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Tom Holland on our island story: what England and Scotland share politically and morally

Magna Carta and the Declaration of Arbroath, Boswell and Johnson, Walter Scott and Disraeli – Scotland and England have long mirrored each other in many ways, says Tom Holland. 

Making of a myth: the Wallace Monument near Stirling commemorates the 13th-century hero of Scottish independence

 

The Tarbat Peninsula, a spit of land sticking out from the northernmost Scottish Highlands, seems an unlikely spot for a revolution. At its tip stands a lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle back in 1830 after a deadly storm in the adjacent Moray Firth; a few miles south lies the tiny fishing village of Portmahomack. Most visitors there today are tourists, attracted by its picturesque harbour and sandy beach; but back in the mid-6th century it was the scene of a momentous experiment.

A band of ascetics, wandering enthusiasts for an exotic new religion named Christianity, arrived at the court of a local king. Simultaneously intrigued and suspicious, he granted them some unwanted land on which to found a community. “The Haven of Saint Colmóc” – “Port Mo Chalmaig” – was the first ever monastery on the coast of Easter Ross. For 250 years, until it was destroyed by a terrible fire at the beginning of the 9th century, Portmahomack was one of the most celebrated places in Britain.

That it is impossible to be certain who either the king or “Saint Colmóc” was reminds us just how dark the Dark Ages can be. Various shocking details were reported of the people among whom Portmahomack was founded. It was said that they had come from Scythia; that they fought naked; that they were ruled by women who kept whole troupes of husbands. Most notoriously of all, they were reported to tattoo themselves: a barbarous habit that had led them to being nicknamed “Picti”, or “painted people”. A people more hostile to the norms of southern lands it would have been hard to imagine. Even the Romans had given up trying to tame them. Yet where the legions had failed, a hardy band of monks had succeeded. An outpost of Mediterranean culture had been successfully planted in the farthest north.

The coming of Christianity to Pictland was part of a much broader process that ultimately united the whole of Great Britain in a common religious culture. Pagan rulers, when they submitted to baptism, were rarely signing up to the poverty and pacifism preached by monks. What appealed instead was the awesome potency of the Christian God. Membership of the Church attracted those with broad horizons and a taste for self-enrichment.

Yet conversion to Christianity was never a one-way street. At Portmahomack, the missionaries were influenced by native customs, as well as vice versa. The tradition of holy men possessed of a privileged relationship to the supernatural was not unknown to the Picts. Even the tonsure worn by the monks derived from the Druids. The very stonework of the monastery was incised with patterns already ancient when the Romans had first arrived in Britain. The decision to become Christian did not, for the peoples of Pictland, imply surrender to an alien power. Rather, it reflected a creative engagement with the world beyond their various kingdoms.

In the words of Martin Carver, the archaeologist who led the recent excavation of Portmahomack, “People were arguing about their future, choosing with whom to align, and expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds.”

Today, when the people of erstwhile Pictland are once again arguing about their future and choosing with whom to align (albeit not necessarily expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds), it is valuable to remember just how protracted the emergence of a united kingdom within Great Britain was. The Act of Union between England and Scotland was only the final waymark on a journey that had begun as the island was becoming Christian. The notion back then of unifying it as a single kingdom would have appeared laughable. The Picts, so the great Northumbrian historian Bede reported, were only one of four different groups of people who inhabited Britain – and these four peoples were in turn forever fighting among themselves. The English, according to tradition, were like the Picts in being divided up into seven kingdoms; the Welsh, despite ruling a huge stretch of western Britain, from the Severn all the way to the mighty rock of Dumbarton, were even more balkanised; the Scots, penned in to what is now Argyll, were so isolated from their landward neighbours by the mountains of the central Highlands that they ended up inventing an Irish ancestry for themselves. Great Britain in the early Middle Ages could hardly have been more fragmented.

In this way, inevitably, the process by which a bewildering multitude of fractious statelets came to be forged into twin united kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south of the island, was bloody and complex. Perhaps, if the Vikings had not descended on Britain, it would never have happened. The destruction visited on Portmahomack, which was almost certainly their doing, was repeated across the island. Whole kingdoms went down in flames. Where there was ruin, however, there was also opportunity. The kings of Wessex, the only English rulers to stand proof against the Viking firestorm, succeeded in fashioning out of the rubble left by the invaders a united “Angle Land”. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, could plausibly claim to be Rex totius Britanniae – “king of the whole of Britain”.

Nevertheless, there soon emerged limits to the reach of the precocious new English state. The northernmost marches of Angle Land were remote from its centre of gravity in the southern lowlands. The great rock of Edinburgh, which had been in English hands since the 7th century, was lost to it soon after Athelstan’s death. So, too, some six decades later, was Lothian. A new power, fashioned just as England had been carved out of numerous toppled kingdoms, had arrived on the scene.

