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Challenging Theresa May’s vision of Brexit Britain : Ruth Davidson and the 2017 UK general election

Fiona Simpkins
p. 141-160

Résumé

Far from giving Theresa May the mandate she needed to pursue her ‘vision of Brexit’, the outcome of the June 2017 general election was a reduced Conservative majority and the formation of a minority government after an agreement with the DUP. Most surprisingly, disaster was avoided for the Conservatives thanks to the unexpected addition of thirteen Scottish Conservative seats. This was quite extraordinary as Scottish Conservative MPs had become conspicuous by their absence in Parliament since the 1980s. As Theresa May narrowly avoided losing a majority in the UK, the little nationally known Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. While May had gambled that the Brexit fault line would trump traditional partisan sympathies, Davidson had bet that the constitutional issue in Scotland would phase out both the issue of Brexit and partisan sympathies. Our analysis of the evolution of the Scottish Conservative party under Ruth Davidson’s leadership will therefore seek to shed some light on the reasons behind the unexpected resurgence of the Scottish Conservatives at the June 2017 general election.

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Introduction

1 The 2017 general election was an unusual one in several ways. First because it was a snap election that was constitutionally unnecessary, but also because its results were entirely unexpected. Far from giving Theresa May the mandate she needed to pursue her ‘vision of Brexit’, as she phrased it on calling the election, its outcome was a reduced Conservative majority and the formation of a minority government after an agreement with the DUP. Most curiously, disaster was avoided for the Conservatives thanks to the unexpected addition of thirteen Scottish Conservative seats. This was quite a feat in a country where the lack of Conservative MPs had become a long-standing joke. The party experienced such a sharp decline of its electoral scores after the 1980s, it was unable to send more than a single MP to Parliament until the June 2017 general election. This was all the more extraordinary because all of the Scottish seats won in 2017 were seized from a heretofore hegemonic SNP. Against all odds, the SNP lost 21 seats and 13.1% of the vote with some safe seats such as those of Alex Salmond or Angus Robertson falling to the hands of the Scottish Conservatives. The Scottish Conservatives, on the other hand, increased their share of the vote by 13.7% and gained 12 seats, all of which from the SNP. All but one Scottish Conservative seats were furthermore won in constituencies which voted Remain and it could hardly be argued that the Conservative leadership’s position on Brexit had ultimately won over the electorate in Scotland. As the Prime Minister narrowly avoided losing a majority in the UK against what had been considered as a declining Labour Party, the little nationally known Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

2While the rest of Britain saw some constituencies switch from blue to red, the biggest swings recorded in Scotland were from nationalist to conservative, thus suggesting that the political debate had focused on a set of different issues north and south of the border. Indeed, both leaders faced very different circumstances: devolution in Scotland has shaped a new political landscape since its introduction in 1999, which was characterised by a multi-party system in its early years and the preponderance of the constitutional issue and of the Scottish National Party after 2007. With up to six parties represented in the Scottish Parliament and only one of them - the Conservatives - standing to the right of the political spectrum, the Scottish political debate can therefore be defined as a wide centre-left consensus on policy in which Scotland’s constitutional future has served as the main dividing line. This was made all the clearer in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum when Scotland returned 56 SNP MPs to Parliament in the May 2015 general election, leaving all three unionist parties with just one seat each.

3The hegemony of a pro-European SNP as well as the weak resonance of euro-sceptic parties north of the border explain to some degree why Scotland voted differently to the rest of the UK in the European referendum of June 2016 as 62% of Scots chose to Remain in the EU. Scotland’s distinct political landscape and strong Remain vote at the 2016 European referendum thus foreboded a different electoral debate ahead of the June 2017 general election. If Brexit could naturally be expected to have a strong impact on the results in England and Wales – by either returning the strong Conservative majority which the Prime Minister hoped for, or by providing an opportunity for a Remainer backlash – it is less clear why Scotland would have experienced a sharp change in voting patterns. SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has after all consistently argued for a “soft” Brexit and for the UK to remain part of the Single Market since the European referendum, thus attempting to reflect the views of the majority in Scotland who voted Remain. Yet, while Ruth Davidson’s good electoral scores at the May 2016 Scottish Parliament elections suggest that the Scottish Conservatives were already on the rise before the European referendum that took place a month later, we shall see that the combination of both Brexit and the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future have favourably served the interests of the Conservatives. Our analysis of the evolution of the Scottish Conservative party under Ruth Davidson’s leadership will therefore seek to shed some light on the reasons behind the unexpected resurgence of the Scottish Conservatives at the June 2017 general election.

Rethinking unionist conservatism

  • 1 Finlay, Richard J., “Thatcherism and the Union” in Devine, T.M. Scotland and the Union 1707-2007, E (...)
  • 2 Kendrick, S. & McCrone, D., “Politics in a Cold Climate: The Conservative Decline in Scotland”, Pol (...)

