Andrew Adonis. Photograph: Getty Images
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Beyond our Berlin Wall

The way to pull down social barriers in England is through reforming education — encouraging private schools to become more involved in the state sector by backing academies. That could also spread excellence.

Two of the greatest challenges in English education today are, first, not just to reduce the number of underperforming comprehensives but to eradicate them, and second, to forge a new settlement between state and private education.

I put these two challenges together because they go together. It is my view, after 20 years of engagement with schools of all types, that England will never have a world-class education system or a “one-nation” society until state and private schools are part of a shared, national endeavour to develop the talents of all young people to the full.

The two also go together, in that academies are at the heart of the solution to both challenges. It is academies that are systematically eradicating failing comprehensives. And academies – as independent state schools – are the vehicle by which private schools can become systematically engaged in establishing and running state-funded schools.

So, just as the challenge is simple – how to unite state schools and private schools in a common endeavour – I believe the solution is also simple. Every successful private school, and private school foundation, should sponsor an academy or academies. They should do this alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, turning themselves into federations of private and state-funded independent schools and following the lead of a growing number of private schools and their foundations that have done precisely this and would not think of going back, including Dulwich, Wellington, the Haberdashers’, the Mercers’, the Girls’ Day School Trust, the City of London Corporation and the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham.

Simple does not mean easy, nor does it mean little. By sponsoring academies I don’t just mean advice and assistance, the loan of playing fields and the odd teacher or joint activity, which is generally what passes for “private state partnership”, however glorified for the Charity Commission. I mean the private school or foundation taking complete responsibility for the governance and leadership of an academy or academies and staking their reputation on their success, as they do on the success of their fee-paying schools.

The roots of the state-private divide are so deep that they reach to the very foundation of state education in England in the 19th century. Historians talk a lot about Gladstone’s Elementary Education Act of 1870, which essentially started state education. But equally significant were Gladstone’s Endowed Schools Acts 1869 and 1873, which turned the great public schools and many of the newer grammar schools previously run in a rackety way by Crown, church or local appointees, into a Victorian equivalent of today’s academies, with independent governing foundations to control their assets, management and leadership. This Victorian academy status greatly strengthened the private schools as institutions. Yet their fees, and the conservative use of their charitable assets by their new governing bodies, kept most of them largely closed to all except the upper and upper middle classes. And so they remained as the state secondary system developed in parallel, and separately, in the decades after the Balfour Education Act 1902.

There was a moment at the end of the Second World War when history might have taken a different turn. An official report, published in 1944 on the day Dwight Eisenhower reviewed his bridgehead in Normandy, said that the social division between private and state schools “made far more difficult the task of those who looked towards a breaking down of those harddrawn class distinctions within society”. Even Winston Churchill, visiting his alma mater Harrow, talked to the boys of “broadening the intake” and of the public schools becoming more and more based on aspiring youth “in every class of the nation”.

But it didn’t happen. Two generations later, the only significant changes to the private school system are that it is larger and richer, and its average educational attainment has risen to among the highest in the world.

The reason for the failure of postwar policy to overcome the private-state divide can be explained simply. Both sides of politics, and both sides of education, positively wanted the divide to continue. So, for differing reasons, they adopted a one-word policy in respect of private schools: isolation.

On the Labour side, ideological antipathy to fee-paying, and later also to selective, education bred often intense hostility. But the social and legal position of the private schools –plus, paradoxically, the personal educational preferences of Labour leaders from Attlee to Wilson and Callaghan – kept at bay any attack beyond the rhetorical, except for the withdrawal of state funding schemes for small numbers of pupils to attend private schools.

I treasure Roy Jenkins’s exchange with Harold Wilson when turning down Wilson’s offer to become education secretary in 1965. “Looking for an excuse [to decline the job],” he records in his memoirs, “I said that all three of our children were at fee-paying schools and that this surely was an obstacle to being minister of education in a Labour government. Wilson brushed this aside as being of no importance. ‘So were mine,’ he said.” Tony Blair was the first prime minister in history to send his children to state secondary schools.