The forging of “Scot Land” was in many ways an even more remarkable achievement than that of Angle Land. By the early 12th century, three different groups of peoples, each originally speaking a different language, had come to think of themselves as “Scots”. Two of these, the Welsh and the Picts, had been subsumed so thoroughly into the Gaelic-speaking culture of their new overlords that their identities had vanished. The English-speaking population of Lothian, though, was to prove less assimilable – and with momentous consequences. It ensured that Scotland would be a kingdom of two languages, with Gaelic, in the long run, coming off second-best.

Similarly, the structures and presumptions of English kingship were destined to have a far greater influence on the emergent Scottish realm than the native traditions of the Scots. “It is almost as if,” in the impish words of James Campbell, the leading historian of the Anglo-Saxon state, “there are two Englands and one of them is called Scotland.”

 

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A less provocative way of making the same point might be to say that the two rival kingdoms of Great Britain, having emerged out of such similar circumstances, were in many ways the mirror image of one another. England and Scotland, despite their consistently bloody border, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages in ways that were strikingly parallel.

Both, after the Norman conquest of 1066, had a French overlay added to their respective mixes of native cultures; both, in the 13th and 14th centuries, began to define themselves in terms of an emergent sense of national selfhood. The age of Wallace and Bruce, which more than any other period of Scottish history has inspired Scots down the ages to see themselves as distinct from the English, also highlights something else: the strikingly similar ways in which the two peoples mythologise themselves.

Edward I, whose taste for hammering the Scots was what forced them into their desperate and ultimately heroic fightback, was also the first king with an English name since 1066, and a noted enthusiast for the Matter of Britain, as the legends of Arthur were known. This was not just coincidence. Edward’s predecessors, as befitted heirs of William the Conqueror, had preferred France to Scotland as a field for throwing their weight around; yet it was clear, by the time Edward came to the throne, that Normandy and the other French possessions of the English crown were gone for good. Scotland had become, as a result, more self-consciously English – but so, too, had the people it ruled.

Tellingly, the king who had lost Normandy, Edward’s grandfather John, was the same king who had signed in 1215 a document that would end up enshrined as the very foundation stone of English liberty: Magna Carta. Edward himself, desperate to fund his wars, was forced in 1297 to reissue the “Great Charter” in return for a new tax. Then, a couple of decades later, it was the turn of Scottish barons to pose as the defenders of their people’s rights. In 1320, with the war of independence finally won, they assembled at Arbroath Abbey and set their seals on a momentous document of their own. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” so it stirringly declared, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.”

A manifesto pledge understandably popular with the SNP today; and yet, in truth, the principles articulated in the Declaration of Arbroath were quite as pan-nationalist in their implications as they were nationalist. Like Magna Carta, it came to serve the people of a British kingdom as something truly precious: an assurance that no one, not even a king, should be above the law. Understandably anglophobic in tone though it was, its ultimate significance lay in ensuring that Scots and English would end up treasuring similar ideals.

This, as their fortunes became ever more entwined in the 16th and 17th centuries, proved fundamental in providing the peoples of the twin kingdoms with a genuinely British political culture. Increasingly, to many Scots and English, what divided them came to seem of less moment than what they shared.

Granted, this did not prevent the road to a united kingdom of Great Britain from proving almost as bloodstained as the forging of Scot Land and Angle Land had been. Even though the Scottish king James VI, when he succeeded to the English throne as James I, rejoiced in describing himself as monarch of “Magna Britannia”, the failure of his son to respect the fault lines that still divided the two realms later played a critical role in the descent of both into civil war.

Under Charles I, the Protestantism that was the shared legacy of the Reformation in the two countries began to set them at each other’s throat. In Scotland, Charles’s attempt to impose the Anglican Prayer Book precipitated in 1638 a particularly startling exercise in popular democracy, as congregations across the kingdom swore to uphold a “National Covenant”, “against all sorts of persons whatsoever”.

This, naturally, cast the Scots themselves as a Chosen People – a conceit so invigorating to Scottish morale that over the following decade entire armies of Covenanters ended up intervening directly in England. There, however, the challenge facing them was not how alien their southern neighbours were, but how similar. The English were no less prone to thinking of themselves as God’s elect than the Scots – and to such crushing effect that Oliver Cromwell, after his stunning victory at Dunbar in 1650, was able for the first time to impose a political union on the whole of Great Britain.

This particular dispensation, maintained as it was at the point of a sword, did not outlast the Lord Protector; and it took two Acts of Union, one passed by the English parliament in 1706, and one by the Scottish parliament in 1707, finally to meld the two chosen peoples, Israel and Judah, into a single nation. Unpopular as this was with many in both countries, a largely loveless marriage of convenience brokered by governing and commercial elites, the fact that the Union had been secured at all suggests the degree to which differences between Scotland and England – although still eye-catching, to be sure – had become increasingly skin-deep.

To those resentful of the nation that came officially into being on May Day 1707, it was a terrible false turn. That the contours of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom still remain so clearly distinct and defined, three centuries on, has encouraged some, particularly in Scotland, to cast British identity as a kind of knotweed: alien, invasive, positively demanding to be uprooted. It is this, no doubt, that gives to so much nationalist rhetoric its decidedly 17th-century flavour. Lurking behind many of the arguments in favour of Scottish independence lurks a presumption – sometimes left unspoken, sometimes not – that the Scots are a blessedly egalitarian and moral people, denied their chance to establish a social-democratic paradise only by evil neoliberals south of the border.