4The demise of the Conservative Party in Scotland from the mid-1980s onwards is widely considered as the countereffect of Thatcherite economic policies in Scotland. Scotland – along with Wales and the northern regions of England – had a large industrial base and bore the brunt of the Thatcher governments’ economic policies and brutal switch to a service economy. By 1987, the Conservatives were only supported by one seventh of all Scottish MPs. By 1997, they had been completely wiped out in Scotland, failing to obtain a single seat. But although the consequences of Thatcher’s economic policies were partly to blame for the dwindling conservative vote in Scotland, it is probably Thatcher’s refusal to recognise a “national” dimension to Scottish politics and to engage with the issue which brought the most harm to the Scottish Conservatives’ image in Scotland. According to Richard J. Finlay, “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a major problem with the Conservative party in Scotland was its failure to engage imaginatively with the Scottish dimension”.1 Indeed, the Conservatives’ attitude contrasted unfavourably to that of their opponents: Labour and the Liberal-Democrats embraced devolution while the nationalists made Scottishness their uncontested trademark. Finlay remarks that the contrary message sent by the Tories in Scotland – as they argued that their economic policies were providing Scots with “real independence” by reducing the role of the state, while reminding them at the same time that they could not survive on their own without British Treasury subsidies – further alienated a large part of the population. In fact, Kendrick and McCrone argue that Scottish Conservative decline can be broadly explained by two central factors: greater Scottish dependence on the public sector and the emergence of Scotland as a separate unit of economic management, concluding that “the Scottish economic dimension had made Scotland an ideological category largely incompatible with Conservative English/British national rhetoric as employed by Mrs Thatcher”.2

  • 3 Mitchell, J., Conservatives and the Union: A Study of Conservative Party Attitudes to Scotland, Edi (...)
  • 4 Seawright, D., An Important Matter of Principle: The Decline of the Scottish Conservative and Union (...)

5David Seawright, however, rejects this hypothesis, arguing that the difference in social structure north and south of the border does not constitute an explanation for the Conservatives’ weakening electoral support. Unlike Mitchell3, he also rejects the link between electoral support and the Conservatives’ position on devolution, pointing to their poor 1970 electoral scores in the aftermath of Edward Heath’s ‘declaration of Perth’ statement on devolution. Neither does he believe that the idea that Scots are consistently more left-wing than the English is an entirely valid explanation. In fact, he moderates this view as he points to the more dogmatic ‘new right’ ideology that began to shape the party’s policies under Margaret Thatcher as a key factor in the party’s demise north of the border, concluding that the main explanation lies in the party’s drift from the moderate section of the Scottish electorate it had heretofore drawn most of its support from: “as the Scots took that substantive move to the left in the mid-1970s, the party simultaneously decided on a substantive move of its own towards what was hitherto regarded as extremism”.4

6This ideological shift combined with the party’s earlier organisational changes of the 1960s, when the party changed its name from Scottish Unionist Party to Scottish Conservative Party and integrated more fully with the UK Conservative Party to create the impression that what was once a distinctly Scottish party had become “alien” and “English”. Symbolic gestures like the decision to host the European summit in Edinburgh in 1992 or return the Stone of Destiny to Scotland in 1996 did little to reverse that trend and could somewhat be regarded as a belated recognition that Scotland was indeed different. All successive Conservative Party leaders thereafter sought to recapture the distinctive Scottish roots of the Scottish Unionist Party but failed to do so. Yet, we shall contend that although the Conservative Party did take devolution into account to some degree through structural changes, it failed to fully integrate this dimension until Ruth Davidson’s U-turn over devolution in the wake of the independence referendum. Ruth Davidson’s integration of a distinct Scottish dimension within the Conservatives’ unionist political thought is indeed the key to her success at the June 2017 general elections.

  • 5 Convery, A., The Territorial Conservative Party. Devolution and Party Change in Scotland and Wales.(...)
  • 6 Smith, A,. Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives: Banal Activism, Electioneering and the Politi (...)

7Given the electoral strength of the Labour party in local government in Scotland, the Scottish Conservatives’ main focus before the introduction of devolution was to ensure that the party had a majority at the UK level and therefore that a Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland be appointed. Westminster was seen as the only way to access the levers of power in Scotland. The Westminster bias of the party was therefore not only pragmatic and reasonable but also fitted well with the unionist nature of the party. The institutions of the Union were dominant in the party’s political thought and were never perceived as a threat to Scottish distinctiveness insofar as they represented the natural place of government in the UK institutional architecture. It is therefore unsurprising that the party later found it difficult to combine the nature of their unionist political thought with the idea that Scotland’s interests were better protected in distinct Scottish political institutions. The party’s opposition to devolution in the 1990s betrayed the fact that when unionism was at odds with a distinct Scottish dimension, the defence of the Union came first for the Scottish Conservatives. Once devolution was introduced, it had trouble reconciling its unionist nature with a reorientation of its priorities towards seeking to gain power in the Scottish Parliament. As Convery notes, “despite repeated commitments to the reality of devolution made in forewords to manifestos and leaders’ speeches, the Conservative Party in Scotland found it extremely difficult both philosophically and practically to accept that the Scottish Parliament was now the major forum in Scottish politics to which most of their attention should be devoted”.5 This view was equally reached by Smith in his ethnographic study of how the local Dumfries and Galloway Conservative Party attempted to cope with devolution in a “cold climate”. He concludes that the party busied itself with what he calls “banal activism” to remain united and claim sufficient electoral success to justify their postponement of any vexing philosophical and policy debates.6

