Seeking union: Exclusive interview with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson

by Mar 26, 2012 No Comments

Confidence is not something that fledgling Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, is short of, which is just as well given that on the eve of the Scottish Conservative Party spring conference, it is revealed that her personal popularity rating is desperately low. With the party conference in just a matter of days, the influential Conservative blog, toryhoose, reports that her approval ratings have plummeted by over 75 points to a lowly 4.8 per cent, making her now one of the most unpopular Tory MSPs in Holyrood. And just to twist the knife that bit deeper, the same poll indicates, ironically, a clear reversal of fortunes for Murdo Fraser, whom she narrowly beat in the leadership contest last year when Fraser stood on a controversial, some said suicidal, ticket of tearing up the party and starting again. Fraser now tops the toryhoose poll with an approval rating of 80.4 per cent.

One suspects that as a former journalist and one that displays a fair level of personal certitude, Davidson will take the poll with a healthy pinch of salt, however, this is the same blog that during the leadership contest tipped her as the clear winner, an endorsement she was then happy to quote in press releases extolling her virtues.

It is hard to believe that it was just four months ago that Davidson was elected leader of the Scottish Conservatives following a fairly disastrous election result, which she euphemistically describes as ‘disappointing’ – a characteristically cheery description by Davidson who is nothing if not an optimist. She is a bubbly explosion of youthful enthusiasm, and in a Scottish Conservative world still dominated by an image of waxed jackets, purple rinses, twin sets and pearls, Davidson is unquestionably a breath of fresh air. She presents a little like an overexcited puppy; good fun and eager to please but also willing to push the boundaries and snap when there’s something she doesn’t like. One to one she is very impressive; confident, engaging and of good humour but one criticism that dogged her throughout her leadership campaign – that she was more style than substance – has refused to die. It is a stinging exposition and one she is clearly anxious to address, evident in her slightly politically unsophisticated, over willingness to answer any question, tackle any issue and basically try to stamp her authority and assert her credentials at any opportunity, even when it doesn’t sound entirely convincing, like when she tells you she regularly gives Chancellor George Osborne ‘an ear bashing’.

But then Davidson is by no means a political veteran. She has been a Conservative Party member for just over three years having joined on the same day as she handed in her application for redundancy at the BBC where she worked as a radio journalist. She was, she says, inspired to do so 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 as the Conservative candidate in the Glasgow North East by-election. She didn’t expect to win, nor did she. She did, however, register on the radar of the political media as one to watch. She contested the seat too in the 2010 general election, 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 needed to make their voice heard on every doorstep in Scotland. She spent much of the remaining part of that year working for Annabel Goldie – who she fondly calls Bella – as head of the leader’s office. In May 2011 she stood in the Scottish elections and was duly elected to the Scottish Parliament as a list MSP for Glasgow. A good election for Davidson but a crushing one for the party.

Goldie described the party’s derisory result as ‘seismic’ and although their MSP numbers only reduced by two from 17 to 15, it masked the true scale of the decline which saw the party’s share of the vote dropping enormously and the list vote in particular falling sharply.

Party veterans such as Jackson Carlaw lost to Labour in Eastwood, David McLetchie, Goldie’s predecessor as leader, lost Edinburgh Pentlands to the SNP and Derek Brownlee, one of the party’s few rising stars, lost his seat altogether.

Holyrood columnist and professor of politics at Strathclyde University, John Curtice, said the Tory vote was at a record low.

As the ruins of battle were picked over and despite previous assertions to the contrary, Goldie announced she was stepping down as leader following in the footsteps of both Iain Gray from Labour and Tavish Scott from the Lib Dems. Four contestants for Goldie’s job emerged and although Davidson’s potential as a future leader had been recognised by commentators, many were surprised when she threw her hat in the ring so early in her political career.

However, she 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 Sutherland, who 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 back and I said to somebody, watch that girl, she is really very good.” And although it was never explicitly confirmed, it is understood Davidson was also PM David Cameron’s prime candidate.

Davidson approached the contest in the same way she approaches life; full on and with a competitive streak that is hard to match.

In the end, though, the result was achingly close and when set in the context of her main rival’s platform being to destroy the party then Davidson, despite her win, undoubtedly had some way to go in convincing not just existing party members but also her fellow MSPs – that did not, in the main, back her for leader – of her competence.

Her initial outings in the FMQs bear pit have been perfectly acceptable; she even scored a couple of points over Alex Salmond, mainly due to her quick wit, though, rather than an extensive knowledge of policy or political nous.

