Ruth Davidson’s breath of fresh air

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the reviving Scottish Conservatives, is a Tory of a different hue from the stereotype. The Unherd website she has written for has attracted the attention of the mainstream media. You don’t have to be a conservative  to feel  the hint of a breath of fresh air blowing through our troubled politics and to hope against hope  for a read across the North Channel.  This is how to think about politics.



The consensus surrounding free markets and liberal democracy has never seemed so fragile. Systems of government, systems of finance, systems of trade are all under attack. If there was ever such a thing as a global world order, it is being shaken by a million raised voices.

The centre cannot hold. Or can it?

For me, one man has done more to revolutionise trade, raise global wealth, reduce costs, bring goods to new geographic markets – and to the affordability of average households – than any other. His name is Malcolm McLean and he’s a ‘father’ too. He’s the father of the shipping container.

The container revolution means exporters can send a jumper the 3,000 sea miles from Scotland to Russia at a cost of just 2.5 American cents. When calculating international trade, economists will often assume the shipping costs to be zero. The biggest beneficiaries of this revolution have been the developing nations – their farmers, entrepreneurs and industries.

At the same time as containerisation, the world has grown far richer. Post war rebuilding, advances in health, greater literacy and, yes – cheaper and freer trade – has lifted millions out of extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, in 1981 some 42% of the world’s population were extremely poor (the definition of such being measured at a person consuming less than $1.90 a day at 2011 purchasing power parity). By 2013 – the most recent year for which reliable data is available – that figure had dropped to 10.7%. A billion people across the globe, lifted out of extreme poverty in less than a generation.

It is a huge achievement, and three-quarters of it is down to China. It is no coincidence that in recent decades China has become the largest exporter of containerised goods, shipping nearly three times more than its nearest rival, the US.

Mobile technology is transforming the industry further, with weather forecasting, apps to chart the gestation cycle of individual cows as well as the provision of micro-insurance on a pay-as-you-plant basis. To date, there are more than 650 million mobile phone subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So if capitalism has achieved demonstrable success, and continues to help many poorer nations grow faster than richer ones, why are people losing faith in the ability of capitalism to make their lives better?

In the UK, just 19% of people agree that “the next generation will probably be richer, safer and healthier than the last”. That figure falls to 15% of Germans and 14% of Americans. Markets might work but they aren’t seen to be working for everyone.

From pit villages to textile towns, whole communities profited in worth and self-worth from their industrial identities.

As the dominant occupations of the UK have migrated, such certainties have been lost. Towns have been gutted. Youngsters leaving school at 16 can no longer conceive that by the time their classmates finish sixth form and then a university degree, they’ll already be ahead of them with money in the bank and the first step on the housing ladder.

How does a teenager living in a pit town with no pit, a steel town with no steel or a factory town where the factory closed its doors a decade ago or more, see capitalism working for them? Is the route for social advancement a degree, student debt, moving to London to spend more than half their take home pay on a room in a shared flat in Zone 6 and half of what’s left commuting to their stagnant-wage job every day; knowing there is precisely zero chance of saving enough to ever own their own front door?

Or is it staying put in a community that feels like it’s being hollowed out from the inside; schoolfriends moving away for work, library and post office closures and a high street marked by the repetitive studding of charity shop, pub, bookies and empty lot – all the while watching the Rich Kids of Instagram on Channel 4 and footballers being bought and sold for more than the entire economy of a third world nation on Sky Sports News?

If the trend continues across the western world, home ownership will become ever more unaffordable. Measurement by the gini-coefficient might tell us that inequality in the UK has fallen to its lowest level since 1986, but Britain doesn’t feel unequal when a generation’s only hope of home-ownership rests on the lottery of home-owning parents dying suddenly – and without massive care home fees.

In short, the multiple instabilities of insecure employment, opaque career progression, wage stagnation, high rental and commuting costs and growing financial barriers to home ownership clearly explain why Britain’s young adults don’t feel they have a personal stake in a system that doesn’t work for them.

The challenges policy makers face as we stand on the cusp of the next industrial revolution include how to equip our workers with the skills for the future, the road map for individual advancement and social mobility, the framework for fair marketplaces, the investment in productive economic activities, empowerment of consumers relative to producers as modelled by Margrethe Vestager within the EU, and a housebuilding programme which democratises home ownership once more.

It is not enough for government to facilitate a discussion about where next for Britain, it has to actually lead. The short-term, election cycle nimbyism of prohibitive planning laws needs to cease and there is no room for one-of-the-in-crowd Davos sycophancy either. At home and abroad we need to press the case for fairer markets.

