregula­ted markets, that is something to mourn.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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