She was rewarded with hearty laughs in the Chamber and even praise from Nicola Sturgeon, standing in for the FM, for a quick-fire response to rowdy SNP heckling on the day that storm warnings had led to civil servants being allowed to leave work early when she seamlessly went off script to say, ‘I am glad to hear such braying from the SNP backbenchers. I thought that nonessential staff had been sent home.’ But since then her performance has been mixed. And although she says of the experience: “I quite enjoy it. I’m not the sort that likes hanging around at the back holding the coats. I would always rather be up front trading blows and in that respect, I have never been short of things to say. My only regret is that I only get two questions,” her party colleagues’ body language perhaps suggests they think otherwise.

At school she was described as ‘chatty’ and undoubtedly, she is an upbeat and engaging character. She appears to have a joie de vivre that many hackneyed politicos have lost with time. She loves debate – she represented both her school and universities in global debating contests – clearly rises to a challenge and communicates extremely well. She presents as a polished package and while accusations have been flung about her political depth, she says she represents a ‘generational change’ and has big ideas for the party’s future.

As Davidson prepares for her first conference as leader, she is showing no signs of a crisis of confidence. Indeed, whatever the polls may be indicating or critics muttering, she is bullish.

She has, she tells Holyrood, instigated a ‘quiet revolution’ within the party.

And her campaign to win over the party has been unstinting. She has continued to drive the length and breath of the country, meeting and greeting, she has initiated a review of her party’s policy platform, used conference to introduce her new management structure, as well as unveil her new campaigning tool in the battle to save the Union – an umbrella organisation called Conservative Friends of the Union which she will front along with Baroness Warsi, Lord Strathclyde and the Welsh Conservative leader, Cheryl Gillan. Gone too is the restrictive title of leader of the Scottish Conservative MSP group and in comes the all-powerful leader of the party as a whole; gone is the exodus of members and in comes 2,000 new sign ups – a 30 per cent increase since Davidson took over; out goes the top-down party hierarchy and in comes a more devolved regional structure and out goes the archaic party executive committee and in comes the shiny new management board.

Davidson admits with a laugh that much of this may sound ‘horribly, terribly wonky [sic] and technical’ but it amounts to a ‘small revolution’ within the party which will transform it into a completely different political beast by the time of the next Scottish Parliament elections.

This time last year there were ten weeks to go before the election, Annabel Goldie was leader of the MSP group and was preparing to use her last pre-election opportunity at the spring conference in Perth to rally the troops.

Davidson herself was at the leader’s side as chief of Goldie’s office and helping her get ready for the campaign of her life.

That must seem like a lifetime ago?

“It actually does feel like quite a long time ago,” she laughs. “A lot has happened since, it is fair to say, but conference is always an exciting time for any political party and I am thoroughly looking forward to being the leader at my first conference.

“I think that even being an MSP, the view that you get of the leader’s office, and I was briefly an MSP before I became leader, is different from working in it; you don’t see the hours, the commitment and the service that goes on from outside because you are not with the leader all the time, and being the leader of Annabel’s office meant I did get an insight which has been helpful as a preparation but I am genuinely very excited about it.

“As a party, over the last year or so since the Sanderson Review, we have been undergoing a bit of a quiet revolution and yes, no one would say we weren’t slightly disappointed by our result at the election and I certainly was but you know, we are really fighting back and some of the changes I have managed to push through, like a membership drive, has brought in 2,000 new members – a 30 per cent increase in membership since I took over a few months ago, we have new regional members coming forward and a new regional structure which gives more power to our senior activist base, and that’s about handing back more power to activists and at conference we will make the transition from our party executive to our new management board, which may sound horribly, terribly wonky and technical and all the rest of it, but one of the issues that we had as a party was that the leader of the MSP group was just that, they were just the leader of the MSP group and not the whole party, so Annabel did not have her hands on the levers of power, of how we run campaigns, of how we communicate with the outside world and with members and that really is, in a sense, what held her and David McLetchie back. Now I don’t have that excuse, if you like, that safety net, the buck stops with me.

“If we have been accused of being out of touch in the past or if we have been called an amateurish organisation of a professional age then that is all about to change because we are about to change how we get the message across and crucially for me what that message is and where we sit as a party in the political landscape in Scotland and what the policy offering is that we bring forward.

