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Misunderstanding the present: Ed Miliband wants to govern a country that doesn’t exist

For all their lapses, the Labour leaders of the past had a firmer grasp of reality than their contemporary counterparts.

Illustration by Matt Murphy

If anything defines Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party, it is the belief that British politics has reached an inflexion point like the one that enabled Margaret Thatcher to come to power. He has often expressed admiration for Thatcher’s determination to effect radical change and, while having quite different goals, seems to see himself as a conviction politician in a similar mould. At the same time, he is said to believe that Labour can return to government by marshalling its core support. But it is hard to accept that the Labour leader – a formidably clever individual with a highly developed sense of having a distinctive political destiny – has really subscribed to this strategy.

Large-scale socio-economic changes have been eroding traditional voting patterns for many years. Now, with its Scottish bastions crumbling, its support among ethnic minorities weaker, working-class voters in the English north and Wales defecting to Ukip and the Greens posing a mounting challenge on the left that could deny it seats in marginal constituencies, Labour finds that the built-in advantage that it has as a result of the coalition’s failure to reform constituency boundaries can’t be relied on to make it the single largest party in the Commons.

But Miliband’s leadership isn’t based on psephological calculation of this kind. He is convinced, with Thatcher-like certainty, that Britain is ready for a fundamental shift in direction. Speaking to Jason Cowley in 2012, he declared: “For me it’s a centre-left moment because people think there’s something unfair and unjust about our society. You’ve got to bring the vested interests to heel; you’ve got to change the way the economy works.”

In Thatcher’s case, the belief that Britain was ready for radical change reflected a palpable sense of national emergency, epitomised in the industrial conflicts of the mid-1970s, the IMF bailout of 1976 and the “Winter of Discontent”. For some today, the 1970s may represent the high point of British social democracy, a pre­lapsarian golden age that Thatcher wantonly destroyed; but at the time there was widespread acceptance that the postwar settlement was no longer viable. Few in mainstream politics or her party were prepared for Thatcher’s assault on the existing order. In academia, much of which was engrossed in introverted controversies over ephemeral orthodoxies such as postmodernism and structuralism, her policies came as a bolt from the blue. Even so, an expectation of impending upheaval was in the air.

It is easily forgotten that the 1970s were a time when sections of the political class were gripped by an apocalyptic sense of foreboding. James Callaghan may have scoffed at talk of crisis but the left was possessed by fantasies of building socialism behind the walls of a siege economy, while on the fringes of the right there was wild talk of a communist takeover and counter-coups. There is no comparable sense of national crisis at present. Many may resent the excessive rewards still being doled out in the financial sector; some may believe (as I do) that the marketisation of public services has gone too far and should be rolled back. A few may suspect that the financial crisis is far from over and the global economy is entering another dangerous phase. But there is no sense that the British brand of capitalism faces a crisis of its own. The conditions that allowed a shift of regime to occur in 1979 simply don’t exist today.

The belief that large numbers of voters are yearning for a major alteration in Britain’s political economy – a rejigged version of socialism, or some hypothetical variety of “non-predatory” capitalism – is a delusion that could be fatal for Labour as a party of government. Miliband is misreading British society in ways not altogether dissimilar to those that hobbled Labour in the 1980s and allowed the Conservatives to rule for nearly two decades. It is still imaginable that Labour could emerge in May with enough seats to cobble together a minority government with the support of the SNP, whatever remains of the Liberal Democrats and one or two Greens. It is inconceivable that such a government could endure and bring about anything like the transformation of which the Labour leader dreams.

Thatcher’s rise should serve as a warning to Miliband, not an inspiration. Her emergence as Tory leader was a mirror image of the rejection by Labour of Barbara Castle’s white paper In Place of Strife (1969) – a far-sighted programme of reform that could have removed one of the prime sources of conflict that brought Thatcher to power. If Castle’s proposals had been implemented, Thatcher’s rise would not have been possible. As it was, they were shelved by Labour and Castle remained, along with Denis Healey, one of the great leaders it never had. When it adopted the unelectable Michael Foot as leader in 1980 and split in 1981, Labour sealed its fate, with the SDP ensuring that Thatcher’s tenure in Downing Street went largely unopposed.

