On the mean streets of Lundin Links

Sunday National, 25th July 2021.

Any appointment to the House of Lords is guaranteed to rouse my inner Jacobin. The spectacle of Baroness Davidson of Lundin Links wafting to her red bench in full stoat coat, swearing to be “faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen” is the stuff revolutions are made of.

Davidson promptly began trying to reframe her elevation to the Lords as a heart-warming story of social mobility. “As a teenage Modern Studies pupil, learning about politics at Buckhaven High School, I didn’t believe that someone like me could ever have the chance to serve in not one, but two parliaments.”

Davidson was “introduced” to her new status by Mark McInnes – former director of the Scottish Tories – and Baron Keen of Elie, another former Scottish Tory Chairman and owner of one small castle and one minor firearms conviction. She follows her predecessor Baroness Goldie of Bishopton, and Lord Wallace of Tanktop, and Nicol Stephen of God Knows Where into the ermine.

And let’s not forget Jack McConnell, and the bevy of other Blairite flotsam and jetsam who traded in their Scottish Labour constituency seats for life peerages. Where would the affairs of the nation be without the wisdom of George Foulkes and Helen Liddell and George Robertson and John Reid to fall back on? And we can thank the House of Lords too for the fact that Michael Forsyth is still amongst us, keeping up the old Thatcherite rite. The wards around Westminster the only things keeping the exorcists and vampire hunters at bay.

The idea you’re only accepting your title because you want to “reform the House of Lords from within” is the kind of humbug which has been sustaining the scarlet plantations of supposedly democratic socialist Lords and Ladies in cosy Westminster nooks for decades. Somehow, they find their way around to upgrading their station and cashing in the monthly allowances, while the impetus to reform anything leaks away.

Davidson tells us that it is “vital” the “important work” of the House of Lords “is undertaken by a mix of people from all backgrounds and all parts of the country.” In this, all backgrounds are equal, but some backgrounds are more equal than others. Just ask Viscount Stansgate. Two weeks ago, Tony Benn’s oldest son decided he fancied a shot at being a legislator.  Having revived his father defunct peerage, he took up a House of Lords seat without a since vote being cast in his favour. If there had been an election, three – you read that right, three – Labour hereditary peers would have been tasked with deciding which noble colleague they most fancied sitting in the Lords dining room with. Mr Benn got his seat unopposed.

There are now 792 of these people, including 26 bishops of the Church of England and 92 hereditary peers who are given the opportunity to make an unmake laws – and pocket thousands of pounds in tax-free allowances a year – because their great-great-great grandfathers annexed the right bit of England, repressed the right peasants’ revolt, beheaded the right people for king and country or deftly avoided being beheaded themselves. There are people of quality in the massive throng of time-served party hacks and professional bores – but this is the world Lady Lundin Links is stepping into. This is what she has forgone democratic politics to embrace.

We often associate criticisms of identity politics with the right wing of our politics. Less commonly noticed, however, is how intrinsic it has been to Davidson’s political career. Her political identity was largely grounded in not embodying a series of Tory clichés. She’s not a man. She isn’t ostentatiously posh. She wasn’t privately educated. She isn’t straight. Throughout her stint in Holyrood, Davidson regarded this series of surprises as an alternative to having political ideas, or doing anything to improve the material conditions of ordinary people, or acting to reshape the Scottish Tories into anything resembling modern Scotland.

Take the idea of women’s representation. In 2021, a record number of women were returned as MSPs, constituting just under 45% of the whole chamber. The reason that number isn’t higher is Ruth Davidson’s legacy. Just over a quarter of the Tory MSPs are women. The social mix too shows no sign of having been changed by the former leader’s “blue collar conservatism.” Around a third of the Tory group went to private schools – compared to just 5% of the Scottish population. This remains the case however often you trot out Annie Wells as the Conservative voice of the plain people of Scotland. These social orientations were reflected in Davidson’s tax policies through her whole stint in Holyrood. The only consistent Scottish Tory tax demand is that the richest should pay less.

If you are a woman who does nothing to bring other women into politics, a supposedly “ordinary person” who has no policies to improve the lot of the ordinary man or woman, someone who thinks their own elevation to an institution whose whole fabric is spun from snobbery, distinction and deference is a social diversity win – then frankly, I don’t give a damn how homespun your early life might have been on the mean streets of Lundin Links.

Gerard Manley Hopkins has a good line on it: “What I do is me.” Park your personal story. Park the educational choices your parents made. Park all the things you’re not. In politics, you are what you choose to do. Everything else is just falderal, press-releases and self-justification. Davidson’s short and comparatively unsuccessful career has been about denying that maxim. Like too many modern politicians, she didn’t want to do something, but to be something. And now, she thinks being a member of the House of Lords is some kind of blow for diversity which the rest of us should celebrate. It is an astonishingly narcissistic view of what politics is about.

In this, she finds her mirror image in the Prime Minister the former Scottish Tory leader is still at pains to abominate in public.

A mean truth of human nature is that the faults of others which tend to bother us most are those faults we’re unconscious of in ourselves. Look at the human picture. A superficially jovial politician who likes to think of themselves as a “different kind of Tory,” with a colourful and sometimes transgressive turn of phrase, who struggles to identify any core agenda they want to pursue even when they take power. Someone who likes straddling different ideas, sometimes presenting themselves as a one nation Tory, sometimes a liberal Tory, sometimes all about the blue collar voter, sometimes about “the wealth creators,” sometimes against Brexit, and sometimes all for it. Who am I describing, Johnson or Davidson?

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Johnson is simply a more successful example of the same political type, and it is this more than anything else which gets under the Baroness’s skin. She told the house magazine of the Scottish Tories this week she was “astonished” Johnson signed off her peerage. “When it came through, I was like, ‘Are you f***king kidding me?” Such a nice way with words she has.

But even this is self-aggrandising, and not a little revealing. I suppose we’re meant to believe – and Davidson may herself belief – that she was a thorn in Boris Johnson’s side, that she somehow loomed large in his worldview. Davidson may well believe Johnson is her nemesis. I really doubt the Prime Minister repays her the complement. I mean, why should he? For all the huffing and puffing, what real injury has Davidson ever dealt him?

In October 2018, Davidson boldly threatened to resign. In a joint letter with David Mundell, she indicated she would up sticks as Scottish Tory leader if the UK agreed any Brexit deal which “creates a border of any kind in the Irish Sea and undermines the Union or leads to Northern Ireland having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, beyond what currently exists.”

When such a deal was brought back from Brussels, she didn’t resign. Neither did Mundell. Scottish Tory schemes to “block” Johnson’s ascent to the party leadership came to nothing. The party in the rest of the country just didn’t care that much about what Davidson or her colleagues thought.

Issuing mildly critical press releases from time to time might feel like achieving something, but it is just a form of political slacktivism. Back in the real world, Davidson didn’t land a claw on Johnson in any meaningful way. Of course he signed off your ruddy peerage.

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