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Ruth Resigns: What Could This Mean for The Future of the Scottish Conservatives?

On Thursday, the Scottish Conservative Leader, Ruth Davidson voiced her resignation to the disappointment of both some of her supporters and rivals, citing her family as reason for her resignation with undertones of her disappointment for Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament.

The leader of almost 8 years was seen to have left a legacy through her ambitious and tenacious approach to politics, her genuine resilience to stand up for her beliefs and her ability to open politics up for others. However, her legacy was seen to be most effective on that of her own party in Scotland. Once almost a complete by-stander in the race for Holyrood, standing in 3rd place behind the Labour Party and the SNP, Davidson managed to lift the party up into second place beating Scottish Labour. She also brought the Scottish Conservatives into the limelight of UK Politics, creating a better relationship with the Tories in Westminster and becoming a popular politician among Conservatives across the UK, often cited as a future leader of the UK-wide party, while often honourably declining such allegations to focus on progress in Scotland and her own mental health.  However, now that such a leader as Davidson has gone, what could be the future for the Scottish Conservatives?

The End of the Scottish Conservatives?

With Ruth’s influence now gone, there are questions on who can replace her while maintaining her legacy. Undeniably Ruth played a major role in the revival of the Scottish Conservatives after her election as Party Leader back in 2011. It has been reported in the past however, that some members of the Scottish Conservatives, particularly those who are ‘Davidsonites’ have made comments about splitting the party, particularly from former Deputy Leader, Murdo Fraser. However, this is contradicted by Davidson’s own comments of keeping the party united, something that played a part in winning her the leadership in 2011. There have been rumours of reviving such plans in an aim to remove the party from their association with Boris Johnson and his team of hard- Brexiteers, especially as many Conservative MSPs stood for Remain back in 2016. Despite stepping down as leader, Ruth Davidson, one of those MSPs, is staying in place as a Conservative MSP, possibly further linked to her stance on staying united.  With many Scottish Conservative MSPs united behind her, it’s likely her colleagues will also stay within the party to satisfy voters in Scotland. 

Furthermore, rumours have spread of splitting the party to form the old Unionist Party in Scotland and from the opinion of some Conservative members the upcoming leadership election could potentially be a battle ground between the two sides of the Scottish Conservative coin. However, the current interim leader Jackson Carlaw has made clear that no such loosening of the party will occur, despite even himself campaigning for Remain in 2016. There is also no doubt  from some that the achievements made by Davidson could disappear, including her doubling of Conservative MSPs in just one election and her instrumental role in defeating the SNP during the 2014 Independence Referendum, while others express that it would be distasteful to incite such ideas and that it is not time to despair over the rest of the party’s capabilities.

Could the Union be at threat?

In addition to splitting the Scottish Conservatives to form a new version of the Unionist Party, this is not the way according to some and if it occurred could pose a potential threat to maintaining Scotland’s relationship with the UK. Henry Hill, writing for CapX argues that such a split is not the way to save the Union, using the UUP in Ireland as a good example of how history has not been kind to the recreation of Unionist Parties. Devolution (which is ever more developing today than it was during the resurrection of the UUP) created tensions between the UUP and their counterparts in Westminster. These tensions eventually put the relationship between Northern Ireland and the UK’s central government under strain, with the Unionists eventually refusing to back their allies. It is likely with the Scottish Conservative’s preference for Remain or Soft Brexit, that a new Scottish Unionist Party could face the same fate. 

In addition, Ruth Davidson was well known for holding strong the Pro-Unionist vote, however since the election of Boris Johnson as leader many believed this has strengthened the belief by Nationalists that Westminster only serves a Southern Elite. The result of the Brexit referendum has also served as a catalyst of this view, however Davidson worked hard to both accept the result while standing up for the views of her remain voters, despite her role in the Remain campaign. The election of Boris Johnson has increased the call for independence in Scotland according to a recent poll, therefore a potential way in which the Scottish Conservatives could maintain their ties is by having a leader able to convince Scottish voters of the potential benefits of the union after Brexit, while not forgetting the needs of their own voters. Overall, a potentially difficult but achievable task as shown by Ruth Davidson’s legacy. However, with the ever-growing concern over the Irish border, it is possible that voters anywhere outside of England could lose faith over the UK Government’s perceived complacency with the Union.

The bigger picture…

There are concerns that Ruth Davidson’s departure may also spark concern over gender equality, with many women across the UK identifying with the former leader’s move to resign partially in light of her changing personal and family life. Writing for the Guardian, Libby Brooks, argues that pressure for women to balance work and family life still exists today, with the heavier load of these decisions still mainly on women rather than men. However, Brooks rightly identifies that “Davidson did not suggest that women can’t do top jobs and have young children” and she is not advocating that women must leave their jobs to look after their children, as many hardcore feminists have reportedly accused her. Instead it is a possible opportunity for us to show that women do have a choice in what they do with their lives and if that’s changing their employment situation then shouldn’t we let that be?

Overall, many will agree that Ruth’s influence not only helped her party gain second place at Holyrood, as well as 13 Westminster MPs but also further improved a general openness towards Scottish Politics. Scottish Secretary Allister Jack hailed her as ‘inspirational and transformational’. Reasons for why she was seen to be so transformational may be left to someone’s own personal opinion, however she was definitely see by many to inspire the next generation of politicians in Scotland, particularly due to her passionate communication style and her fresh outlook on the Union.

Mr Jack added “At the heart of Ruth’s success has been her brilliance as a communicator and her passion for strengthening Scotland’s place in the UK. She has consistently articulated a positive vision of the Union and that is why she played such an important role in the successful 2014 campaign to stay part of the UK and why a majority of Scots continue to oppose a second independence referendum.” The Scottish Conservatives have now begun the race to hopefully continue that success.

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

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