Thatcher’s rise was a chapter of accidents. If she had not been selected for Finchley in 1958, reportedly as a result of an electoral fraud committed without her knowledge, in what the outgoing Conservative MP is said to have described as a choice between “a bloody Jew and a bloody woman”; if potential rivals for the party leadership such as Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph had not, in one way or another, ruled themselves out; if her leadership campaign had not been ruthlessly managed by the wartime escaper and arch-intriguer Airey Neave, Thatcher would not have become prime minister. Again, if the Falklands war had turned out badly – as might easily have happened – she would not have survived opposition from within her party as long as she did. But overarching all these contingencies, the precondition of Thatcher’s success was Labour’s continuing failure.

Ed Miliband, photographed for the New Statesman by Kate Peters in 2012

Miliband likes to think that he can achieve something similar to Thatcher’s regime shift – this time towards a more collectivist political economy. But no such turn can command popular support. Thatcher’s vision of society is often described as backward-looking and in some respects it was: the country of her imagination was an ideal version of Britain in the 1950s, a cohesive society based on strong institutions. Ironically, that country was a creation of the Labour settlement that she was bent on dismantling. In the economy she achieved most of her objectives. The power of the unions was curbed, moribund industries were phased out and a more entrepreneurial business culture developed. In social terms the effect of her policies was the opposite of what she had intended. British society became more individualistic but at the same time markedly less bourgeois. The world of solid families and prudent savers to which she harked back was blown away by the choice-driven, debt-based consumer capitalism that she unleashed. She declared that the object of her economic policies was to change the soul of the country. They did – but not in the way she wanted.

The dutiful middle class that Thatcher celebrated is obsolete in a society ruled by an ethos of want-satisfaction and self-realisation. Many other factors contributed to this metamorphosis, not least the erosion of working-class communities by rapid economic change, which was also driven by advancing globalisation. But Thatcher’s policies were crucial. Through their unforeseen impact on social values, they helped obliterate the society she aimed to re-create.

The forces that thwarted Thatcher’s dream of restoring 1950s Britain pose an insuperable obstacle to Miliband’s project. The raffish capitalism that prevails today is Thatcher’s offspring. It is also an economic system that most voters have come to accept. Post-Thatcher Britain is in some ways more divided than the society it replaced. Certainly it displays larger inequalities of income and wealth. At the same time, it is less fixed in its hierarchies and notably less ready to defer to authority. An economy whose emblematic institutions are Primark and Poundland may look rather seedy in the eyes of high-minded moralists. But what reason is there for supposing that voters today will bow to the disapproving frown of any elite?

For the old guard in the party, Thatcher’s sin was not so much that she was a grocer’s daughter but that she refused to emulate its faux-patrician attitudes. Thatcher destroyed the culture of deference in Britain.

For many today, the sniffy view of Britain emanating from the bourgeois enclave of Hampstead, north London, looks decidedly patronising. It’s not that Miliband despises the world that the majority of people inhabit. He just can’t enter into it. This isn’t only his problem, of course.

Labour risks an acute form of the voter alienation that affects all the mainstream parties. It is like other parties in drawing its leaders from a narrow and privileged social stratum: the metropolitan professional classes who can afford to live in good catchment areas or send their children to be educated privately and then support them through years of unpaid internships and think-tank positions. But the rise of this political class is a special vulnerability for a party that claims it speaks for working people. Labour’s problem is that it has only one Alan Johnson. Soon it will have none.

