Can Ruth Davidson reverse the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives?
Kickboxing lesbian comes out on top could well be the stuff of Tory fantasy but the victory of Ruth Davidson in the acrimonious fi ght to succeed Annabel Goldie heralds a new party image that could put paid to worn-out stereotypes.
In a world still dominated by an image of blue rinses and twin sets and pearls Davidson is unquestionably a fresh face. A member of the Conservative Party for just three years, her political career rise has been nothing short of meteoric.
Three years ago on the same day as she handed in her application for voluntary redundancy at the BBC where she worked as a radio journalist, she also signed up to become a fully fl edged member of the Tories, inspired, she said, by David Cameron’s call, in the wake of the expenses scandal, for people who had never been political before to get involved.
A year later in 2009 she was pounding the streets of Glasgow making a jolly good fist of being realistically in a no-possibility-of-a-win situation as the Conservative candidate in the Glasgow North East by-election. She didn’t expect to win and her expectations were duly fulfilled. She did, however, win plaudits for the way she conducted herself and the move meant she had made her mark on the political media’s ‘who to watch’ horizon.
She contested the same seat in the general election in 2010, again failing to make an impact on the staunchly Labour vote. She says the experience was important because it instilled in her a belief that the Tories need to make their voice heard on every doorstep in Scotland.
“I had people saying they hadn’t had a Tory chapping their door in 30 years. I was the fi rst they had seen and I think that proved to me that as a party we need to make sure that we are seen to be fighting every seat, making the arguments on every doorstep, in every area.
“When you look at particular situations in places like Glasgow North East and in other places that have been Labour strongholds for a long, long time, places that would be considered socially depressed areas, of high unemployment and of social deprivation, there has to be a point where you quite honestly ask, ‘what has the Labour Party done for you?’
“I do think what we have seen in Scotland, particularly in this election that we have just had in May, is that unthinking patronage of Labour in Scotland has gone and we as Tories need to try and capitalise on that.”
Following her failure to win the Glasgow North East seat, Davidson spent much of the remaining part of last year working for Annabel Goldie – who she fondly calls Bella – as head of the leader’s offi ce and in May this year, was elected to the Scottish Parliament as a list MSP for Glasgow.
Days later, her mentor and ally, Goldie, announced she was stepping down as leader. Although Davidson’s potential as a future leader had been recognised by commentators, many were surprised when she threw her hat in the ring as a contender so early in her political career.
However, with the favourite for the job, deputy leader, Murdo Fraser, making the shock announcement that he would campaign to be leader on a platform of disbanding the party and starting afresh, Davidson immediately got influential backing from an array of Tory grandees including the man who had been charged with a root and branch review of how the party was organised, Lord Sanderson.
He told Holyrood magazine that he had recognised the leadership spark in Davidson early on. “I saw her in Perth speaking at our conference a year or so back and I said to somebody, ‘watch that girl, she is really very good’. She just really struck me as someone with enormous potential.
“The Tory party in Scotland has such a tough time and it now has to take a risk and I think it is a risk worth taking. If you look and see what Ruth says and how she has acted and the experience she has had with the BBC and the way she can interview, you could say that isn’t this a bit like David Cameron coming up and yes, it is. He came up the same way; he came right up through the middle and look where we have got [to] now; we have a better chance because of that than we did with any of the others that came up after Margaret [Thatcher].”
It probably does Davidson no huge favours being mentioned in the same breath as Mrs T and all the antipathy that still exists in Scotland but Davidson herself is unafraid of the party’s past. However, she is much more interested in its future. She says she is a leader who wants the party to change but her political roots are grounded in the traditional. She comes from a stable, middle-class, church going, Conservative voting background and she is proud of what that means.
“My parents were and are Conservatives. They are from Glasgow originally. My father was brought up in Castlemilk and left school at 16. He had O-grades but he was the eldest of three – two wee sisters – and back in those days the eldest went out to work to contribute. I think he would have loved to have stayed on and gone on to university. He got the dux at schools – he had the ability and was a very bright man; he is a very bright man.”
I wonder if it is too easy a connection to assume that his unfulfilled ambitions were poured into his two high achieving daughters – Davidson’s older sister was a straight-A student and is now a doctor.
“They are not pushy parents,” she says quite defensively. “They are very supportive parents and always been that way. Our strong work ethic is undoubtedly there from both of them and they were both tremendously hard workers. The values of the household were, I guess, that it was all about trying your best and that is all that could be asked of you. They would much rather that you got an A for effort and a C overall than an A overall and a C for effort because then there was more you could have done. The whole hard work being its own reward thing was very much present which I know sounds terribly traditional.”
Davidson giggles – which she does a lot with great gusto – at the picture she has painted of a stable, traditional, middle-class background, with a father out working and a stayat- home mum but then there is no denying she is very much a product of such a conservative upbringing. She talks about her mother busying herself with the church, local theatre group, golf club and ‘rattling tins for all sorts’.