8It would thus be erroneous to claim that the Scottish Conservatives failed to change or adapt to the new Scottish landscape after devolution as they undertook some important structural and organisational changes, but we shall see that their fundamental conception of unionism remained intact until the 2014 independence referendum. The Scottish Conservative party engaged in a crucial debate on its internal territorial structures after its defeat in the 1997 general election when it failed to win a single seat in Scotland. After 1997, the Scottish Conservative Party became an affiliated partner of the Conservative Party: while it participated fully in UK-wide processes, its organisation and internal procedures – over which it gained statutory control – remained independently managed. The Party Constitution therefore holds that Scottish members are obliged to follow UK party rules with respect to UK matters but will follow Scottish party rules with respect to Scottish matters, thereby enabling the Scottish party to acquire more autonomy in its management of devolved policy-making and organization. Moreover, if Conservative Party funding follows a similar centralist model to that of the Labour Party, it was never as dependent as the latter on membership fees. Indeed, the Conservative Party was always financed by individual donors and corporations foremost. Unlike Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservatives thus enjoy substantial financial support from individual sponsors.

  • 7 Hopkin, J. & Bradbury J., “British statewide parties and multilevel politics”, The Journal of Feder (...)
  • 8 Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Scotland First, Scottish Parliament election 1999 manifes (...)
  • 9 Scottish Conservatives, Common Sense for Scotland, Scottish Parliament election 2011 manifesto.
  • 10 Convery, A., The Territorial Conservative Party. Devolution and Party Change in Scotland and Wales.(...)

9In contrast with Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservatives have also enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy with respect to devolved policies as the Scottish election manifesto emerges from within the Scottish Conservative parliamentary group and is debated within the Scottish constituencies and the regional party executive. The Scottish Conservatives can therefore develop their own proposals for Scottish matters without formal interference by the national party leadership. This autonomy has thus enabled the Scottish party to develop a more moderate, centrist policy profile on devolved issues in order to better adapt to the new devolved Scottish political landscape.7 So much so in fact, that there were no major ideological differences among the post-devolution Scottish Conservative leaders and no major splits among its MSPs about domestic policy. David McLetchie (1999-2005) for instance, largely wished to continue the NHS internal market policy but opposed tuition fees for university students8; while Annabel Goldie (2005-2011) also steered the party towards greater public service choice and mutualisation of Scottish Water, she approved clear spending commitments for pensioners and health visitors9; finally, Ruth Davidson’s campaigns have both contained centre-right commitments to choice in public services as well as commitments to increasing early years’ childcare and reducing the educational attainment gap, promising extra funding for the NHS and building more affordable housing. In fact, the main split in the party is not along the left-right continuum. Neither does it concern economic policy, public services or even Europe. The real divide within the Scottish Conservative Party has concerned devolution itself and only emerged as such during the 2011 leadership election, as it was the first contested one since the introduction of devolution and therefore provided the opportunity for a public discussion about the future of the party.10

  • 11 Murdo Fraser speech, 5th September 2011, “Murdo Fraser reveals plans for new Scottish Tory party”, (...)

10Two factions thus emerged over the key issues of the UK constitution and the future of the party, with one of them arguing that devolution should not be enhanced any further and that the Scottish Conservatives should remain integrated to the UK Conservative Party, while the other contended that the Scottish Conservative Party had become more autonomous and should be open to leading the debate on further powers to the Scottish Parliament. In fact, the latter view was strongly defended by Murdo Fraser in his leadership bid as he argued that the party should disband and reform itself as a Scottish party modelled along the lines of the former Unionist Party, that is a separate party with MPs nevertheless taking the Conservative whip at Westminster. He furthermore defended a more open line on further devolution to Scotland, claiming that the party had to “see the referendum on independence not as a threat, but as an opportunity”.11 Fraser admitted that: “early opposition to the Scottish Parliament has led us to being portrayed as anti-Scottish [and] that is still the perception of much of the Scottish electorate”. He thus proposed that in order “to counter it, we need both an admission and a reality check” and that the party should move away from the slippery slope argument that held that devolution would gradually lead to independence which it had clung to since 1979. He suggested that a “new Unionism would provide financial devolution to the Scottish Parliament”.

