Unlike Labour, she understands the importance of principles
And they’re off! If you are unfortunate enough to live in Scotland, a dreary tidal wave of party leaflets, campaign ads and leaders’ debates is about to hit you for the second time in the space of a year (Welsh and Northern Irish readers will also have to endure this). However, unlike last year’s general election, tension, mystery and even excitement will be in short supply at Holyrood this year - Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP will win convincingly, and everybody knows it.
Arguments over just how deserving Sturgeon’s party really is of re-election are just as futile as pretending that the result will go any other way. For the moment, Scotland is still effectively a one-party state. In the Edinburgh parliament’s history, the only party that could credibly challenge the SNP was Labour, but they have been in great electoral difficulty as of late. Many have put this problem down to their decision to side with the Tories during the independence referendum campaign. Despite losing the vote, the Yes side pulled off a huge strategic coup by associating the idea of independence with progressive and radical politics, leaving Labour looking as conservative as the real Tories by opposing it. Even now, the question of independence is still troubling Labour - its latest leader, the doomed-but-likeable Kezia Dugdale, has been deliberately fiddling with her party’s stance on the issue, saying recently that she’d back independence if it secured Scotland’s place in the EU (before hastily rowing back in the next leaders' debate). Even the Liberal Democrats have kowtowed to residual referendum fever by announcing last autumn that their members would be free to campaign for the end of the union.
All this cynical repositioning is a subtle acknowledgement on the part of the unionist side that the question of independence will indeed be presented to the long-suffering Scottish people again sometime in the near future, despite assurances from the SNP that they would respect the outcome of the 2014 vote. By softening their position, Labour and the Lib Dems hope to win back some of their disillusioned former voters. Which they won’t. The least that can be said of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, is that she understands the importance of standing by your principles. Her party will remain opposed to independence, she has made clear, and will continue to challenge the SNP on the merits of the idea.
Many in the media are quite drawn to Davidson. Educated at a state school and previously a radio journalist and a signaller in the Territorial Army, she has a passion for kickboxing, and, at thirty-seven, is one of the youngest political leaders in the country, as well as the first openly gay woman to lead any part of the Conservative Party – in other words, she's about as far from Margaret Thatcher as you could get.
Alex Salmond has a habit of dropping obscure Scots words into interviews in order to confuse English journalists. Although you’re unlikely to hear anyone in Scotland actually saying it, “gallus” (one of his favourites), which means “cheeky, cheerful and confident,” could aptly describe Davidson. If she were an MP at Westminster she’d almost certainly be in the Cabinet, and may even be tipped as a successor to David Cameron. Instead she leads the Tory contingent at Holyrood, and is hoping to usurp large parts of the anti-SNP, pro-union vote to maximise her chances of success.
Nor can she be accused of being an unquestioning stooge of the Westminster party. Davidson opposed George Osborne’s tax credits cut before a U-turn was even on the cards, and has made it clear that she will campaign for Britain to stay in the EU regardless of what other senior Tories propose. She also supports votes for 16 and 17 year-olds whereas the Prime Minister does not, and won admirers from all sides of the political spectrum when she denounced the Saudi Arabian regime, whom David Cameron has described as “our allies.”
You’d think this would be enough for people to give her a second glance, but no. In Scotland it sometimes seems as if people are inoculated against the Tories at birth. When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, I was surprised at how many people my age, most of them otherwise uninterested in politics, vehemently loathed a Prime Minister who left office years before they were born. The memory of the hated poll tax, imposed on Scotland a year before anyone else, as well as other punitive policies, have passed down the generations like folk tales.
Impressive though she is, Davidson is not going to overturn this attitude. In another one of Salmond’s phrases, itself coined by Burns, “the rocks will melt wi’ the sun” before the Tories form a government in Scotland. But the inevitable re-election of the SNP makes the need for a strong opposition all the more urgent. Be it at Holyrood or Westminster, Labour is not currently providing this opposition. Meanwhile, Ruth Davidson is an uplifting antidote to the joyless career politicians who fill the ranks of her party in England, and fights tirelessly for what she believes in north of the border. It is for these reasons that she should become leader of the opposition in Scotland this May.