It might sound very Enid Blytonesque but she has an attractive self-confidence which is clearly borne from a security that is the most obvious result of her family’s influence. At school she was described as ‘chatty’. She joined everything from squash clubs to debating and even formed her own theatre group. There is no doubt she is a bubbly and engaging character. She appears to have a joie de vivre that many hackneyed politicos have lost with time.
But then a near brush with death can have that effect. Davidson was five-years-old when she was hit by a truck shortly after the family moved from Selkirk to Fife. The near fatal accident left her with multiple fractures and a significant arterial bleed that required specialist reconstructive vascular surgery which has left a permanent reminder of bolt marks and scars on her right leg. It was touch and go for a while and her parents were told she had a 50/50 chance of survival.
She was looked after in three hospitals and had to relearn how to walk all over again. Even this she is able to find humour in and says she was the only six-year-old at school with a Zimmer frame. She has been left with ‘an abiding dislike for swimming pools’ and ‘physio terrorists’ who would exercise her legs in hydro pools causing her great pain. She now prefers swimming in the sea.
It was clearly an horrendous time for her parents but she says they refused to wrap her up in cotton wool and again she describes a can do, roll up your sleeves approach to life which smacks of old style conservatism. “I was in a body cast when I was released from hospital after the pins were taken out and I was plastered from my armpit to my foot on one side and to my knee on the other because I had also fractured my pelvis as well as broken my legs. I was completely supine and had to be lifted and plonked down.
“Somebody in the local village was involved with the Scottish Ambulance museum and had heard about me through the village grapevine and they dug out an old World War One spinal carriage, a volunteer sanded it down and varnished it and lent it to my mother so she could wheel me outside to get some fresh air for the first time in months. It was such a practical solution and there is a picture on the front page of my local newspaper, the East Fife Mail, of my mother wheeling me around in this contraption and she was mortified because the photographer had said her feet wouldn’t be in the picture and she ended up in the papers, on the front page, with her slippers on. She was blackafronted.
“You can laugh about these things now but I guess when you are young you bounce and it is only now as an adult that I recognise how difficult it must have been for them. But they were fantastic and never ever wrapped me up in cotton wool. I was the sort of kid that climbed trees and played football with the boys for my primary school. I was the first girl in my village to play for the under-14s football team so God bless them for letting me live my life.”
The accident didn’t stop her from joining the TA later on, with a view to becoming an army officer. But while doing a mixed infantry training exercise for the entrance exam for Sandhurst, she fell and broke her back. Incredibly, she was back at work with the BBC within two weeks of her injury and laughs when she says she still walks a ‘little funny’.
Throughout any conversation with Davidson, you are aware of how much she enjoys the chat. She loves debate – she represented both her school and university (Edinburgh where she studied English Literature) in global debating contests and says that is where her interest in politics began and grew. She describes one particular challenge when asked to lead the first speech in a debate on the Philippines where she was given 15 minutes to prepare a seven-minute speech on ‘This house believes that ASEAN should rally behind Anwar’.
“I basically had no idea what that meant but I found out that Anwar was the deputy PM of Malaysia and I happened to know what the Association of South East Asian Nations was, I have to confess, so I wasn’t completely in the dark but that really was a step up…”
Davidson clearly rises to a challenge and does communicate very well. She presents as a polished package and while accusations have clearly been flung about her being more style than substance, she certainly does not see youth or political inexperience as a handicap. She knows what she believes in, even if some of the more detailed policy understanding is still to develop.
“For me, being a Conservative is about family values, families, about encouraging business, it’s about keeping communities safe and having strong and sensible law and order policies and about personal freedom and choice and it’s about [the] individual [being] free of the shackles of the state but having a government that cares and is there when they need it. It’s about feeling unencumbered by state control during your normal daily life but knowing there is a safety net there if you need to access it. That is Conservatism for me.”
Much has been made of the fact that Davidson is a lesbian and how radical a departure that is for the conservative Conservatives. I’m not so sure. Her sexuality is incidental to her politics and it would be a mistake to believe that being a lesbian makes you any more liberal on other issues of equality. Davidson is very much the establishment figure and perhaps the only surprising thing about her is her sexuality.
I ask her if it was more shocking to people when she came out as a Conservative or when she came out as a lesbian. She laughs for so long, I wonder if she misheard.
“My politics are well known among my friends and family and all the rest of it. I have always been a Conservative, so no shock there. Actually, my school got telephoned by one of the national Sundays when I was in sixth year to say they were doing an article about the Saffy syndrome – which was about Saffron from Ab Fab.
“It was about sensible young women and this generation of women who seemed sorted and driven. They were asking for someone from my school to interview because they were looking for girls from all over the country and the head of guidance asked if I would do it. So there I am featured in this article, talking about my Conservative politics back then so it has been on record from as early as my teenage years.
