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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

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Planting trees below Turkish bombs in Syria

Under assualt from all sides, the Kurds and their international helpers are trying to “Make Rojava Green Again”.

Turkey’s recent, bloody invasion of Rojava is codenamed “Operation Olive Branch”. It’s a cruel misnomer, and not only because scores of civilians have died in Turkey’s relentless and indiscriminate shelling of the progressive, Kurdish-led autonomous region

Afrin is the isolated western enclave of Rojava  that's currently under assault from Turkish artillery, jets, tanks and Turkish-backed jihadist militias. It’s famed for its four million olive trees – just as the larger eastern province of al-Jazira is “the breadbasket of Syria”, famed for its wheat.

But images of rolling olive groves and wheat blooming in the rich basin of the Euphrates river belie a history of wealth extraction and impoverishment under the Assad regime. Colonial-style oil and wheat monocultures, Turkish control of water supplies and five years of war have starved the earth. 

Kurdish-led ecological committees and like-minded international activists are working to Make Rojava Green Again”, in the words of a new internationally-focused campaign to plant tens of thousands of trees, and work with local farmers to build co-operative ecological structures.

Talk of tree nurseries seems incongruous in a warzone. But the land tells the story of the Kurds’ long repression – and the immense political and cultural challenges they face as they attempt to build a democratic, federalist alternative from the ashes of Syria.

“The attacks from the Turkish state are directly against the idea of an ecological, democratic society based on gender equality,” international volunteer Stefan tells the New Statesman over an encrypted phoneline. “Stopping this project means stopping the fight for a different society.”

Disconnected

Kurds are one of the largest ethnic minorities worldwide without a state of their own, instead largely inhabiting portions of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Their language and culture has long been violently repressed – Kurdish-language education was banned in Syria until the outbreak of civil war, for example. In popular adage, they have “no friends but the mountains”.

The Assad regime used agriculture to wring Kurdish land dry, and keep its farming inhabitants reliant on state support. “Under the Syrian regime it was more or less forbidden to plant trees,” says Ciya, a member of the self-administration’s ecological committee in al-Jazira. “The regime wanted us to grow wheat.” Kurds say the regime enforced deforestation even in the streets of cities like Kobane, as a method of subjugation.

Wheat monoculture. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

Monocultures put the population at perpetual risk of famine, and necessitate large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to keep the soil artificially alive – a short-term solution with ruinous results. A drought in 2007-2008 hit half-a-dozen neighbouring countries, but only in Syria did it become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Kurdish regions of northern Syria were kept dependent on Damascus for other vital necessities, and Kurdish people forced to travel into metropoles to find work.  “Under the Assad regime, the people were really disconnected from their land,” Stefan says.

Revolution

Alone on an island prison with a thousand guards for company following his 1999 capture, the venerated leader of Turkish militia group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan modified his belief in a violent Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vanguard.

Instead, he developed a libertarian ideology of “democratic confederalism”. He calls for a “soft” revolution expanding through the state, with people joining local committees and co-operatives until this "flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented” structure becomes the system of government.

When Assad started pulling forces out of Kurdish-majority regions in 2012, the PKK’s Syrian avatar (the PYD) took control of swathes of the countryside. The region is now formally known as the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”, and informally as Rojava – or “West” in Kurdish.

Perversely, ISIS’ arrival in the area – and their famous defeat by Kurdish-led militias in Kobane – gave Rojava the name on the world stage and the limited military support from the United States it needed to survive. The Kurdish PYG and PYJ militias were lionised for defeating ISIS, even as their intimate allies the PKK continue to be listed as a terror group by the UK, EU and USA.

You’ll have seen orientalising clickbait about “the women fighting ISIS”, but feminism is one of three key tenets of democratic confederalism, along with the grassroots democratisation of government and ecological principles.

British leftists who’ve returned from Rojava say the “woman’s revolution” is the most visible and successful element.  All-female militias aside, each of the thousands of local committees must have 50 per cent female representation – a principle extending to the highest offices of government. (Meanwhile, committees working on domestic issues must have a minimum 40per cent male representation, so men don’t slack off from addressing “womanly” subjects like childcare).

In a historically highly-conservative region, newly-legalised divorces have skyrocketed, while a “woman’s house” on every street provides a safe space as women engage in new educational and co-operative programmes.