Capitalism has lifted billions out of poverty and made the world a better, safer, healthier, more comfortable place. It’s not working for everyone, however, and some people are enriching themselves through the kind of restrictive practices that Adam Smith warned us about two centuries ago. Nationally and internationally, capitalism needs a reboot.


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  • Old Mortality

    ‘How does a teenager living in a pit town with no pit, a steel town with no steel or a factory town where the factory closed its doors a decade ago or more, see capitalism working for them?’
    One consequence of globalisation is that it enables the relatively poor in developed countries to enjoy a level of consumption that would have been impossible for previous generations in the same position. Possessing a giant television would be out of the question for them if it had to be built within their own country behind substantial tariff barriers. In the absence of globalisation , they would be more likely to have a job but in many cases an inferior material standard of living. Meanwhile, more people in the developing world would be condemned to genuine poverty.

  • Sean Danaher

    Many of these themes are discussed in a lot of detail in the Road to Somehere by

    David Goodhart which as been influential in Conservative circles” and after the Brexit referendum the establishment may finally been waking up to the devastation done to former pit villages, shipbuilding and steel areas as OM says.

    I live in Northumberland and the rural towns, Alnwick and Hexham are doing fine and also our city Newcastle but stray into the former mining towns such as Ashington or Blyth and it is a different story. Full of charity shops and people with little hope.

    When I arrived in the UK from Dublin to the University of Sheffield in 1981 one of my colleagues said how lucky we were in Ireland to have no coal, steel and little heavy industry. I thought he was mad (as England was much wealthier than Ireland at the time) but he could foresee the fact that nearly all those jobs would go in the next decade. The sad thing is is that he was right and far too little has been done. On paper England has done OK but if one takes out London and the SE the performance has been dreadful. There was never a proper regeneration strategy; plenty of rhetoric and some cash; but more like a sticking plaster on a flesh wound.

  • Korhomme

    Ruth Davidson is the most impressive Tory in GB, bar none; she’d probably make a good PM. That’s not to say that I’d vote for her.

    While globalization was a child of Thatcherism and Hayek, it destroyed many manufactures in England — with, it has to be said, help from militant trades unions and useless management. If Thatcher decimated the north-east of England, she gave nothing back.

    Ruth has some details incorrect in her article; salaries of CEOs, once a multiplier of 40, are now around a multiplier of 365. Meanwhile, the pay of the workers has stagnated, and as ever, it is the poor who pay for the failures of the wealthy.

    So much for neo-liberalism; it also gave us the great crash of 2007/08, and the austerity that followed. And yet the ‘pay’ of the 1% didn’t suffer.

    Today’s problems in the UK revolve around the inequality in incomes and wealth; no Tory is going to attack the riches of the 1%.

  • leoinlisbon

    It speaks volumes about the state of politics in Scotland that Ruth Davidson is being congratulated for drawing attention to the problem of de-industrialization 35 years after the industrial economy collapsed in the early 1980s.

  • ted hagan

    British governments should have seen this coming years ago and paved the way with now specialist industries instead of relying on the City of London and service industries, which, with decreasing capital, will surely burn themselves out.

  • hgreen

    She’s done absolutely nothing of note in her career to date so I’m not sure how you can say she’d be a good PM. It’s not hard to stand out in today’s Tory party.

  • Zeno3

    You don’t really want to return to the days when 700,000 men went underground every day to hammer at a coalface.

  • Sean Danaher

    Hi Zeno3
    indeed not; it was getting pretty mechanised by the 1980s in any event. There was no question that coal mining was on the way out, but I was in South Yorkshire during the miners strike and Thatcher seemed to take vindictive delight in crushing the coalminers. The “Battle of Orgreave” was surreal – Dublin was fairly peaceful (apart from being nearly blown up by a bomb in Parnell St in 1974); it didn’t quite get to civil war but there was certainly a feeling of getting close to that in S. Yorks in 1984.

    There was no proper replacement industrial strategy and as I’ve said London and the SE has done very well. The decline of the Northern cities has been dramatic. There is a really nice graphic (which also shows other European countries) showing how dominant London is in the UK; would love to see this animated

  • aquifer

    The Guardinistas seem to have missed Ruth as a leadership contender.

    More bracing than the whiff of camphor off Rees-Moog’s double breasted suit.

  • Surveyor So much for capitalism making the world a better, safer, healthier, more comfortable place.

  • mickfealty

    Ditto Jez. I know a lot of Westminster Tories who would take the risk if she had a Westminster seat. She, however, seems in no hurry to abandon her Scottish project (which should only stand to her long term good). Ironic, since the Tories have been shameless in exploiting the West Lothian question. Her Scots Nat opponents have vastly underestimated her, probably because she speaks to parts of the electorate they cannot reach.

