Columnist Andy Maciver imagines an alternative future which sees Ruth Davidson in Bute House not the House of Lords

WHEN Ruth Davidson is elected as First Minister later today, it will be the culmination of a decade of political change so rapid and fundamental that its envisaging was next to impossible. The electorate is still dizzy; this month’s election was the tenth national election or referendum in ten years. However it is also the one which looks like ushering in a period of relative normality.

For Ms Davidson, losing the Scottish Tory party’s leadership election to Murdo Fraser 10 years ago was both her defining moment and her route to Bute House. Mr Fraser’s narrow win in that controversial contest was a mandate for creating a new party – the Forward party Ms Davidson now leads into government – but it has itself evolved rapidly. The party was initially a direct replacement for the Scottish Tories, taking David Cameron’s whip at Westminster in a German CDU/CSU-style arrangement.

In truth, as someone deeply embedded in Mr Fraser’s campaign team, I was never content with its closeness to the Tories, and during the campaign I consulted widely with my contacts in Canada. I felt former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose ‘war room’ I had been in during his 2006 election win, had a personal journey we could emulate; he left the Progressive Conservatives, built the Reform, then Alliance parties, and then consumed what was left of the PC to take his new Conservative Party of Canada into government.

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Furthermore, Canada’s system of total separation between parties in provincial parliaments and parties in the federal parliament, gave us our best model for enduring success.

We quickly got there, and in truth Forward’s victory earlier this month was only achievable because of the absolute separation – political, legal, actual – from the Conservatives.

The Harper team’s calm reassurance (I brought them in on several occasions during Forward’s infancy) was critical to Mr Fraser but more so his then-deputy Ms Davidson, who had a longer journey to travel. By the time she succeeded Mr Fraser as leader in 2016, and with her and Forward having played such a key role in the independence referendum landslide and the successful Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum, she was fully there.

The Fraser/Davidson role in the 2014 independence referendum is worth reflecting on. There were many in the ruling Tory party at Westminster who wanted to run a brutally negative campaign (they had dubbed it ‘Project Fear’) based on the devolved status quo. Knowing that they may come close to losing, and likely be forced into a desperate, last-minute concession, the duo persuaded Mr Cameron to accept then First Minister Alex Salmond’s offer to put an enhanced form of devolution on the ballot paper. Its 75:25 win on the second part of the ballot consigned nationalism back to the fringes.

With Mr Fraser becoming Presiding Officer after the orchestrated passing of the torch to Ms Davidson, she alone rescued the Brexit referendum from the same Project Fear fate. Her private assistance to Mr Cameron, and her public leadership role in the positive, pro-EU campaign she helped create, not only helped win that referendum, but with it kept Mr Cameron in Downing Street and Boris Johnson on the backbenches.

Imagine the alternatives; a narrow No win galvanising mainstream nationalism in Scotland, and an exit from the EU creating a border in the Irish Sea, causing social, political and economic chaos in Northern Ireland. It is hardly a stretch to say that, by now, the Union would be on its last legs, with legitimate demands for a second Scottish independence referendum and the growing inevitability of Irish reunification.

HeraldScotland: Murdo FraserMurdo Fraser

That none of this has happened is down in no small part to the Fraser/Davidson team. Without the former’s creation of Forward, it is fanciful to believe we would, today, see anything other than an extended stay in Bute House for Nicola Sturgeon. And it would have been equally unachievable without the personal electability of Ms Davidson, a politician who has transcended ideology and nationalism in a way few believed possible.

The sidelining of the debates on Scotland’s place in the UK and on the UK’s place in the EU created an environment in which Ms Sturgeon’s government became judged not on its constitutional position, but on its domestic performance. This outcome was not a given – Ms Sturgeon’s record as First Minister, and that of a very talented set of Ministers and advisers, was generally very solid.

She won easily in 2016 and remains extremely popular. Ironically, though, it was a mix of Covid and Old Father Time that did for her in the end. Her handling of the acute pandemic, in particular her communications ability, remains something of a masterclass. However Covid exposed timbers which were rotting well before Ms Sturgeon’s time, most explosively in schools.

Home-schooling parents learned a lot about their children’s schooling, and they didn’t like it. Ambitionless, monotonous, lacking innovation and run by and for vested interests in local authorities and trade unions, Ms Davidson dissected it and laid its failures on the table for all to see. It grabbed the nation’s consciousness at the perfect time.

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With it, she took the opportunity Covid presented to rework and empower local authorities, including through the election of mayors, which will now start next year (with Mr Fraser, having revolutionised national politics, now rumoured to be lining up a bid to be Perth’s first elected mayor). Without the Covid tiering system, and the light it shone on the benefits of local diversity, this enduring wound in Scottish democracy may never have been stitched.

The nation owes Ms Sturgeon a great deal, but in the end her 14-year government simply ran out of steam, as 14-year governments normally do. Anas Sarwar may have kept her in Bute House in a social democrat alliance, had the SNP gone ‘full Quebec’ and removed independence from its manifesto.

For now, though, the kingmaker Mr Sarwar has crowned Ms Davidson. He may soon wear the crown himself.

Predicting the next 10 years will be no less challenging than predicting the last. But, today, Scotland looks very normal; very European. A parliament with multiple strong, independent parties, and leaders of quality, debating the issues that affect our lives.

That will do, for now.

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.