On the Tory side, there was an equal and opposite isolationism. Most Tory ministers and MPs went to private schools and sent their children to them. They still do. So long as Labour kept the dogs off, they had no desire to court controversy by proposing any role in the state system for private schools and their foundations. Better to let sleeping dogs lie.

So much for the politicians. The leaders of state and private schools were – and many of them remain – similarly isolationist. It was an article of faith among the leaders of the comprehensive movement that private schools were not only socially divisive but also, in their educational practice, largely irrelevant. This is still a pronounced view, even among academy head teachers. They say, to paraphrase: “What can that lot who just spoon-feed the children of the rich ever know about education in Hackney and Knowsley?” As for the heads of the private schools, many of them have been only too eager to agree, especially when the suggestion is made that they might manage academies.

Pressed further, they often say it’s not about ordinary children v privileged children but about non-selective schools vselective schools, an argument made by Sir Eric Anderson when provost of Eton. I found this richly ironic, given that Eton until recently was basically an allability comprehensive for the rich and titled.
 

Writ large

Those on the left, and in the state sector, who see the private schools as an irrelevance need only look at their huge footprint in almost every national elite, from politics and business to the media, sport and the arts. The Cameron- Clegg coalition is an Eton-Westminster coalition. (Westminster School accounted for two of the five Lib Dem ministers in cabinet until Chris Huhne’s resignation, and the rest of the cabinet is practically a roll-call of the other leading private schools.)

To those in the private schools and their governing bodies who are reluctant to embrace academies, I appeal to their professionalism and their charitable missions. It was excusable to stand apart from state-funded education when the state did not want them engaged in the first place. But that is the isolationist politics of the past. With the academies programme, supported across the political divide, they have an opportunity to engage in state-funded education without compromising their independence, renewing for the 21st century their essential moral and charitable purposes.

Depressingly, the politics of private-state school reform is still too often seen in terms of cash transactions. On the left, the conventional wisdom is that charitable status gives an unfair subsidy to private schools which ought to be ended, while some private school leaders and governors, whenever it is suggested that they might sponsor academies or otherwise support state education in a non-tokenistic way, retort that their parents are already paying twice for education, through their taxes and their school fees, so why should they pay a third time over? Some say they would rather “give up” charitable status than be expected to do this.

Both these approaches are misconceived, for they fundamentally misunderstand the position of private schools as charities. “Charitable status” is not a badge that can be awarded or taken away from the assets of private schools by the Charity Commission for good or bad behaviour. Nor could the government do this, nor even parliament, unless charitable assets nationwide are to be held liable to random nationalisation. Rather, it is fundamental to their being, like blood in a mammal.

The assets of Eton, Westminster, Winchester and the rest are vested in their present trustees and managers on the understanding that they be deployed for charitable purposes. Private school charities can no more “give up” charitable status than they can have it stripped from them. If they do not wish to continue as charities, or if they are unwilling to perform genuine charitable endeavour, then their highly valuable charitable assets should be passed into hands willing to do so. If the governors of Westminster School, for instance, then want to set up a separate, non-charitable trust solely or very largely concerned with the education of those able to pay their fees of £31,000 a year, that is up to them.

The charitable purposes of these institutions could not be clearer. William of Wykeham established Winchester for the education mainly of poor scholars, and only a small number of “noble commoners”. Henry VI set up Eton for poor scholars. Charterhouse was established by Sir Thomas Sutton, the wealthiest commoner in England, for – yes, more poor scholars. Elizabeth I endowed Westminster School for the same purpose; to this day it is an integral part of Westminster Abbey. John Lyon set up Harrow in 1572 as a free grammar school for the education of boys of the parish of Harrow.
 

Conscience and duty

I could go on through the statutes, charters and founding deeds of hundreds of private schools. It shouldn’t take the Charity Commission to challenge private school foundations about their charitable mission. Their trustees and governors should look to them constantly as a matter of conscience and duty.

