Two years ago, Nicola Sturgeon led her Scottish National Party to a wipeout victory, cleaning up 56 out of the 59 Westminster parliamentary seats in Scotland.
The fight for Scottish independence, that had seemingly been settled in the “once in a generation” referendum just six months previously, was now firmly back on the agenda.
Today, the landscape could not look more different.
The Scottish Conservatives, who won just a single seat back in 2015, have had the comeback of their lives, and it’s all down to one woman: the indomitable Ruth Davidson.
Thanks to Davidson, the SNP can no longer claim that they are on the rise. In fact, they are on the backfoot, and so is their cherished cause. Meanwhile, Scottish Tories have come back from the wilderness, building on their success in local council elections last month, where they doubled their vote from 2012, and beat Labour to slide into second place.
But it’s not just about vote share. Under Davidson, the Scottish Tories have become the party of unionism, the voice of cohesion and British identity in Scotland in the face of aggressive nationalism. Davidson has been a thorn in Sturgeon’s side, constantly challenging the first minister on her favourite refrain that she speaks for Scotland.
Without Davidson, Scotland could have been dragged down the path towards independence. Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale may have good intentions, but her equivocation has made her and her party look weak. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Scottish debate earlier this week, in which Sturgeon suggested Dugdale had said Labour might change its position on holding a second Scottish vote after the EU referendum. No, if unionists want someone who will stand up to the separatists, it has to be Davidson.
The fact that most Scots don’t seem to want independence (more Scots voted to stay in the UK in 2014 than in the EU in 2016) has done nothing to halt the SNP’s tireless – and undemocratic – campaign. Even before Article 50 had been triggered, Sturgeon was demanding a second referendum, to be held right in the middle of Brexit negotiations for maximum inconvenience. Who spoke out against her, saying the Scottish people had the right to see what post-Brexit Britain was like before making a decision? Ruth Davidson.
The Scottish Tory leader has managed three momentous achievements beyond simply getting her party back on the Scottish map. First, she has reminded the Scottish people that independence is not the only issue affecting their lives. From rising NHS waiting times north of the border to the shocking state of the Scottish education system (where low-income children are left to struggle in failing schools while funding is diverted to send their middle-class peers to university for free), she has held the SNP to account for their floundering performance in government.
Second, Davidson has been a passionate ambassador to the rest of the UK, stressing to English citizens in particular that, despite what Sturgeon might insist, the SNP does not speak for Scotland. Every time an SNP spokesperson snaps up airtime to demand the “Scotland’s voice” is heard, Davidson is there as a stubborn reminder that Scotland has multiple voices, and not all of them are calling to break all ties with the rest of Britain.
And most importantly, she has challenged the arrogant assumption that you cannot be a patriotic Scot unless you back independence. For the two million Scots who voted “no” in 2014 but fear being branded “traitors” by ardent nationalists, Davidson has been their heroine: a down-to-earth Territorial Army reserve from Fife who grew up to be the unapologetic champion of the United Kingdom.
It’s worked. If Sturgeon was expecting support for independence to rise following the Brexit decision, she has had a brutal reality check. Sentiment currently stands at 41 per cent in favour, 53 per cent against – almost exactly the result of the 2014 referendum.
Davidson’s job this week wasn’t to win back Scotland from the SNP (although there are many who hope that she one day will). It was to be a voice for everyone in Scotland who is fed up with their legitimate concerns being trampled over by SNP grandstanding, and remind them no one has to choose between being Scottish and British.