Contrary to Miliband’s Blairite critics, there is no way forward in trying to re­occupy the middle ground. In a time when mainstream politicians are objects of disgust and contempt, the middle ground (if it exists) is no longer a safe place to be. Voters want something different – hence the rise in support for parties of protest. There is a common view that the party system will quickly revert to normalcy, as it did following the upheavals and fragmentation of the 1970s. But if Scotland is in the process of hiving off to form its own political system in a more radically devolved Union, this is an unlikely scenario. Even if the SNP fails to make a breakthrough at Westminster as large as many are expecting, the Scottish Labour contingent is going to be much reduced. With small parties taking larger numbers of seats, coalitions will be hard to hold together. Unsteady minority governments could be the norm for some time. Yet it is not difficult to envision circumstances in which the Conservatives adapt best to this changed political landscape.

Labour will have a future in these new conditions only if it has something new to say. The trouble with Miliband is that he cannot speak a language that voters understand. His instinctive bent is towards a type of academic discourse that has zero popular appeal. If thinkers of the left in the 1970s were absorbed in the fantasy politics of academic Marxism, Miliband is captivated by abstruse fancies such as “predistribution” – the theory, developed by an academic at Yale, according to which inequality can be prevented by changes in the economy, so that old-fashioned redistribution won’t be necessary. Does anyone expect an intellectual conceit of this kind to resonate in the supermarket or the pub?

For all their lapses, the Labour leaders of an older generation had a more reliable sense of reality. It is impossible to imagine Harold Wilson or James Callaghan turning for intellectual succour to a writer such as Thomas Piketty, who has been feted by Miliband’s inner circle. These old Labour warhorses would spot at once the hole at the heart of Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century: no agency is identified that could counteract the built-in tendency to inequality that the book diagnoses.

In this regard, Piketty illustrates a disabling weakness of centre-left thinking at the present time. Whether they take their cue from legalistic philosophies of justice and rights or Marxian theories rejigged with the paraphernalia of contemporary econo­mics, the bien-pensants who are Labour’s leading lights today proceed on the basis that analysis and argument can in themselves have a political effect.

Miliband can hardly be unaware of the gap between how he thinks of politics and how ordinary voters live. But the upshot is speeches such as the one he gave at the Labour conference in September 2014, a dire threnody to togetherness that could have come straight from Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It.

What was most significant in the speech, however, was what it left out. As many have pointed out, there was no mention of immigration or the deficit. No less significantly, Europe featured only as an occasion for vacuous pieties on the need for reform. Considered in the context of Miliband’s project of a new political economy, it is a telling omission. British capitalism has many ugly blemishes. But where is the European model that the left has lauded for its superior moral attributes?

The social market economy has been shredded by the austerity programmes that have become integral to the European project. The eurozone is now a failing neoliberal construction, with levels of economic dereliction and long-term unemployment in many countries (including France) that far exceed anything to be found in Anglo-Saxon economies.

Moreover, European governance is clearly unreformable. The Byzantine system of transnational agencies operating in the shadow of a German imperial veto has allowed a programme of quantitative easing (QE) to be launched by the ECB. But with the interest rate already so low, QE in the eurozone at the present time will have less impact than the programmes that staved off depression in the US and the UK. Europe can do little on the fiscal front, since it does not have a fiscal union or anything that resembles an effective government and never will. In the absence of economic growth, deflation will tighten its grip and economic activity will be stunted across much of the continent. At the same time, politics will become more extreme, volatile and polarised.

Ed Miliband at the 2013 Labour Party conference. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Not so long ago, there was a centre-left tradition of Euroscepticism, which included figures such as Peter Shore, Bryan Gould, Austin Mitchell (and, for that matter, Hugh Gaitskell). Miliband is parroting the delusional consensus of the past few years: the belief that Britain’s long-term future is inevitably in ever closer union with a united Europe.