11On the other hand, all three other candidates (Ruth Davidson, Jackson Carlaw and Margaret Mitchell) expressed their opposition to this plan and envisioned further structural reforms to the Scottish Conservative Party under its present form. All three opposed any further devolution to Scotland, with Ruth Davidson even famously promising to draw a “line in the sand” on the constitution by assuring that the Scottish Conservatives would oppose more powers to Holyrood if she were elected leader. She claimed that there would be “no half-way house, no second question – no march to fiscal autonomy. When the referendum is done, and Scotland in the Union has won the day, let that be an end to it”.12 So, while Ruth Davidson’s young age, personality and background made her appear as the candidate of change in the media, her victory in obtaining the Scottish Conservative leadership was in fact that of continuity within the Conservative Party. By standing so clearly against the changes proposed by Murdo Fraser, Ruth Davidson stood as the candidate of continuity, albeit with different attitudes regarding some social issues. Narrowly elected as leader, she would soon be forced to change her mind by Prime Minister David Cameron’s own admission in a February 2012 speech that “This does not have to be the end of the road. When the referendum on independence is over, I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further”.13

  • 14 Ruth Davidson, “Strengthening Scotland”, Taking Scotland Forward speech, 26th March 2013, http://ww (...)
  • 15 Scottish Conservatives, Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland, May 2014.
  • 16When these actions are taken within the context of Conservative policies on empowering individuals (...)

12The Conservative-led Coalition government’s strategy was to accept the organisation of a referendum - which was now unavoidable - on terms it found acceptable and to avoid appearing anti-Scottish in a bid to save the union. The new Scottish Conservative leader thus operated a complete U-turn and came round to the view initially expressed by Fraser. In March 2013, she conceded that “a parliament with little responsibility for raising the money it spends will never be properly accountable to the people of Scotland. [...] So that means in future a far greater share of the money spent by the Scottish Parliament should be raised by it”.14 A working group was set up to “examine specifically the question of strengthening devolution and the accountability of the Scottish Parliament by examining its structures and extending its powers over taxation”. It would be chaired by Lord Strathclyde and include former Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie, former Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson as well as constitutional experts Alan Trench and Adam Tomkins. The Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland published its report in May 201415 and suggested that the Scottish Parliament should become responsible for setting rates and bands of income tax throughout Scotland but that pensions should stay within the remit of the UK Government. The report admitted that there was a case for devolving housing benefit and attendance allowance as well as conferring on the Scottish Parliament the power of supplementing benefits legislated for at UK level. Although those proposals for further devolution were rather timid, they did represent a revolution for the Scottish Conservative party as it finally came to terms with devolution. The Commission report had attempted to reconcile unionism with conservatism and gave the Scottish Conservative Party a centre-right case for further autonomy, particularly regarding fiscal powers.16

An ‘authentic’ new brand of conservatism

13Not only were the Scottish Conservatives thereafter able to present a coherent unionist strategy which integrated both conservative political thought and further autonomy for Scotland, but their new leader also gave strong Scottish credentials to the party, which could no longer be seen as “English”. Ruth Davidson’s style and background differ sharply from her party’s former leaders. Ruth Davidson, who is only 39 years old, is a young charismatic politician with a strong sense of humour who grew up in a Presbyterian family in Selkirk where her father worked in a wool mill and she attended a comprehensive school. She later worked in broadcast journalism and joined the Territorial Army in 2003. Her working-class background and comprehensive education makes it possible for her to present herself as an untypical Tory and put what she describes as “clear blue water” between the policies of the Scottish Conservatives and those of the UK party. This makes supporting her more palatable for Scottish voters who had massively turned away from the Conservatives for several decades.

14Besides, she has frequently shown her independence from Westminster politics in a bid to prove her Scottish credentials. Ruth Davidson was a staunch Remain supporter during the referendum campaign and has repeatedly said since then that she was favourable to “an open Brexit, rather than a closed Brexit” with the “largest amount of access” to the Single Market. She has also recently repeated that she would vote Remain again should there be another referendum. She challenged a number of immigration policies espoused by May during her time as Home Secretary and urged the Prime Minister to reconsider the Conservative target to cut net migration to below 100,000 a year as well as drop “easy slogans” on immigration. In June, she signalled her opposition to May’s deal with the DUP by tweeting a link to the same-sex marriage lecture she gave at Amnesty’s Pride lecture in Belfast in 2016. Indeed, she is engaged to an Irish Catholic Christian who campaigned during the Republic’s same-sex marriage referendum and her views could not be further from those of the DUP. She therefore sought and received assurances from the Prime Minister that she should try to advance gay rights in Northern Ireland despite the DUP’s record on such issues. Finally, she has admitted to being a centrist in terms of social policy with a more right-wing stance on justice and fiscal policies.

  • 17 Montgomery, M., “Defining ‘Authentic Talk’”, Discourse Studies, vol. 3 (4), 2001, p. 397.
  • 18 Enli, G., Mediated Authenticity: How the Media Constructs Reality, Bern: Peter Lang Publishing Inc. (...)
  • 19 Moore, C., “Mrs May is no longer winning the battle for authenticity – Jeremy Corbyn is”, The Teleg (...)
  • 20 Turner, J., “Seductive Jezza leaves us with a painful choice”, The Times, 3rd June 2017.
  • 21 Hyde, M., “In Stoke, May marches on with familiar neuron-crushing dullness”, Guardian, 16th May 201 (...)

