David Cameron had the best warm-up act possible today for his speech: before he was speaking, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson had her turn. It’s a bit odd to describe someone who has been Scottish Tory leader since 2011 as a ‘rising star’, but the truth is that Davidson’s profile has been rising over the past year, and not just because of the Scottish referendum. Her speech was a pretty good demonstration of why this MSP should get an even higher profile in the Tory party across the UK: passionate, insightful, clear and human.
Seb explains her key message, which was that the Tories cannot be ‘seen as decent technocrats’, here. Her fear of the ‘decent technocrats’ was provoked partly by a meeting that Davidson held yesterday in Manchester, not with some fellow Tories, but with a group of young people. She went along with Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb to a youth project called RECLAIM that supports and inspires working class young people – and I tagged along with them to see what these two politicians were up to.
Davidson described the group of teenagers as ‘the most impressive, articulate, passionate people you could ever hope to meet’, and she wasn’t overdoing the praise: they were great. They were particularly good at telling these two politicians what they thought of the Conservative party and of their strong conviction that no-one in politics understood them.
Their sentiments weren’t unusual: it’s not just working class teenagers from Moss Side who feel that politicians are stuck in a nice cosy bubble. But what was unusual was Davidson’s response. Instead of simpering at this group of young people and saying ‘yes, we’re terrible’, she said – quite gently and kindly – that she found it rather ‘hurtful’ that even though she was from a working class background herself, as a politician she was immediately considered too far removed from normal people to be able to understand them. Politics needed to change so that this divide didn’t spring up the whole time, she said. And that’s why she told the conference hall that those teenagers ‘made one thing clear too – they see themselves utterly set apart – socially and economically segregated – from every single politician and decision-maker that talks on TV’.
Davidson went on in her speech to talk about the Tories’ underlying sense of social mission and their language. But what she didn’t mention was the presentation that the charity had shown her and Crabb as part of the visit. It was about the way working class people were shut out of the uppermost levels of politics. It pointed out that there have been 19 Prime Ministers from Eton, but not one from Moss Side.
These two ambitious politicians then spent two hours sitting under posters reminding us all about the absurd lack of social mobility in politics. Neither of them went to Eton. Both Davidson and Crabb were born in working class families, and were state-educated. They’re part of an increasingly vocal faction in the Tory party that appears to think it’s time for another poster like the one below to confound the bleak statement in that RECLAIM poster above.
That group includes Justine Greening, who rather impressively managed to insert lines about her own upbringing in Rotherham into a speech about International Development policy. It will be interesting to see what solution these Tories come up with when the leadership contest does finally swing around. And in the meantime, it will be interesting to see what influence that faction brings to bear on different government departments – just as it’s already changing the way the Scottish Tories talk. All of it should have the aim of giving a clear answer to this question of what does the Conservative party offer a working class teenager from Moss Side?