“Politically, it has come as no surprise to anyone although to be fair, I don’t think Annabel knew my politics when I interviewed her as a journalist. I think in the workplace I did a pretty reasonable job in terms of being impartial.
“I guess you are probably a bit like a home team referee and you tend to treat your own side more harshly than others when you are on the air. I remember having a conversation many years ago with a chap called Keith Harding who was a Conservative MSP for mid Scotland and Fife in the first parliament and I had gone out to interview him for the local radio station.
“I was having a conversation with him later about how I was a committed Conservative but how I also wanted to do a good job as a journalist and that while one day I might want to go on and do politics, I thought it was really important that if I was in front of a mic or in front of a camera that I wasn’t only impartial but also seen to be impartial. He said I was doing the right thing and in a way, that confirmed in my mind what I had always thought.”
In fact, it is true to say that colleagues will testify to the fact that as a BBC journalist she had kept her own politics carefully under wraps. She has in her time interviewed all of the current party leaders and admits to perhaps being a little harder on those of the same political persuasion as herself. She made the jump because basically she had reached a point in journalism where she was frustrated by reporting the story rather than doing something to change it.
“I always have loved and still love political debate and that is possibly one of the reasons I have taken the jump from journalism to politics because I think that is how you test your argument. I don’t think we should ever be afraid of debate but we should be afraid of a lack of debate not just between parties but within parties and one of the things I hope to do as leader is to open up debate a bit more. Does that mean that headline writers will write headlines about division and argument and so on within the party? Yes, they probably will but does that mean that we as a party will grow stronger and that our arguments will be fire-tested? Yes, it does and I am quite happy for that balance to be struck.”
I express my own personal view that enjoying political debate is one thing but putting your career in the hands of the electorate is another. She lets rip with one of those giggles again: “No, Mandy, trying to get elected as a Conservative in Glasgow wasn’t a risk at all. I don’t know why you would think that that was risky. But seriously, I think the nature of the job in journalism is changing and I thoroughly enjoyed being a journalist.
“It is a huge privilege that you are allowed to ask the questions of the people in the power that the man in the street wants to ask. Being their representative, if you like, is a huge honour and one I am very respectful of but there comes a time when you are reporting on stories or issues that you may care passionately about and you are completely unable to change them apart from tell the story.
“That becomes frustrating and it got to the point where the wish to roll up my sleeves and get involved and make changes outweighed the wish to question the people who could do something. It’s the shouting at Question Time writ large and it was time to put my money where my mouth was.
“I think a lot of things came together for me and I was very lucky in terms of timing. The by-election came along at a time where I was thinking it was possibly the time to make the move and that consolidated in my mind the time to do it. I joined the Conservative Party the day that I put in my application for voluntary redundancy and told my boss what I was doing and said that if I had to be taken off frontline programming then that would be fine.
“But in the event that wasn’t required and the timing dovetailed nicely because I ended at the BBC at the turn of the financial year and had worked up a proposal for an independent production company that got commissioned and a week after the documentary went out my candidacy was announced so I was just lucky with the timing.”
I ask her if being a journalist is an advantage to going into politics.
“I think it can be but there are lots of advantages you can have in politics and media is one of them but so too would be a rigorous background in, for example, law or economics so I think there are skills and journalism gives you a skill set which is helpful but it’s just part of the equation in politics. Politics is often seen as an individual event but actually, it is a team sport and particularly parliamentary politics is a team sport.”
The day after her leadership was confirmed – she had celebrated the night before with half a glass of wine and two Diet Cokes – she jumped in the car and travelled to Moffat to meet with council candidates from across Scotland. This was important, she says, as the first official engagement because she wants the Tories to take on the local government elections with intent.
“The hallmark of the platform that I was running on was getting Conservatives in on the ground, being seen to work for people in Scotland and that is how we will get a Conservative revival. This isn’t about a top-down change; it is about a bottom-up change and that is why during the campaign I was talking about running a membership drive, bringing in people from different backgrounds and inviting people to get involved in the debate whether they are members or not.”
On Sunday she was on the BBC defending her victory amid reports that some donors were unhappy with her as leader and high-profile members such as the QC, Paul McBride, were quitting the party. On Monday she flew to London to meet with the Prime Minister amid growing rumours about who would and would not be prepared to be part of her team in the Scottish Parliament.
Her first few days were fraught, to say the least, as she attempted to construct a frontbench team and her 33rd birthday and her first FMQs were marked by unflattering front-page headlines about her inability to persuade key figures to form her desired shadow cabinet.
Our scheduled interview was called off at the last minute because the new leader ‘was up to her bollocks’, explained one of the less reconstructed members of her communications team. ‘Gosh, she’s got bollocks as well, has she?’ I ask. There was no answer but if these first few days are anything to go by Davidson is going to need to summon all her superhuman strengths just to galvanise internal support, never mind encourage others to join her party.