26 March 2016

"She wore a blue collar..."

Every politician has their schtick, their story. Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson's, is that she is a ‘good, old-fashioned’ working-class Conservative, seasoned with a good pinch of socially liberal, unstarchy modernity.

As Peter Ross' Times profile puts it this morning, "Ms Davidson grew up in two traditional small towns, Selkirk and Lundin Links. She went to Buckhaven High and lacks silver spoons and old school ties." And there is clearly a good deal of truth to this. Davidson is not one of the born to rule brigade. She seems amiable, ordinary and doesn't take herself too seriously. She wasn't privately educated. Flattering profiles tend to describe her as a "champion of blue collar Tories" - which is just an Americanised way of saying - working class Tories. 

And yet the foundations of all this remain remarkable shaky. Bark at Ms Davidson that the Scottish Tories remain a party devoted to the service of the wealthy, of established privilege and property, and she'll almost inevitably dip into her biography rather than her policy catalogue to try to refute the point. The election campaign represents an admirable opportunity for Ms Davidson to move beyond an immature identity politics, and to produce some policy calculated to benefit the workers of "middle Scotland" who she says uniquely preoccupy her.

But thus far? All we've really seen is the same old, same old. Her education agenda seems authentically felt. But on tax and spend? Recent developments in SNP policy have represented a calculated provocation to Davidson’s party. And damagingly, if she wanted to prosecute a consistent blue collar agenda for her party, her troops are proving either indisciplined or ill-led. Mr Osborne’s upper rate tax cut, cancelled. Local taxation, hiked on the Georgian villas of the New Town and the corniced apartments of Pollokshields and Kelvinside. Threats and menaces continue about the additional rate of taxation. 

Each provocation has been met with the same old unreconstructed response on behalf of interests Tories have long represented: the high earners, the landowners, the large homeowners, the prosperous middle classes. And for the real “middle Scotland” – squeezed or unsqueezed, delete as preferred? For "aspirational" folks, taking home between £20,000 and £30,000 a year, and hoping to bump up their salaries over the coming years? Next to sod all, as far as I can see. Certainly nothing distinctive from what the more traditionally patrician leadership of her party in Westminster has come up with.

We await the party manifestos for May's elections with interest. But we're gradually getting a clearer picture of where the parties will stand on key issues, including taxation. And if the speech Ms Davidson gave this morning is anything to go by, beyond the warm words and the attractive biographical annotations, Ms Davidson seems most exercised by the pocketbooks of the richest 5% to 10% of Scots. Here's the key section of her speech: 

Last week, we learned the full cost of the SNP’s plans. Firstly, middle earners in Scotland will be forced to pay £3000 more in tax than people in England over the next five years. By the turn of the decade, the difference in take home pay for someone touching£50,000 will be £800 a year. And secondly, the additional rate may go up too. On Wednesday, the First Minister rightly declared she would not be increasing the additional rate of tax – because we know Scotland will lose money if she does. But by Thursday night, we learned that, actually, she’s had second thoughts – and that she may do so in future years. In short, we now have a Government which we know will make middle earners pay more – and which may make higher earners pay even more too.

We can discuss the merits of tax banding. We can have a meaningful debate about when the 40% banding ought to bite, and what the consequences of higher taxation at the upper and additional thresholds are likely to be. There was some good discussion below the line in last week's blog on this. But for all the Daily Mail's wishful thinking - which Ms Davidson appears to have swallowed whole someone earning £50,000 is not a middle earner.  

The point cannot be underscored often enough. The median full time income in this country is £27,000 a year. Someone earning £50k a year may sit midway between the very rich and the very poor in our society, but most working people do not. In Ms Davidson's Edinburgh region, the median salary is higher - £35,784 - but still well short of the figure £50k figure she cites in her speech today.

If this is Ms Davidson's definition of a "blue collar" Tory, good luck finding many of those outside of Edinburgh's more prosperous enclaves. In fairness, you can understand the politics of this. Ms Davidson has a core vote to whom she must also tend. The Conservative Party - like all big, governing coalitions - has competing forces and inclinations within it. I'm sure Davidson is sincere - in a fuzzy way - about wanting to give a leg up to those who begin life with few advantages. But if your main policy objectives are to protect those who are already well off? If you offer sod all to those you claim to champion? If you claim you have a working class agenda, but all you talk about is protecting the pocketbooks of a relatively small minority of higher earners at the top? 

Then, to be honest, I don't give a fig whether you've pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, or whether you are the first person in your family to go to university. Your autobiography has become a convenient mask, to distract the people - and perhaps, to distract yourself - from the gulf separating your political ideals and the priorities you are actually pursuing. 

There was an interesting, human moment when Andrew Marr interviewed Iain Duncan Smith last weekend. The former Work and Pensions Secretary was confronted with the gap between his stated aspirations and what the government of which he had been part had actually achieved. Duncan Smith found his passion, defended his principles, and ultimately - failed credibly to bridge the gap between what he said he wanted to do, and what the record showed about his term in office. 

When pressed in a similar way, Ms Davidson has also got into the habit of retreating into her personal story, just as Iain Duncan Smith retreated to his principles. The former Work and Pensions Secretary invites us to judge him, not on his failures and his achievements, but on his good intentions. In Ruth Davidson's empty "blue collar" Toryism, we can already almost hear the dull echo of the Quiet Man's aspirations, and his regrets.


  1. Well argued and cited Mr Worrier. And well done for avoiding the obvious conclusion about what Ms Davidson might look like to the class she grew up in.