15Given the increasing importance of the perceived ‘authenticity’ of candidates across the political spectrum in recent electoral battles, Ruth Davidson’s outspokenness and spontaneity has undoubtedly served her well at the June 2017 general election. The question of a leader’s ‘authenticity’ has been much commented upon by scholars and political commentators alike and has been given a new salience in recent years with the rise of populist politicians across the western world. The 2017 electoral campaign was not immune of such considerations as it saw Theresa May slip in the polls while Jeremy Corbyn garnered support for his perceived authenticity throughout the UK. Ruth Davidson, however, was able to impose her own ‘authentic’ image and reverse the downward trend of her party in Scotland. While discourse theorist Martin Montgomery argues that “authenticity is characterised by natural and spontaneous talk which captures the experience of the speaker and is true to their core self”17, others, such as Gunn Enli, stress the importance of being perceived as trustworthy, likeable and genuine.18 Two definitions which would appear to suit Jeremy Corbyn much more than the Prime Minister during the 2017 campaign. Indeed, during the campaign, Jeremy Corbyn became widely considered as being ‘authentic’, even in the pro-conservative press. While some recognised his sincerity, humour and modesty19, others remarked that his spontaneity compared favourably to the Prime Minister’s calculatedness.20 Corbyn’s authenticity was indeed contrasted to Theresa May’s perceived cold control and lack of compassion, thus highlighting the emotional response of the public to political leaders.21

  • 22 Conservative and Unionist Party, Forward Together, The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 20 (...)
  • 23 “Theresa May’s balancing act and the neutering of UKIP, Financial Times, 24th February 2017.

16Yet, while Brexit was the focal point of May’s campaign, the Prime Minister had nevertheless sought a mandate for a softer, more interventionist form of conservatism that would distinguish her government from those of her predecessor in office. She appeared to believe that the Brexit vote had not simply been a vote against Europe but against the way Britain had been governed, austerity politics and economic liberalism having ignored the needs of Middle England voters. The Conservative manifesto thus declared that “we must reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognizes the good that a government can do”, assuring that the “government’s agenda will not be allowed to drift to the right”.22 In a movement away from the consensus on economic liberalism and social democracy which has marked most of the last four decades, May sought to broaden the Conservative electorate and rebuild links with blue-collar Britain and ‘ordinary working families’, including those who had previously voted Labour. In a redistributionist move, she ended the Conservative commitment to the triple lock on pensions at a time when pensioners are around £ 20 a week better off than the average working family, as well as the 2015 manifesto pledge not to increase taxes. Her new brand of interventionist conservatism included promises to cap energy prices, increase the national living wage, develop a new industrial strategy, support grammar schools, give more workers added input into the governance of companies or even the suggestion that the government might step in to protect strategically important sectors such as steel and pharmaceuticals and, if necessary, prevent their sale to foreign corporations. She even went as far as criticizing the “liberal elite” and “citizens of nowhere” in an anti-elitist discourse which the Financial Times described as “an impressive feat for a woman whose life story takes in the Home Counties, the Bank of England and Downing Street23. This points to one of the many contradictions that beset May’s attempt to run a campaign along a more egalitarian national settlement at odds with the neoliberal market-based approach of her party since Margaret Thatcher. In addition, her hard Brexit position was perhaps puzzling given she had herself been a Remainer during the referendum campaign.

  • 24 Ashcroft, M., The Lost Majority, London: Biteback Publishing, 2017.

17Lord Ashcroft’s focus groups polls during the campaign showed that the initial positive impressions that voters held on Theresa May – concerning her credentials as a strong leader or her different attitude to social justice and the need to help those who “can just about manage”, for instance – were soon eclipsed by her tightly controlled appearances and uneasiness when meeting ordinary members of the public.24 These impressions were furthermore bolstered by her decision not to meet the bereaved inhabitants of Grenfell tower immediately or to take part in head-to-head television debates. Neither did the launch of the Conservative manifesto help to dispel the impression that the Prime Minister was disconnected from ordinary people: scrapping the ‘triple lock’ on pensions, means-testing the Winter Fuel Payment, ending free school lunches for all infants and replacing them with free breakfasts, reforming social care funding so that £ 100,000 of pensioners’ assets were protected (but including their home in the calculation) and holding a free vote in Parliament on fox hunting were all damaging. While May’s U-turn on social care reform (dubbed the “Dementia Tax” in the press) came as a reminder of previous reversals and demolished the strong and stable image she had benefited from at the outset of the campaign, nothing did more to reinforce the traditional elitist image of the party than the prospect of reintroducing fox hunting.

  • 25 Spence, B., “The Tories need to learn from Ruth Davidson if they want to stay in power”, The Indepe (...)
  • 26 Harvey, O., “Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson postpones wedding to fiancée”, The Sun, 28th July 2 (...)
  • 27 Umbach, M. & Humphrey, M., Authenticity: The Cultural History of a Political Concept, London: Palgr (...)

