The game being played between the press and Ruth Davidson MSP is becoming tedious. Once again at Tory Party conference, Ms. Davidson was asked repeatedly whether she would ever stand for the Tory leadership in Westminster. Like all would-be prime ministers, Ms. Davidson denied again and again that she wanted the role. This dishonest denialism somewhat jarred with her straight-talking, honest image.
Ms. Davidson is apparently regarded by many in the Tory establishment as the answer to all their woes. They eulogise not her politics, but her personality. They make much of the fact that she is a lesbian, a former kickboxer, a former signaller in the Territorial Army and that she has, as we are frequently reminded, “the X factor.”
It is true that British politics has become increasingly presidential and personalised over recent decades. Much of Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity with Labour members and younger voters is based not on his policy positions, but on his personality. The friendly, avuncular, unairbrushed old maverick is now greeted by quasi-football chants wherever he goes.
Jeremy Corbyn is, however, the Leader of the Opposition. His policy positions were ultimately rejected by the British people at the last election, and Labour’s manifesto did not come under the usual scrutiny applied to an alternative government (for reasons discussed at length on this website and elsewhere). Corbyn’s personality can only take Labour so far.
Should we accept that Ms. Davidson has a personality with broader appeal than the typical Tory leader? The theory in favour of her personal appeal advances as follows. She is young. She has a working-class backstory. She is blunt and witty and charming, unlike her stuffier rivals. She is openly gay and therefore a symbol of modernity. She is a female Boris Johnson, without the trappings of snobbery, incompetence or spinelessness.
There is no proof as yet that such characteristics are more appealing to the mind of the average British voter than those of a more stereotypical Tory leader. The last Tory to win a majority, David Cameron, was an Old Etonian male, whose polished poshness could not have been more apparent. He managed to beat a Jewish atheist and ex-grammar school boy, Ed Miliband, who was allegedly pressed into marriage for the sake of political expediency.
On actual politcs, the case for fearing Ms. Davidson is also half-formed. She was an ardent remainer who would need to win the support of Tory members, an overwhelming majority of whom backed Brexit. She has no experience of Westminster governance and has always led the Tories in opposition in Scotland. Imposing a Scottish-based leader on a UK Parliament not long after the Tories whipped up the fear of Nicola Sturgeon holding a Labour minority government hostage would be ironic to say the least.
Many of Ms. Davidson’s most ardent supporters complacently claim that the greatest obstacle to her leadership is her lack of a parliamentary seat. The irony of wanting to foist a non-establishment candidate on our politics by finding her a seat with which she has no connection is apparently lost on these hacks.
Perhaps the greater challenges to Ms. Davidson’s political success in Wesminster are twofold. First, she must contend with a Tory Party membership which would likely be uncomfortable with the idea of being led by a homosexual Remainer. And, second, her laudable, modern backstory would be placed before the nation in the aftermath of its tumultuous decision, via Brexit, to reject the breathtaking pace of change it has borne witness to in recent decades.
Ms. Davidson is undoubtedly a talented politician with enviable qualities. Whether so many in the Tory Party should be lauding her as their saviour, and whether so many in the Labour Party should be in fear of her, is more doubtful. As a nation, we seem to have become preoccupied with the personalities of our political leaders. But true political leadership is about far more than personality. At heart, boring though it may seem, it is about policy.