Meanwhile, those committees provide a forum to “solve daily questions, organise yourself in a democratic, self-administrated way… [for] society to become conscious of itself again”. For now, they’re the junior partner in a dual-power system with a more traditionally top-down administration, but they provide a forum for ordinary citizens to vote on issues of region-wide significance.

It’s a slow and difficult process, with some neighbourhoods and villages engaging enthusiastically while others remain loyal to Assad or unconvinced of the revolution’s liberal merits. But everyone gets cheap bread and oil, and the flight of millions of refugees into areas now being pounded by Turkish jets shows how highly ordinary people value the security Rojava provides.

War

As Stefan acknowledges, however, the “ecological revolution” is lagging badly behind. Arguments that drought caused the Syrian Civil War are easily over-stated: what is certain is that war destroys the land.

Wells and springs were destroyed by retreating Islamic State forces, who started huge oil fires to shield their flight from American bombers. Depleted uranium, heavy metals, TNT and other toxic carcinogens from spent armaments leach into the soil.

Landfill outside of the city of Derik. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

According to Alan, another Kurdish member of al-Jazira’s ecological committee, “for years now, the Turkish state has restricted the water supply by building many dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and drilling wells along the border line.”

By cutting power availability down to 6 or 12 hours daily, the “self-administration” government of Rojava nonetheless ekes out 75 per cent of its electricity supply from hydroelectric sources. Fully renewable power would be achievable, were it not for Turkish control of their water sources – or the embargo.

Neither Turkey nor the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region allow people, aid or vital supplies to cross their shared borders with Rojava. Ecological ideals of self-sufficiency therefore take on a special urgency, even as circumstances make them all but impossible. Parts to repair and improve the hydro-electric plants cannot get into the country.

The embargo also contributes to a general economic crisis - grand composting and recycling programmes, for example, remain unrealised due to lack of funds.  

On the one hand, tens of thousands of hectares are being opened up to agricultural co-operatives, led by women and young people. On the other, as this frank interview with a Kurdish economic official makes painfully clear, the co-operative or “social” economy in Rojava is still dwarfed by an oil-funded war economy.

25 per cent of crops in al-Jazira are now those – beans, chickpeas – which require no irrigation, up from only 10 per cent before the start of the “revolution.” The local committees’ educational programmes are a far cry from the dubious glamour of the battle against ISIS, but in the long run they could prove just as vital.

Internationalist Commune

Westerners who go to fight – and die – in the battle against Isis are celebrated worldwide, and venerated as martyrs in Rojava itself. But increasing numbers of leftists are joining the “civil revolution” too, as teachers, doctors, engineers and environmentalists.

Some efforts have been cack-handed, for example driving malfunctioning ambulances into a region where there’s no such thing as a 999 call. A previous ecological endeavour, the “Rojava Plan”, arrived with grand and wildly inappropriate dreams to build organic fertiliser facilities and sank without a trace.

According to Stefan, the “Internationalist Commune” of civil volunteers seek to avoid these errors by understanding the revolution as a two-way process.

“The time for international help hasn’t stopped just because the war against Daesh has stopped,” he says, using the derogatory local term for Isis. His impeccable second-language English is seeded with Kurdish terms: şehid for “martyr” and tamam, or “fine”.

“Nobody would say it’s not important to fight Isis… but it’s also important to learn from and contribute to the up-building of a new society. For us Westerners, it’s really something to see the possibility of a different future.”

The “Make Rojava Green Again” project is a part of this slow drive. Even what Stefan calls their “short-term aims” will take years – planting 10,000 trees this year, and 50,000 in the next five, plus opening up a co-operative tree nursery to support local farmers.

 Photo: Internationalist Commune.

The Commune is calling for financial support, volunteers and knowledge-sharing from scientists and ecologists worldwide, as they work together with local committees and Rojava’s two co-operative nature reserves to build a revolution lasting beyond the revolutionary moment.

“In the future I will grow more trees around [my] land to keep the earth healthy, and help the other plants to grow,” says Abu Araz, a farmer who works with the Commune. Members of the Commune are already involved in civil work in Afrin, and they hope to transplant their tree-planting programmes there in the future, as “forests get destroyed, and water polluted because of the war”.

ISIS fight under the slogan baqiya wa tatamadad, or “remaining and expanding”. But they are a vanishing force now. And though other Turkish-backed jihadist forces are vying to take their place, it is the grassroots Rojava revolution which endures.

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