18Although, as Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson also backed the commitments of the 2017 Conservative manifesto, her campaign perhaps suffered from fewer contradictions due to the singular circumstances of Scottish politics as well as her own personality and background. Ruth Davidson was hailed as a “genuine” leader25, “far from the traditional image of a twinset and pearls Tory”.26 Most of all, she was able to grasp that the Scottish electorate was in no mood for a second independence referendum. Umbach and Humphrey argue that “achieving authenticity requires convergence with the identities as well as the values of follower groups” for a political leader.27 This is precisely at the heart of the Scottish Conservatives’ strategy to appeal to Scottish unionists, which Ruth Davidson first developed during the May 2016 campaign. Having now bypassed their traditional opposition to devolution and negative attitude to the development of an increasingly powerful Scottish political arena, the Scottish Conservatives are now advocating instead a “fresh, positive drive to promote the benefits of the Union”. The 2016 manifesto clearly indicated that the party would “not focus on the downsides of independence – though there are many – but on the strengths and values of the Union”. Indeed, the Scottish Conservatives had clearly assessed the constitutional issue as the main fault-line in Scottish politics as they made a bid to become the main party of opposition on a unionist platform. The good results of the May 2016 Scottish Parliament election will have no doubt encouraged Ruth Davidson to pursue a similar strategy in June 2017 in spite of pressures from Westminster to stick to that of the Conservative party as a whole.

Brexit and the Scottish constitutional issue

19Indeed, Theresa May’s plan rested on the assumption that the Conservative party would retain votes in the typically more prosperous middle-class and urban areas that had voted Remain while making big inroads among the more economically disadvantaged and working-class areas which had voted Leave. This strategy, it was thought, could also be applied to Scotland where the socio-economic profile of Leave and Remain voters were broadly similar to those of England and Wales. May’s team therefore aggressively sought to impose this strategy on the Scottish Conservative leadership, yet met much resistance with Ruth Davidson preferring to pursue her winning strategy in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election and focus on unionism instead. While May gambled that the Brexit fault line would trump traditional partisan sympathies, Davidson bet that the constitutional issue in Scotland would phase out both the issue of Brexit and partisan sympathies.

  • 28 Heath, O. & Goodwin, M. “The 2017 General Election, Brexit and the Return to Two-Party Politics: An (...)

20With an average lead in the polls of 17.3%, May was confident she would win a comfortable majority when she asked the country to provide a strong mandate for the vision of Brexit she had set out in the ‘Lancaster House speech’ in January 2017. From the outset therefore, May framed the contest as one that was chiefly about Brexit, an opportunity to ‘strengthen the hand’ of the Prime Minister ahead of the Brexit negotiations, and ‘stick to [her] plan’. Theresa May’s electoral gamble then was that the path to a commanding majority ran through not only retaining the 330 seats that the Conservative Party already held, an estimated 247 of which had voted to leave the EU and 83 of which had voted to Remain, but also by capturing a large number of Labour’s 229 seats among those that had voted for Brexit at the 2016 referendum.28

21Since the 2017 election was one that didn’t need to be called, it was evident that the heart of the Prime Minister’s campaign would be her vision of Brexit, which she was having trouble imposing in Parliament. As she declared that the country was united but politicians divided, little did she know that the election she was calling would in fact reveal an even deeper divide over the European issue. Polls suggested that turnout tended to increase more in seats that had voted to remain in the 2016 referendum with pro-remain seats such as Oxford West and Abingdon, Winchester, Twickenham and Hornsey and Wood Green all recording some of the highest rates of turnout at the election. This suggests there may have been a counter mobilisation against Theresa May’s vision of a hard Brexit in constituencies where a majority had voted Remain. On the other hand, constituencies with a large Leave majority at the European referendum had a lower turnout in June 2017 than they did in previous elections. This would indicate that people in places which had not voted to leave the EU were particularly keen to turn out and vote in this election – which potentially did not bode well for May’s chances of securing a large mandate for her vision of Brexit nor for Ruth Davidson’s chances of obtaining more seats in Scotland where a majority had voted Remain.

  • 29 Ibid.
  • 30 Brooks, L. “Jeremy Corbyn ‘can help Labour rebuild Scotland’”, Guardian, 24th August 2016.

22One exception stands out, however: while the turnout in the whole country was the highest in twenty years, rising to 69%, Scotland saw the biggest decrease in turnout (-4.7%). Although 62% of Scottish voters voted Remain in the June 2016 referendum and the Remain vote won a majority in all Scottish constituencies but one, there was no Remain voter backlash such as was the case in England and Wales. Furthermore, one of the reasons for which turnout made a difference to the outcome of the UK general election is that a majority of new voters – the young in particular – were disproportionately more likely to vote Labour. Labour gained the most votes in constituencies with larger numbers of young people: in the 20 “youngest” seats, Labour made an average gain of about 15% compared to the Conservatives’ gain of just 1%.29 Yet, once again, Scotland stands as an exception. Scottish Labour failed to see a comparable increase of its membership after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party in September 2015 because the radical voice of the pro-independence movement during the independence referendum campaign as well as in its aftermath had already created a newly energised radical movement in its fold. In a nation where there are no student fees, the political awakening of young voters came not with the fees movement but with the independence referendum.30 This means that Scottish Labour has failed to renew its membership and voter bases as the young radical vote in Scotland has now defected to pro-independence parties, not least to the SNP whose members below the age of thirty account for twenty-one per cent of its total membership. Besides, Kezia Dugdale struggled to make any impact while her party still reeled from having stood on the same electoral platform as the Conservatives during the 2014 independence referendum campaign. Not only was she considered as undecisive on the constitutional issue – having made contradictory comments over the years – but so was Jeremy Corbyn, whose lack of support to the Scottish Labour leader was equally damaging.