That Scotland, in reality, has become ever less keen on redistributive measures the longer its government has been devolved unsettles the true believers not a jot. The hold of the Kirk may have weakened; but as in the 17th century, so in the 21st: faith rarely derives from statistics.

If the Tories stalk the nationalist imagination as equivalents of Charles I, then the Yes campaign, with its fulminations against the iniquities of London bankers and the bedroom tax, has more than an echo of the Covenanter movement. There is mileage still to be had in appealing to the Scots as a chosen people.

Detail from Rowlandson's 1786 caricature of Johnson and Boswell walking arm in arm in Edinburgh

 

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Yet, for 300 years now, they – and the English and the Welsh, too – have had the chance to direct their gaze beyond the medieval limits of their respective kingdoms, and to work for the common good, not just of their own countrymen, but of all the peoples of Great Britain. So habituated have we become to our domestic stability that we forget just what an achievement it was, after the rack and ruin of the 17th century, to fashion an enduring peace across this island. In 1751, a mere six years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites had reached Derby, and five after the slaughter of Culloden, the war secretary could stand up in the Westminster parliament and praise Highland soldiers as the best in the British army.

A decade later, the most celebrated of all Anglo-Scottish friendships began when James Boswell met Dr Johnson in a Covent Garden coffee shop. There is surely no more moving or joyous expression of what the Union has meant in practice than Rowlandson’s marvellous cartoon of the two men, Walking Up the High Street. The emergent Britishness that enabled the gruffly English Johnson and the twitchily Scottish Boswell to end up sharing a sense of commonality would be fundamental, too, in enabling their countrymen, so long divided, to change the world. Enlightenment and industrialisation; empire and the spread of the English language; the defeat of fascism and the establishment of a welfare state: the achievements of the United Kingdom, for good and ill, have been on a vastly greater scale than anything achieved by England or Scotland on its own.

Not that this is necessarily an argument for maintaining the Union in its present form; indeed, for those ashamed of what Britain got up to in her swaggering heyday it can easily seem an argument for breaking it up. “Ukania”, Tom Nairn memorably termed the British state: a Ruritanian ghoul unable to escape the taint of its early-modern origins. Linda Colley argued that with many of the raisons d’être that had initially contributed to the forging of a British identity – Protestantism, empire and detestation of the French – no longer what they were, “Britain is bound now to be under immense pressure”. Perhaps – except that the circumstances that brought about the united kingdoms of England and Scotland are no longer what they were, either, yet both are still going strong. The sharing of ideals and traditions that enabled distinct nations to be forged out of the once-independent realms of Wessex and Northumbria, of Pictland and Dál Riata, have long since become the common heritage of everyone on the island. The values traced by the English back to Magna Carta, and by the Scots to the Declaration of Arbroath, were mingling and merging even before the Act of Union. Right and left in Britain: both have derived their principles from all the corners of Great Britain. They bear the imprint of Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli; of Robert Owen and Keir Hardie. The fluttering of Union Jacks over foreign battlefields was never the essence of British identity – although, as the recent D-Day commemorations showed, even that has not entirely lost its power to tug on heartstrings. It is in our shared political and moral culture that all of us who share this island are most truly British.

That culture, however, is hardly something static. Even to articulate the phrase “British values” is to be reminded that the native traditions of Great Britain are no longer the only ingredients of our mongrel identity. A millennium and more after pilgrim monks brought Christianity to Portmahomack, other religions are now in the process of becoming British. The Picts may never have originated in Scythia, as they liked to claim; but today eastern Europeans in their hundreds of thousands have settled in Britain. English identity is already proving inadequate to cope with the scale of recent immigration; nor is there any reason to think that Scottish identity will prove any more absorbent, should similar numbers start to settle north of the Border.

British identity, though, is a different matter: more recent in origin than either Englishness or Scottishness, it is baggier, more capacious, less ethnically centred than either. “Not at all, mate,” Mo Farah said when asked whether he would rather have won his Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Somalia rather than Britain. “This is my country.”

By a profoundly ironic fluke, the invented Britishness that back in the 18th century sent English and Scots out from their native island to conquer much of the world now, in the 21st century, provides the United Kingdom with something incalculably precious: a national identity as well suited as any in Europe to the welcoming and integration of newcomers. Britishness may have lost an empire; but perhaps it has found a role.

Much will depend on whether the United Kingdom holds together. The decision on that, in the short term, rests with the Scottish electorate alone. Nevertheless, all those in the rest of the island who profoundly value their bonds of citizenship with the Scots, who would be distraught to see them become foreigners, and who believe that the referendum, far from separating us, may instead enable us to repledge our vows, can but watch on in hope. British identity remains what it has always been: a journey, not an end.

Tom Holland’s latest book is “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Is it Ruth Davidson's destiny to save the Union?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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