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Ruth Davidson is on manoeuvres. What is she playing at?

So Ruth Davidson, honorary colonel in the signals reserve, is on manoeuvres again. It is past time, the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party says, for the government to rethink its approach to immigration. Time, instead, for an adult debate on the subject at the end of which, she hopes, the government will rethink its obstinate insistence on treating immigration as nothing more than a numbers game. And since the government keeps missing its targets on immigration, perhaps it would be sensible to revise those targets? At the very least, she says, it is absurd to insist that foreign undergraduates should be counted as immigrants when the public itself doesn’t think they should. 

This is all very grown-up and therefore, in the current climate, intensely suspicious. What is she playing at? The simplest, if also the least fashionable, explanation is that Davidson actually says what she thinks and means what she says. If that makes her a spokeswoman for a more relaxed, internationalist, modern, moderate Conservatism then so be it. You zoom if you want to, Colonel Ruth’s not for zooming. 

Be that as it may, there are other factors in play here. The first, and most important of which, is that what is good for Mrs May is not necessarily good for Ms Davidson. The Scottish party’s needs are not the same as those demanded by the party as a whole. And Ruth Davidson must put the Scottish party’s interests first. 

Those interests demand a certain differentiation from the UK party. Davidson and her closest colleagues are keenly aware that as many as a third of the 750,000 Scots who voted for Conservative candidates in June could not reasonably be considered blue-rinsed, diehard Tories. Davidson’s task is to make these loaned votes permanent. That means she must deviate from Conservative orthodoxy. 

In England, the Tories have a choice of strategy. They can convert non-Tories or, because there are just enough votes on the right to do this, they can choose to run a campaign that emphasises the core vote. That means an election becomes a question of mobilisation more than it is one of persuasion. Getting your troops to polling stations is what counts. I think this a sub-optimal strategy but it is a viable one in England. 

Things are different in Scotland. There are not enough “natural” Tories to run campaigns based on mobilisation. In Scotland, the Tories must persuade too. Which in turn means, almost by default, they must be closer to the centre than is the case in England. 

This is not altogether new, either. Scottish Unionism’s successes have tended to be measured by the extent to which they advance the Scottish interest, rather than the interest of any one particular party. That, of course, was before the rise of the SNP, a rise in large part predicated on the presumption that only it could and would “speak for Scotland”. This, then, is not a matter of left, right or centre but, rather, of the national interest as represented at Westminster. 

Davidson’s challenge is to wrest that mantle from the SNP. She must make it plain that her party is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UK party but, instead, its own organisation with its own particular interest and needs. She cannot afford, as a matter of both principle and tactics, to toe Mrs May’s line. Just as the Secretary of State for Scotland has always – even in the Thatcher years – been Scotland’s man (or, on just one occasion, woman) in the cabinet rather than the cabinet’s man in Scotland, so Davidson’s MPs – and they are her MPs, not May’s – must bring something tangible back to Scotland. 

Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, understands this. The Treasury will be expected to deliver something for Scotland in the next budget. This would have been a matter of some importance even if Mrs May had won a majority but it assumes even greater significance in the light of the deal the Prime Minister cut to secure the support of the DUP. The Jocks are going to need a very large truck of money too, if only to demonstrate that voting for Conservative MPs brings greater rewards than voting for SNP candidates can ever hope to do. 

It is a tricky balance to strike, however. Davidson must have one foot inside the government and one foot outside it. That preserves her independence and her influence; too much of one compromises the other when she needs both. It is not easy to be a critical but also loyal friend but that is the role Davidson finds herself playing. 

Davidson is a Conservative but, like almost every Scottish politician, she is also a nationalist. Nationalism in Scotland has always existed on a spectrum. When John Buchan said every Scotsman should be a nationalist he didn’t mean Scotland should be independent, merely that Scottish politicians owed an allegiance to an idea of Scotland and a distinct Scottish national interest. Davidson is cut from the same familiar cloth as Baron Tweedsmuir. 

Above all, she recognises that if the Conservative revival in Scotland is to be sustained, the party needs to offer something more than just Conservatism. It must, instead, be a nationalist-Unionist revival. An old tune, perhaps, but one given a new and refreshed airing now. 

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