  • 31 Ashcroft, M., The Lost Majority, London: Biteback Publishing, 2017, p. 36.

23In contrast to Labour’s ambiguous and conflicting signals on Scotland’s constitutional issue, Ruth Davidson’s clear unionist platform was able to hit home with many Scottish “No” voters at the independence referendum. Part of the Scottish unionist electorate thus appeared ready to vote for the Scottish Conservatives in May 2016 and June 2017, believing that they were the only political party in Scotland to defend the Union. Rid at last of their toxicity in Scotland, the Conservatives under Ruth Davidson had become the main challengers to the SNP. While Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity ratings were waning, Ruth Davidson’s skilful use of social media, beaming smile and adeptness at campaigning bolstered her popularity in Scotland, where 46% believed she was doing well as leader of the Scottish Conservative Party in June 2016 and focus groups showed that she was considered as “more of a Scottish Conservative, as opposed to an English Conservative in Scotland”.31

  • 32 Scottish National Party, Re-Elect, 2016 Manifesto, April 2016.

24Yet, it was Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on 13th March 2017 that there would be a second Scottish independence referendum due to the substantial change of circumstances entailed by Brexit that got the Scottish Conservatives’ ball rolling. In her speech at Bute House, the First Minister stressed that the constitutional option which a majority of Scottish voters had voted for in September 2014 no longer existed. A scenario foreseen in the SNP’s 2016 Scottish Parliament election manifesto, which provided for the eventuality of a second independence referendum after a Brexit vote as it stated that a new referendum would be held only “if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people – or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”.32 For the SNP, therefore, both the constitutional and European issues are entirely wedded, negating the possibility that some voters might be in favour of independence but opposed to EU membership and vice versa, or that Scots weighed the two issues differently. Yet, a YouGov poll from January 2017 showed that despite the SNP’s advocacy of ‘independence in Europe’, Brexit significantly divides the nationalist movement as it found that only 65% of Yes voters who backed Leave said they would back independence again. Indeed, almost a third of Yes voters at the 2014 referendum voted Leave at the EU referendum. Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to hold a second independence referendum held little appeal for Remain voters who voted No in the 2014 independence referendum, while it divided Yes voters. While some Yes voters were favourable to both independence and EU membership, more than a third of them voted Leave and perhaps preferred Scotland to leave the EU with the rest of the UK before a second independence referendum.

25Although Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign did not focus solely on Scotland’s independence or on the issue of a second referendum, it was certainly overshadowed by the European issue. On the other hand, the Scottish Conservatives were able to take full advantage of the fact that their party were negotiating a Brexit deal for the UK, while their leader appeared more moderate as she repeatedly stated her preference for a soft Brexit. This was successfully combined with making opposition to a second referendum the leitmotiv of her campaign. It is therefore unsurprising that the Conservative resurgence in Scotland at the June general election occurred predominantly amongst those who voted No in 2014, wining as much as 44% of the vote among this group (up 17 points since 2015), well ahead of Labour’s 36% whose more uncertain message on the constitutional issue has failed to make it profitable in terms of votes. Crucially, the Scottish Conservatives picked up 8% of the vote among those who voted Yes, that is 5% more than in 2015. This progression among Yes voters is accounted for by the number of Leave voters among them. Indeed, just over one in five (21%) of those who voted Yes and Leave voted for the Scottish Conservatives in June 2017, suggesting that the SNP First Minister’s call for a second independence referendum largely backfired.

Conclusion

26Contrary voices now claim to speak for Scotland, and the country’s distinct political landscape appears to have become further pluralized and fragmented since the European referendum of June 2016. To the fracture between both ends of the political spectrum, new divides have now been added that cut across it along both nationalist and unionist, as well as pro-European and Eurosceptic fault lines. Ruth Davidson’s outstanding skill as leader of the Scottish Conservative party lies in her understanding of the importance to adopt a coherent approach to Scotland’s constitutional future which successfully combines conservatism and unionism. Her embodiment of a distinctly Scottish brand of unionism has been able to mirror the views of a majority of the Scottish electorate, lending her the “authenticity” that is key to her popularity. Finally, combined to her Scottish roots and her aura as a ‘new’ sort of leader, her moderate stance on Europe and centrist approach to social policy have contributed to making her party more palatable in Scotland. Ruth Davidson’s career has been entirely rooted in Scotland where she has been an MSP since May 2011 and she has long refused considering a career at Westminster, stating that her goal was to win the 2021 Scottish Parliament election and become the next First Minister. Her success in Scotland has, however, encouraged many Conservatives and political commentators to consider her as a potential new leader for the UK Conservative Party. It remains to be seen whether her distinct Scottish unionist brand of Conservatism would achieve similar success south of the border, in a very different political landscape to her own.

