By Kenneth Roy
There are conversions on the road to Damascus; and then there’s Scottish politics. Two apparent changes of mind or heart were recorded at the weekend, and it is too late to inquire first-hand about the subject of one of them, for he is dead. Of the one who is still alive, more in a bit.
The many fulsome tributes to Campbell Christie, the former general secretary of the STUC, emphasised his support for a Scottish parliament but his antipathy to independence. ‘Staunch’ was a word commonly used to describe the strength of his opposition to the dissolution of the UK. Well, I was surprised to hear this. Only slightly, however. It’s Scottish politics, remember, not Damascus.
In pre-devolution days, I interviewed Dr Christie (as he then wasn’t: he styled himself in this way after the award of an honorary degree some years later) and 22 other prominent Scots for a book called ‘Conversations in a Small Country’ (out of print). The dark, heavy wood of our meeting place – the headquarters of the STUC in the Woodlands district of Glasgow – seemed to breathe half-forgotten glories. Proudly woven union banners adorned the walls. It was a place of melancholy dignity.
I followed Campbell Christie up a wide staircase into an enormous room dominated by a long table. It was here that the leaders of Scottish trade unionism met to contemplate the ravages of Thatcherism and their own much-diminished influence in national life. In a corner of this room, facing the empty conference chamber, sat the general secretary at his desk.
He was unexpectedly upbeat for a man who spent his working day in this gloomy atmosphere, and on the outlook for a Scottish parliament, then a distant pipe dream, he was positively animated. He assured me that this parliament must have sweeping interventionist powers, particularly over the economy, and seemed keen on what he called ‘a school of thought’ that Scotland should raise its own taxes and pay Westminster its share of the costs of the few reserved powers.
I suggested to him that this was coming pretty close to independence. He replied that independence as a first step was too dangerous a gamble. Why not have common defence and foreign policies, a unified pensions and social security structure? The important thing was to manage our own business to the maximum effect.
The conversation continued:
‘But you don’t rule out independence at some future stage?’
‘If it’s clear, as a result of experience, that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be independent, I’m prepared to enter into the debate. I don’t say no. I don’t say never.’
Could this, even by a stretch of the always generous political imagination, be called ‘staunch’ in its opposition to independence? Yet somehow the reality of a Scottish parliament, far from persuading him to ‘enter into the debate’, must have hardened such philosophical opposition as he felt. Possibly Campbell Christie’s change of mind or heart occurred slowly in the light of experience, maturing as he observed the seemingly irresistible rise of the Scottish National Party, an unimagined inconvenience in 1989.
How could the Ruth Davidson of May 2011, painfully aware of the burdens being placed upon her, so rapidly have become the Ruth Davidson of November the same year, the one taking no nonsense from the prime minister?
But what are we to make of another staunch opponent of independence, the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson?
Unlike the late Dr Christie, Miss Davidson does not appear ever to have flirted with the idea of an independent Scotland. In the year of my interview with the general secretary, she was a primary schoolgirl in Fife and, if not an admirer of Mrs Thatcher, staunch at that, was soon to become one. She is now all of 32 years old, a list MSP for at least six months, and is already telling the world that if ‘her’ prime minister (Dave) needs a ‘quiet tap on the shoulder’ she is ‘just the girl to do it’.
Wow. This cannot be the same Ruth Davidson with whom I corresponded in late May. I mean: can it really?
A few weeks after the Holyrood election, someone proposed a series of diaries in the Scottish Review to be kept by bright opposition MSPs new to the parliament. Unaware that any of the freshly minted members had had promise thrust upon them, I called for names. My adviser responded with two: Labour’s Jenny Marra and the Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson. I decided to start with Miss Davidson (I never did get around to Jenny Marra. Presumably she continues to be promising).
Miss Davidson promptly agreed to keep a diary of her first weeks in the parliament and we had a brief exchange of emails about the length and style of the piece. She mentioned the style of Bridget Jones as a possibility and I said Bridget sounded just fine.
A week or so later, she emailed again with disappointing news. She had been assigned a hefty portfolio of responsibilities, and was to speak for her party on a wide range of issues, which she listed for my information. It made impressive reading. Clearly she was going to be a busy new girl. But the tone of her email suggested that she was somewhat daunted by the prospect and that it was already having an effect on her personal life. She was candid enough to explain how.
She concluded that, on top of everything else, keeping a diary for the Scottish Review was probably too much. She would think about it at the weekend and get back to me if the diary was still possible. I never heard from her again.
When, not terribly long afterwards, she announced that she was standing for the leadership, I was surprised for two reasons. This inexperienced figure presuming to be ready for the hard slog of opposition to so formidable a master of the dark arts as Alex Salmond – this was bold, if not over-ambitious. But, more intriguingly from my point of view, there was the sense of an abrupt transformation. How could the Ruth Davidson of May 2011, painfully aware of the burdens being placed upon her, so rapidly have become the Ruth Davidson of November the same year, the one taking no nonsense from the prime minister?
I shall be watching the progress of this remarkable young woman with close interest, while thinking nostalgically of the Bridget Jones diary that never was.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review