Davidson: motherhood is no get-out-of-jail-free card

Davidson: motherhood is no get-out-of-jail-free card

by Frankie Hutcheson
article from Saturday 31, August, 2019

WHEN SOMEONE told me Ruth Davidson was resigning, I thought it was an elaborate wind-up. As the news of her departure sank in shock and disbelief gave way to disappointment, anger and fear.

The Scottish Conservative Party is Ruth Davidson. Party literature from the most insignificant councillor upwards has played up Ruth – her picture and words loom large – as it has played down the Conservative or Tory label. Out canvassing, candidates took their lead from the Party Chairman who introduced himself as one of Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives.

The number of Scottish Tory MSPs at the 2016 Holyrood election doubled (from 15 to 31), displacing Labour and installing the Scottish Conservatives as the Opposition; in the June 2017 general election the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster increased by a factor of 13 (from 1 to 13), without which Theresa May could not have formed a government. It was Ruth what did it. Little wonder, then, that in every major speech since by her or leading Conservatives in Scotland eyes were confidently fastened on her moving into Bute House in 2021.

Now that prospect is revealed as no more than a fata morgana. More immediately, by resigning now, Davidson has shredded the chances of Scottish Conservatives in the general election that is widely expected as imminent. Very possibly, she has also kaiboshed the chances of Johnson being able to form a majority, or perhaps even a minority, government when he goes to the country. The outlook for maintaining the Union, if next to no Scottish MPs return to Westminster, is equally grim.

There could hardly be a worse time to go – not just in the final panicked countdown to Brexit, but on the very day that the Prime Minister announced his plan to prorogue parliament to unprecedented howls of outrage and hyperbole from politicians of all parties and across every front page this morning.

So disappointment, but anger too. I remember – not too long ago – when Davidson exhorted local councillors who were suffering from acute conflicts in their council groups to resolve them for the sake of party unity. Equally, in recent weeks, councillors who wanted to resign were begged to delay because the party could not handle by-elections with an impending general election.

If the leader cannot put her party – both in Scotland and the UK – first, then how can she ask her colleagues to? Conflict and division, including inter-party, is endemic to politics and the task of politicians is both to bear it and to work to manage it, if not to ameliorate or even overcome it. Davidson’s political victories have been largely due to an uncompromising, ultra-determined stance against Scottish independence, and it seems ironic now that the same attitude towards Brexit and Boris Johnson’s quest to honour the result of another referendum has brought about her downfall.

The ironies are multiplying of course. Elected eight years ago on a platform that the Scottish Conservative Party should not separate from the national party, Davidson now finds herself so at odds with the Conservative government at Westminster that she cannot go on as Scottish Conservative leader. What hubris, but also what a cop-out!

What is worse is that the unmediated conflict between Scottish Remainers and UK Leavers which Davidson is walking away from is mirrored by a so far less visible conflict between a party membership in Scotland which voted for both Brexit and Boris and a Davidson-led cadre of MSPs and MPs who largely voted against both Brexit and Boris. Davidson ignored this difference, deodorising it with her charisma and the sweet smell of electoral success.

But her would-be successors, and indeed the broader Conservative movement, will no longer be able to escape this conflict as the contest for Scottish Conservative leader begins, and Brexit Party candidates amass in the wings for the general election.

The most regrettable aspect of the Brand Ruth / No to Indyref2 approach of the Scottish Conservatives has been their failure to articulate a distinctive policy agenda.

With the SNP worn out from treading water in government for 11 years, and virtually every day bringing another big policy failure which can be lain at the nationalists’ door, Davidson and her MSPs have been gifted one open goal after another. Yet they have shied away from hammering home positive policy alternatives, as if they were afraid of giving offence – or the nationalists, and the Scottish media, something to attack. The net result is that with Davidson gone, there is no Scottish Tory programme or even inklings of a vision to offer an alternative to the SNP for the party or its new leader to fall back on.

If this is one fatal drawback of overly relying on a ‘big personality’ as leader, then the other is its tendency, whether by accident or design, to swamp and put off possible successors. Andrew Nicol in the Sun writes of the “shallow puddle of talent” among Scottish Conservatives’ elected representatives, and although the same applies as much, or even more, to the other Scottish parties, that hardly helps the Conservatives in their quest for a leader.

Publicly, Ruth Davidson says she is stepping back for family reasons, particularly the demands of being a mother to a small baby. They are gut-wrenching, they can be physically and mentally overwhelming and there is a sense in which nothing else can, or perhaps, should compete. On the other hand, the timing of this most private and personal of decisions has, in Davidson’s case, the most public and politically far-reaching of dimensions. While many feminists will sympathise or even applaud her decision, motherhood is no get-out-of-jail-free card.

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