Ruth Davidson’s election as the new Scottish Conservative leader is one of the most significant developments in Scottish party politics for some years. There’s news coverage of that from the Scotsman here and the Telegraph here. The Scotsman‘s interview with her during the campaign (well worth reading) is here, and Alan Cochrane’s discussion of the result is here.
The significance of Davidson’s election lies not so much the positive choice of her as Scottish Conservative leader, but in the defeat of Murdo Fraser and his plans to create a new party (previously discussed HERE and HERE). Davidson, for all her colourful personality and personal qualities, is the candidate of ‘no change’; a revived party organisation, but no movement beyond the Scotland bill on constitutional matters, and the Scottish Conservatives remaining an integral part of the UK party. Davidson’s election means that the shape of Scottish party politics will remain similar to what it has been since 1999. As I’ve pointed out previously, that is out of kilter with similarly decentralised systems elsewhere in the world.
Davidson’s election limits the impact the Conservatives are likely to make in Scottish politics. Her position on constitutional issues – ‘the Scotland bill and no further’ – suggest that the Scottish Conservatives are happy to exclude themselves from constitutional debates about extended self-government. This is reinforced by her appointment of David Mundell MP as interim Scottish party chairman.
The main likely beneficiaries of Davidson’s election are all the other parties. Both Labour and the SNP will be able to take advantage of the toxicity of the Conservative party in Scotland. In Labour’s case, it will be easier to point to ‘horrid London Tories’ to win votes, but that also helps Labour to avoid serious thinking or argument about policy and constitutional issues. The SNP will find it easier to hoover up right-of-centre anti-Labour support, especially those of that part of the business community that favours greater fiscal decentralisation. The absence of a pro-self government, anti- (or non-)Labour party also favours the Lib Dems. It emphasises the extent to which Scottish politics is likely to remain driven by arguments about which ‘tribe’ one belongs to, rather than substantive arguments about policy or constitutional issues.
By electing Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have preferred to remain in a zone of relative comfort, rather than embracing the implications of devolution for their party. Putting Scottish party politics in aspic has seriously handicapped the unionist parties in responding to devolution. However successful Davidson may be in rebuilding the party’s grassroots, that is a medium or long-term route to Conservative revival at best. The challenges the party faces in the short and medium terms are more pressing, but the Conservative response is likely to be more of the same.