With each passing decade many of these schools have become more, not less exclusive, and for generations now few of them have done anything bold to reconnect with their charitable purpose. Most of them are seeking to provide a few more bursaries. Yet it is hard to argue that this is enough, when they could also be running academies whose central purpose is the mission for which their assets were intended in the first place.

As for the idea that these great schools and foundations are not capable of making a success of academies with a more challenging pupil intake, it is a comic proposition. The governing body of Eton is chaired by the former Conservative minister William Waldegrave. Its members include three professors, three knights, five PhDs and a Prussian princess. Westminster School’s governing body is chaired by the Dean of Westminster – John Hall, the former chief education officer of the Church of England who was the driving force behind the Church’s decision to set up more than 30 academies. His fellow governors include the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, three professors, two canons, two knights, one baron and one dame.

Almost every private school governing body in the country is a catalogue of the very great and the very good, locally or nationally, including business, religious and educational leaders.

The notion that these organisations, if they have the will to do so, cannot command the resources and the expertise needed to run a successful school or schools in less advantaged areas – if that were true, England would indeed be Greece, about to default on its whole society and not just its state borrowing.

However, there is no need to argue by assertion. The leaders are there. Dulwich is spon - soring an academy in Sheppey. Wellington is sponsoring an academy in Wiltshire. The King Edward VI Foundation is sponsoring an academy in Sheldon, east Birmingham. All these academies replace failing comprehensives. The Girls’ Day School Trust has converted two of its outstanding private schools, in Liverpool and Birkenhead, into state academies. And five substantial academy chains – built up by the Mercers’ Company, the Haberdashers’ Company, the Woodard Corporation, the United Church Schools Trust and the City of London Corporation – have grown out of the management of historic chains of private schools, leveraging this expertise and experience in education to service academies alongside. With vision and leadership, there could be hundreds more academies sponsored by private school foundations.

It would also be good to see successful independent day schools convert to become academies. It was one of my main objectives for the academies programme, as minister for schools, that it should be a vehicle for a modern version of the “direct grant” scheme, which until its abolition in the 1970s made it possible for leading independent grammar schools to be state funded without charging fees. I had in mind a simple model. The private school would become an academy, fully retaining its independent management and character but without fees for any pupils. It would exchange academically selective admission for all-ability admission, with a large catchment area and “banded” admissions so as to ensure a fully comprehensive ability range. There would also be a large sixth form, underpinning continued very strong academic performance.

A direct-grant sector on these lines is gathering scale. I encouraged and oversaw the transition of five historic fee-paying secondary schools to academy status (William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester, the Belvedere School in Liverpool, Birkenhead High School, and Colston’s Girls’ and Bristol Cathedral schools in Bristol). All five are still performing strongly as academies, while expanding their intake and greatly broadening their social range. The Cameron government has continued this policy. Liverpool College and the King’s School, Tynemouth – both highly successful independent day schools in localities that suffer from high levels of deprivation – have recently decided to become academies.

With government encouragement, there could soon be 50 or 60 more “direct grant” academies. Over time, these direct grant academies could sponsor new academies, replicating their ethos and success within the system.

I recently visited the Petchey Academy, one of the five such schools in Hackney, east London, sponsored by Jack Petchey, a great East End philanthropist. His academy isn’t just about examination results; it is about education for character, for community and for citizenship. This is done brilliantly, in one of London’s most deprived communities.

The staff were particularly keen that I should see debating teams from Years 10 and 11 debate before the whole of both year groups. The debaters were articulate and well prepared, just like the pupils in all those private school debating societies.

The motion they were debating was: “This House would abolish the private schools.” It was carried by two to one. All the old arguments were aired. Unfairness. Privilege. Elitism. Afterwards, I asked the girl who had led the charge whether she had ever visited a private school. “Of course not,” she said. “Why would they want to have anything to do with anyone from around here?”

Why indeed. It is time to bury the past and build a better future.

Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer and served as schools minister from 2005-2008. For a unique New Statesman reader offer on his new book, “Education, Education, Education” – just £8 (rrp £12.99), signed and with a personalised inscription – visit bitebackpublishing.com and enter the promotional code: NSEducation.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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