“Part of the empowerment of our members is that there will be two policy conferences every year. We will be putting out a whole tranche of research papers, not just to members but to other stakeholders for their input. The policy review we are undergoing is comprehensive and this is not something we will report back on a week on Wednesday and I make no apology for that. We have important elections in May but thereafter, the next election is three years away so we have the time to do this right and that is exactly what I am going to do. I want this to be a serious and thorough body of work, with time to report back and be considered and have input from stakeholders from right across the country and all those people who have either stopped listening to the Conservative Party or we have not engaged with or frankly disagree with us then, you know what, we want to hear from them too. Mandy, I have spoken to you before about how I want to see debate come back, not just within Scottish politics but within my party, so at conference you will see some changes with motions, debates and votes and all the rest of it, things that we have got rid of in the past. It is good to have disagreement because you can have healthy and creative disagreement, bring forward argument that has been fire tested and ultimately bring forward policy that will live up to scrutiny because you have scrutinised it already among yourselves.” Davidson is also engaged in a series of policy speeches to party activists highlighting devolved policy areas where she says Scotland is in danger of being “left behind”, thanks to a lack of reform. In Aberdeen earlier this month, she said she was examining proposals to abolish school catchment areas by giving each child a ‘credit’ equivalent to the average cost of education within each local authority enabling parents to choose the best-performing establishments, even if they were in a different part of a town or city, putting low-income families “on the same footing” as their wealthy peers who can send their children to private schools or move house to catchment areas with good state schools.

She also backed freeing up schools from local authority control and reintroducing streaming pupils according to ability. All three proposals would help drive up standards, she said. More immediately, on the day we meet, she has ended her party’s opposition to minimum alcohol pricing albeit with a lengthy sunset clause written in to the legislation.

“I think we have taken a very constructive approach under my leadership and I am very clear that the job of opposition is not just to oppose. The job of a responsible opposition is to try and improve the legislation that is brought to this Parliament and if it can be improved and the net result will be an improvement to the lives of the people of Scotland then we will vote for it and if, on reflection, we don’t think that then we will vote it down. I think we have seen very clear examples of that with the big bills that we have had this term. Firstly, with the sectarianism bill or the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill, we did a lot to get changes made at committee stage and at Stage 3 and if we had got those changes we would have backed it and we wanted it to work because we recognise the social problem.

David McLetchie worked very hard to make that work but for whatever reason, the Scottish Government was not willing to take our ideas on board and we felt, given the response from the churches, the Law Society and right across civic Scotland, that on reflection, the Bill makes things muddy that should have been clear and made it a more complicated picture with the potential to make the situation worse not better, so we voted it down. Today you saw the Stage 1 on the Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill and Jackson and I worked very hard over a long number of weeks and months to engage with the Cabinet Secretary for Health to see if there is a way to improve that Bill and we think that legislation deserves a chance. Yes, we are sceptical that all the benefits will be fulfilled but we think it deserves a chance and has the best chance of succeeding if it has cross-party support. It was important that the concessions we brought forward were put in place because you don’t want something staying on the legislative books if it doesn’t work and putting in a sunset clause that this time the Government was going to leave out allows for the evidence to be gathered.” I suggest that perhaps her party’s U-turn was prompted more by influence from the party down south than by an outbreak of consensus at Holyrood.

She reacts with some irritation at this. “ I think what is interesting is that quite genuinely, Jackson and I were in consultation with the Scottish Government weeks and months ago and I have never had a conversation with my colleagues down south about minimum pricing, although Jackson was last week in London and spoke to someone on the committee down there but we spoke to our group and when we got half way there, we asked them if they were happy, they accepted it and passed it and we came back to the negotiations and got to a final form of words. I think the sunset clause is important because it is the reassurance industry needs and also the notification to the EU is important because nobody wants to introduce something that will be struck down as illegal. It shows that Parliament has been doing everything in its power to make sure that we have the knowledge that we need to pass this legislation.” That’s interesting, I say, because the First Minister told me at the SNP conference two weeks ago that minimum pricing was something the Prime Minister had been asking him about when they met for the first negotiations on the referendum.

“I wasn’t in the room, so I don’t know,” she says, again a little annoyed. “This is something that Jackson and I had talked about ourselves and Jackson made the initial approach to the Cabinet Secretary and then I joined in when I thought there could be some movement, so I was a bit miffed that some commentators said this had been instigated by down south, yes, I probably was a bit miffed because this was a ‘made in Scotland’ initiative and we had been working on this for some time.” It’s interesting that Davidson wants to be clear that there can be an identifiably different Scottish Conservative solution to Scottish problems. During the speech in Aberdeen, she promised to deliver “real devolution”, saying that this could be achieved if Scotland copied the Conservative policies being introduced south of the border in education, housing and health. I ask her if that means she agrees with the controversial plans to reform the NHS in England which have received sustained opposition from the main professional bodies representing doctors and other health professionals, as well as the main trade unions and voluntary organisations, that have forced more than 1000 amendments to the UK Government’s plans which would see greater private sector involvement in the NHS in England. The SNP Government has made a clear commitment to take the NHS in Scotland in a completely different direction. Changes down south also risk reducing NHS budgets in Scotland.