  • mickfealty

    Agreed. But you really had to see the social and economic desolation that closing an mine like Yorkshire Main created in the network of little villages that surrounded it. There was no creativity that followed that destruction of jobs: just “lights out” and a job at the supermarket. It plunged the population into a collective form of post traumatic stress syndrome.

  • the rich get richer
  • mickfealty

    Worth noting Unherd is the latest project by Tim Montgomery, founder of Conservative Home. It’s been at least a year in the making, and is extremely well funded.

    If this is an example of the quality its output, then he’s pitching very high indeed. Always have time for good journalism, and Tim’s record is pretty faultless in that regard.

  • mickfealty

    I think she knew she was speaking from inside a politically correct hierarchy, and since she’d just been on the attack against the DUP it was highly unlikely those prudish liberals who had been shamelessly milking her genuine disquiet would suddenly turn on her.

    That’s one reason I’ve no time for “political correctness” as an instrument of public torture: it’s too easily subverted when it suits, and too often offensiveness takes the place of honest analysis.

    One thing I’d say in mitigation is the whole having to declare sexual orientation publicly thing is that it is a open invitation to consider your bedroom practices. I suspect Ms D was also just putting that up to the DUP and the world at large.

  • Sean Danaher

    Another interesting Irish factor is that MsD partner (soon to be married) is a catholic from Wexford; some of the household conversations could be interesting.

  • the rich get richer

    Fair enough .

    Just imagine if a man in her position put up a similar tweet .

    If we want this equality it has to cut both ways . Its not very equal if its often used to bash men and particularly straight white males .

  • hgreen

    Hardly. Corbyn has been an MP for over 20years.

  • the rich get richer

    Them catholics can be a bit strange……

    The A La Carte ones probably okay…….

  • mickfealty

    Over thirty actually. Backbench, and very little time served on committees. It’s won’t stop him though. Didn’t stop Blair or Brown, or Cameron. Only ‘experienced’ PM since Major was May. I rest my case.

  • mickfealty

    Thats why it’s a nuts practice and why I’m low grade passive aggressive on it, whether my own interests rest upon it or not.

  • Nordie Northsider

    The problem I have with One Nation Tories, or Tories with a social conscience or however they be named, is that they talk a good game while in opposition (which Ruth Davidson is, in a Scottish context at least) and when in power go back to their old tricks. Remember David ‘gay-friendly’ ;no longer the Nasty Party’ Cameron and his rhetoric while in opposition? And then remember how his Government acted.

  • hgreen

    Struggling to understand your logic. Davidson has hardly run a frozen banana stand and you are comparing her experience with someone who’s been an MP for over 20 years. Blair, Brown and Cameron show exactly why we need someone with experience, particularly in foreign policy, as PM.

  • Mike the First

    Legislated for equal marriage?

  • Nordie Northsider

    Yes indeed – and hit the poorest in society as hard as he possibly could.

  • ElamLayor

    “Guardinistas”,now there’s an original attempt to put down-and exactly what does it have to do with anything?

  • ElamLayor

    “how his Government acted”? Called an insane referendum to try and outflank his swivel-eyed kipper faction,lost, and landed us all in the greatest clusterfuck of our lifetime.

  • ElamLayor

    That’s Montgomerie Mick.I would expect an acolyte to at least get the spelling correct.

  • ElamLayor

    Why you fancyin that! Ruthie!

  • Sean Danaher

    Apparently the wedding has been postponed due to a £10,000 vets bill for their dog who was run over

  • ElamLayor

    A veritable Freudian field day

  • Old Mortality

    No, not as hard as he possible could. Certainly, not in this corner.

  • mickfealty


  • mickfealty

    He also brought in marriage equality, at the same time allowing his cabinet do whatever they bloody well liked (see health and education).

  • Stifler’s Mom

    Isn’t she more of a liberal type than a conservative? She said that lgbt ‘rights’ are more important to her than the conservative party. The conservative party being the party that standards for conservative principles. That certainly doesn’t include promoting homosexuality. Maybe she is in the wrong party.

  • Zorin001

    Like both our major parties under FPTP its a broad church so she is perfectly capable of being socially liberal and economically conservative if she wanted to be. Likewise with the “Blue Labour” faction on the other side of the house who are socially conservative and economically liberal.

    Plus shes the leader of the Scottish Tories who I understand have a certain degree of autonomy and would lean more socially liberal on the whole compared to the English section of the party.

  • eamoncorbett

    John Major held those guys in check while PM , Cameron went for a once and for all showdown only to see them win a bitter sweet victory.
    Post Brexit you could see a party with Soubry and Tory remainers join forces with Blairites sans Blair , at least on economics and Europe they’d be on the same page. What’s needed is a Macron figure , but alas there’s no sign.