His unwillingness to commit to a referendum (except under ill-defined conditions in which more power passes to European institutions) may be partly pragmatic in rationale: he does not want to be bogged down in the European question in the event of minority Labour rule. But there is a deeper reason for this stance. Along with the rest of his party, Miliband believes that the future lies with ever more supranational forms of government. To stand aside from this movement would be to place Britain “on the wrong side of history”. There is no factual basis for this piece of progressive wisdom. If Syriza’s victory in Greece does not fracture the eurozone, coming elections in other countries will. Podemos could enter government in Spain and the anti-euro Five Star Movement will grow stronger in Italy, while in France Marine Le Pen will edge closer to the Élysée Palace. Everything points to the European project being derailed by the rising power of parties of the radical left and right.

Plainly, the right is better prepared than Labour to respond to ongoing disintegration in Europe. Yet the beneficiary won’t necessarily be David Cameron. A nimble-footed but essentially insignificant figure, he is as committed as Miliband to an impossible programme of European reform. Others are tooling up to take advantage of the political opportunities the European situation is creating. While Boris Johnson is reinventing himself as a One-Nation Tory, Theresa May is morphing from the scourge of “the nasty party” to a steely defender of public order.

Like Miliband, Cameron may be able to form a government if he can put together enough support from small parties – in his case, the Ulster Unionists and Ukip. But given how intensely he is disliked in his own party, it is hard to see the Tory leader lasting for long in such precarious circumstances and any successor is bound to be more Eurosceptic. The analogy often made between Labour’s divisions in the 1980s and Tory splits on Europe is misplaced. There is no pro-European faction left in the Conservative Party, only a number of more or less radical versions of Euroscepticism, with Cameron increasingly isolated in his determination to keep Britain inside the EU.

An outcome in May that favours Miliband will make Brexit more probable. Whatever Nigel Farage may believe, British voters are not desperate to be out of Europe. The halfway house that Britain has inhabited – in the EU but outside the euro – has proved perfectly tolerable. An in-out referendum in 2016 or 2017 would most likely produce a vote in favour of remaining semi-detached. Voters will not opt to leave until they are persuaded that the status quo has ceased to be viable – and they are not yet convinced. But held against a background of a worsened situation in Europe by a Tory government with a new and more Eurosceptic leader, a later referendum could well take Britain out. In this respect, it is the Conservatives who are on “the right side of history”.

Miliband has waxed on vaguely about a new type of economy. He has had little definite to say on the large issues that confront the UK. No doubt he wants to avoid hostages to fortune. But his silence comes at a cost in uncertainty. If Labour emerges as the largest party in May, he faces the likelihood of needing the support of an expanded SNP presence at Westminster. How will he respond if the price of SNP support is the closure of the Trident base at Faslane – the one demand that Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have made clear is not negotiable?

There may be arguments for downgrading or decommissioning Britain’s nuclear deterrent. With the principal threats coming from terrorism and cyber attacks, it is questionable how much this costly relic of the cold war contributes to national security. Yet is it sensible for the question to be decided as part of a deal to shore up a short-lived minority government?

Ed Miliband’s project amounts to a ragbag of populist measures. Energy price controls were probably never workable. Following the fall of the oil price, Labour has quietly dropped them, but they illustrate the unreality of Miliband’s thinking. The British economy can’t be managed as if the rest of the world didn’t matter. Tinkering about with utility charges that are largely set by global market forces is as absurd as the left’s idea of building socialism behind a wall of protectionism was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Politics after the election is likely to be fraught and financial markets hate uncertainty. What would they make of a government that relied on the support of a party, the SNP, which, if it had prevailed in the Scottish referendum, would now be presiding over a fiscally failed state? Whatever the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 may say, a run on the pound would bring a Miliband administration to an end long before the appointed term had been completed.

When Miliband compares himself with Thatcher, he reveals an impressive degree of self-belief. He also shows a lack of understanding of British politics over the past thirty years. There may be a regime shift afoot in Britain but, if so, it is a second act in the one that began in 1979. Now, as then, it is Labour’s failure that is pivotal. A few years hence, as he contemplates the British scene from the distant sanctuary of Harvard or Yale, Ed Miliband may come to understand how he opened the way to another era of Conservative rule.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Enquiry into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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