“Oh, I’m not sure if I am the right person to ask about this,” she laughs. “My sister is an NHS doctor in the north-east of England and I get it in the neck from her but broadly, I think there is a level of acceptance and respect that actually, the NHS was not to have any cuts imposed on it and [has the] right to have, not just its budget protected but even slightly increased, in this time of austerity but I think also there is an acceptance that as big a beast as it is, it wasn’t working well enough beforehand. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating and I think we have to see if the changes work in the way they thought they would [down south] and I think they will. I think the Coalition has the right idea for the health service. I think in terms of service reform, they are pushing at a door that Tony Blair had chapped on but not walked through and I think when you look at some of the things that the current health spokesman, Andy Burnham, is saying now and contrast them with what he said in 2007, there is an awful big dose of Labour U-turning going on there. I’m not sure if they are backing off what they saw in the health service when they were in government as the way forward for the health service to make a political point or just drifting rudderless in opposition, I’m not sure.” And of the potential effect on Scotland’s health budget?

“I think we need to be aware that there is an awful lot of things that can affect the Barnett consequentials and one of those things is the health spending. The converse of what you are saying is that the Barnett settlement was higher because the health spending was higher in this budget so it is swings and roundabouts. We have to look at any impact that this has but we haven’t seen that yet because the Bill hasn’t passed. So we will have to reserve judgement on that.” Will there be occasions when Davidson will disagree with policies down south?

“Inevitably we will disagree sometimes with what happens down south so while, for instance, I agree with a student contribution, I am not sure I would have set it at the levels it has been set and I have been quite happy to say that in disputes, complaints and differences that I have had with the Chancellor. He knows about them because I tell him about them and very early on I was bending his ear about the different tax codes between the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games and I got my way on that so I was very pleased about that. I am still working on having some industry-specific support for the computer games industry and that does not go away and we do have a disagreement about that but I will keep plugging away. It is my job to stand up for what I think is right for Scotland within the context of my relationship with UK Government ministers, whether Lib Dem or Conservative. I am very lucky and very pleased that I have a very good relationship with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State and all the rest of it, so I get a good hearing. They don’t give me everything I ask for and lobby for but that doesn’t mean I am not a doughty wee scrapper for Scotland.” Does she offer a Scottish perspective? “I do it regularly with the Prime Minister, and George Osborne and Theresa May and, and … it’s not a formal structure, although I do attend the political Cabinet when the Lib Dems get locked outside and a chair shoved under the door and decisions are made,” she laughs. “I am up and down to London reasonably regularly and have regular phone calls and I am dialled in. I am absolutely not shy in coming forward.” One area on which there now seems little disagreement is the independence referendum. It is this which could, ironically, give the Scottish Tories the relevance they now need to find within Scotland’s political landscape. There is an opportunity to live up to the name on the tin, ‘the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’, and Davidson is clear that the party faces ‘the absolute fight of its life’.

“It’s something that we believe in passionately and will defend to our core. It is a huge opportunity for us and something that will be attracting many people to the Conservatives because they see us as a strong supporter of the Union. Support for the Union has always been around the 50 per cent mark and while I wish I could say the same for the Scottish Conservatives, it’s not true but we are on the right side of this argument and in all seriousness, I think it will mean we pick up more supporters and this is a really good opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives to come forward and bounce back and a fantastic time to be the Scottish Conservative leader.”

Mandy Rhodes Mandy Rhodes

Mandy Rhodes is Managing Editor of Holyrood Communications. Mandy is editor of the flagship title Holyrood magazine and responsible for the editorial content of all other associated titles and products. Mandy graduated from StirlingUniversity in the early 1980s with a joint Honours degree in Scottish History and Sociology. She trained on a local newspaper in Wester Hailes and completed her journalism training at Napier University. She has worked for nearly 30 years in journalism in Scotland in newsprint, television and radio broadcasting and was part of the launch team of Scotland on Sunday. She has won numerous awards over the years including PPA Magazine Editor of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Columnist of the year. She was social...

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