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Notes

1 Finlay, Richard J., “Thatcherism and the Union” in Devine, T.M. Scotland and the Union 1707-2007, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008, p. 171.

2 Kendrick, S. & McCrone, D., “Politics in a Cold Climate: The Conservative Decline in Scotland”, Political Studies 37 (3), 1989, p. 589.

3 Mitchell, J., Conservatives and the Union: A Study of Conservative Party Attitudes to Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

4 Seawright, D., An Important Matter of Principle: The Decline of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999, p. 199.

5 Convery, A., The Territorial Conservative Party. Devolution and Party Change in Scotland and Wales., Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016, p. 43.

6 Smith, A,. Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives: Banal Activism, Electioneering and the Politics of Irrelevance, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011.

7 Hopkin, J. & Bradbury J., “British statewide parties and multilevel politics”, The Journal of Federalism, 36, 2006, 135–52.

8 Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Scotland First, Scottish Parliament election 1999 manifesto.

9 Scottish Conservatives, Common Sense for Scotland, Scottish Parliament election 2011 manifesto.

10 Convery, A., The Territorial Conservative Party. Devolution and Party Change in Scotland and Wales., Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016, p. 48.

11 Murdo Fraser speech, 5th September 2011, “Murdo Fraser reveals plans for new Scottish Tory party”, online video: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/scottish-politics/8742143/Murdo-Fraser-reveals-plans-for-new-Scottish-Tory-party.html, last access 12/01/2018

12 Ruth Davidson speech, “Winning for Scotland”, 9th September 2011, online video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99r68XFpMDU, last access 12/01/2018

13 David Cameron, “Scotland Speech”, 16th February 2012, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/transcript-pm-scotland-speech, last access 12/01/2018

14 Ruth Davidson, “Strengthening Scotland”, Taking Scotland Forward speech, 26th March 2013, http://www.scottishconservatives.com/2013/03/strengthening-devolution-taking-scotland-forward/, last access 12/01/2018

15 Scottish Conservatives, Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland, May 2014.

16When these actions are taken within the context of Conservative policies on empowering individuals and decentralising power throughout the rest of the UK, it is clear that empowering the Scottish people to shape their own nation within the security of a United Kingdom is not just something we are willing only grudgingly to accept, it is something that sits at the very heart of what it means to be a modern Scottish Conservative”. Scottish Conservatives, Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland, May 2014.

17 Montgomery, M., “Defining ‘Authentic Talk’”, Discourse Studies, vol. 3 (4), 2001, p. 397.

18 Enli, G., Mediated Authenticity: How the Media Constructs Reality, Bern: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2015.

19 Moore, C., “Mrs May is no longer winning the battle for authenticity – Jeremy Corbyn is”, The Telegraph, 2nd June 2017.

20 Turner, J., “Seductive Jezza leaves us with a painful choice”, The Times, 3rd June 2017.

21 Hyde, M., “In Stoke, May marches on with familiar neuron-crushing dullness”, Guardian, 16th May 2017. “Her primary means of showing solidarity with workers is to deliver answers so robotic that they suggest even her own job has already been automated”.

22 Conservative and Unionist Party, Forward Together, The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2017.

23 “Theresa May’s balancing act and the neutering of UKIP, Financial Times, 24th February 2017.

24 Ashcroft, M., The Lost Majority, London: Biteback Publishing, 2017.

25 Spence, B., “The Tories need to learn from Ruth Davidson if they want to stay in power”, The Independent, 11th June 2017.

26 Harvey, O., “Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson postpones wedding to fiancée”, The Sun, 28th July 2017.

27 Umbach, M. & Humphrey, M., Authenticity: The Cultural History of a Political Concept, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

28 Heath, O. & Goodwin, M. “The 2017 General Election, Brexit and the Return to Two-Party Politics: An Aggregate-Level Analysis of the Result”, The Political Quarterly, 88 (3), 2017.

29 Ibid.

30 Brooks, L. “Jeremy Corbyn ‘can help Labour rebuild Scotland’”, Guardian, 24th August 2016.

31 Ashcroft, M., The Lost Majority, London: Biteback Publishing, 2017, p. 36.

32 Scottish National Party, Re-Elect, 2016 Manifesto, April 2016.

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Pour citer cet article

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Fiona Simpkins, « Challenging Theresa May’s vision of Brexit Britain : Ruth Davidson and the 2017 UK general election », Observatoire de la société britannique, 21 | -1, 141-160.

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Fiona Simpkins, « Challenging Theresa May’s vision of Brexit Britain : Ruth Davidson and the 2017 UK general election », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 21 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 21 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/2198 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.2198

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Fiona Simpkins

Maître de Conférences en Civilisation britannique à l'Université de Lyon II

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