  2. Well said and argued with conviction - Ruth is selling (well, hawking...it remains to be seen if anyone's buying) an Easter egg of a policy...all sweet and pretty omg the outside, wrapped in the gold foil of "compassionate conservatism", and tied with a lovely ribbon of "I grew up poor", but ultimate, when you bite into the chocolate, it's as hollow on the inside as one of them disappointing sickly things they'll be discounting in tescos on monday morning.

    She personally might be saying all the nice things (middle-Scotland rubbish aside), but even if she is, and even if she actually genuinely believes it, it doesn't matter, because on the inside, the Tory party is still the same old men (with some few ladies), talking about their land, their privilege, espousing the kind of views the majority dumped 40 years ago.
    They just got better at hiding it.

  3. I read with interest and agree with the blog in its meaning and conclusion,with a few bits of my own that I would add:Firstly Ruth Davidson is one who I think deceives herself or perhaps she has been deceived and is a little naive,to me I see somebody who wants to join in a party to belong to something.She also comes over as looking for a career and really any party would have done as long as it is a rock steady party and one that would accept her,provisionally the Conservative party does accept her.She will have a place to be able to rise to and that and no further,but she may not realise yet.I look and see her as having a ready smile but it looks a little nervous or insincere,perhaps just me,but I'm not sure of her,and maybe many other are similar and not convinced of her.

  4. To be an outstandingly boring politician in the already oppressively boring theatre of Scottish politics takes something. Contrary to dogma - put about even by Labour! - that is the only extent to which Ruth Davidson is politically talented.

    This blog is obviously correct in its identification of her favourite non-sequitur: an appeal to background made as though to answer a question about policy.

    One can't forgive Davidson her woeful attempts to court public sympathy but one can understand such attempts. For a swath of Scotland legitimacy clearly trumps authority. To exemplify: how much popular disappointment does one sense when moral answers given to economic questions in Hollyrood? You don't want to cut the taxes 'middle Scotland' because...? Real 'middle Scotland' and 'working Scotland' are struggling and won't see a cut and that 'isn't right'. Excuse me: was that not the force of much of Nicola Sturgeon's response to a recent budget proposition from Westminster?

    I think this blog does something hypocritical after it scorns Ruth Davidson's blue collar façade.

    "Your autobiography has become a convenient mask, to distract the people [...] from the gulf separating your political ideals and the priorities you are actually pursuing."

    One can only be agnostic about the gulf alluded to. The policies of the Scottish Conservatives remain largely unimplemented after all. And if I now say, as a long-suffering (ha!) participant in 'working-Scotland', never having earned more than £20K PA, that the steadily increasing Personal Allowance, (artificially) increased minimum wages, married persons tax relief and all the rest of it has done me no end of favours, what will be said in reply? (Still) that the Scottish Tories are not 'of the working people'? That a Scottish Government with the same powers would've done the same?

    To end on a note of agreement: of course the bottom-line here is accurate. Ruth Davidson will get nowhere by telling people that she was brought-up to expect nothing. She'll only earn contempt - despite the fact that she might actually do something worthwhile in power.

    Of course, much worse than her blue-collar crap is her pliancy to public opinion. Oh! Is there anything worse? Against more devo'. For more devo'. Blah blah. She'd have more of a market if she preoccupied herself with having done with fatuous things like the 'Football Act'; getting out of the EU, suggesting that the NHS has had its day, saying that we're too keen to lift people for what they say (and so on). It mightn't be a big market but hey - it wouldn't be boring.

  5. Ruth Davidson said in the Big Big Debate before the Indy Ref that she/her party were not in favour of a more equal society.
    After all, she's a Tory. That's what they do.

  6. Ruth " remain in the EU no matter what" Davidson is surely Cameron's chapette in Scotland ?
    Her stated intent to campaign for the end of democracy and our sovereign right to self determination within the UK even before Cameron had completed his feeble flop of a non-renegotation of the terms of our unwarranted surrender of those priceless rights to corporate despotism rather rams that point home.

    Such shall be our lot if you and she succeed in your pitiful campaign: perpetual poodledom,to become wretched fools who threw away their democratic birthright for nothing, to blindly, impotently follow whatever diktats our masters in Washington and Bruxelles might decree with that snap their fingers which you and the SNP fear to ignore, and which Ruth and the Tories exist to serve.
    If Cameron fails to win his second Campaign Fear, this time to put at an end end all real, effective, representative British democracy, if the will of the British people favours democracy and representative, accountable government in this kingdom, his treachery will run into the sand and his regime shrivel and die faster than a cinematic vampire touched by the light of a democratic dawn.

    And as they watch this horror of freedom and democracy unfold before their appalled eyes ,his loyal Scotch Generals in Campaign Fear II ...Davidson Sturgeon and Dugdale and whatever wretched little man commands the Lib-Dems will have little time to lament this damnable assertion of our rights.
    Their time will have passed along with their unexplainable fear of real democracy...

    but never mind,both Scotland and England might then want independence, and real democracy, in which anyone can stand for parliament, even men,irrespective of gender..

    or is that too much democracy for your comfort ?
    too much freedom for you who prefer to usurp the rights of sovereign nation states with a crony capitalist corporate cabal.?
    Is such power in the hands of common people wasted when you seek an unaccountable, all powerful , a bureaucratic nightmare with a rubber-stamp parliament of powerless Eurotoadies in place of democracy justice and the rule of our common law ?

    or just too much altogether for self appointed morally superiour dickheads to contemplate?

  7. "Davidson is surely Cameron's chapette in Scotland ?"

    Of courrse she is. They bent the leadership competition rules to bring her in, all the party grandees lined up to endorse her, and they made damn sure Murdo Fraser didn't win.

    She's far more of a branch manager than any Scottish Labour leader ever was.