Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson - exclusive interview
Since election in 2011, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s confidence and conviction has seen her profile rise, both in the party and in Scottish politics as a whole.
However, translating this confidence into a revival of fortunes for her party is no easy task.
In the early part of the Holyrood 2016 election campaign, Davidson has been unapologetically pitching to lead Scotland’s opposition, but coming from 2011’s worst-ever performance of only 13.9 per cent of the constituency votes and 12.4 per cent of the list votes, is that confidence misplaced?
Last year gave little cause for Conservative optimism either. The party recorded its lowest share of the General Election vote in Scotland, at 14.9 per cent, since records began in 1832.
What was successful about Davidson’s 2015 campaign, however, was the exposure. A number of photo opportunities saw Davidson in an ice-cream van, blowing bagpipes, astride an off-road quad bike and, most memorably, driving a tank into Dundee.
David Cameron's EU referendum patriotic blues
Ruth Davidson pledges Scottish Tories will protect NHS spending
TNS poll finds no evidence the Tories are catching up with Labour
The Tory leader tells Holyrood she is feeling less energetic on the day we meet, having spent two days “bombing around London”. She is, however, in good spirits, with her trademark can of Diet Coke in one hand. She says she is “living off” the stuff.
Holyrood points out she’d also been flipping pancakes on the BBC’s Daily Politics the day before, so clearly not yet shy of a photo opportunity. She laughs.
“It’s fun, you know? In Scotland you don’t do yourself any favours if you try and put on airs and graces. You’d get cut down to size pretty quickly. I take my politics incredibly seriously, but I don’t necessarily take myself too seriously. I think that’s a much healthier way of going about it,” she says.
Given the Scottish party diverges from the UK Government on a number of policy issues, was 2015 more about attention seeking?
“I’d like to think I put in a shift when it came to the debates too,” says Davidson, pointing out broadcasters in Scotland programme more live debates than are seen UK-wide.
“There was some quite big clashes of ideas, actually, at the General Election in 2015 that we perhaps didn’t have in 2010, or even 2005, particularly on areas of the economy, which were huge. You’re right, though, in Scotland I was coming from quite a way back in terms of seats and there is an element of trying to get noticed.”
This year, though, the strategy is understandably more focused on the Scottish Parliament’s expanding remit. Davidson repeats the oft-used line that the SNP “took their eye off the ball” during the independence referendum. Her main focus of attack today, however, is Scottish Labour.
“I think in nine years of being the official opposition, the Labour Party has barely laid a glove on the SNP. We need to have a strong opposition to hold the government to account.”
She mentions education, justice and farmers’ payments as examples of areas which have needed a more robust opposition, comparing the role of the Scottish Conservatives under her tenure so far to that of Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats, carving out a distinct role as a third party when the media tends to look for a two-way fight. She wants that second spot.
But can the binary nature of politics really be blamed on the media? The referendum on independence presented a two-way choice which created a battle line still relevant two years on. Indeed, Holyrood points out the unionist parties have all started the election campaign on the same issue: education.
Davidson insists they are all focusing on it because of the SNP’s record, which has seen literacy and numeracy rates fall compared to international standards. Children who are approaching voting age, she points out, have only ever been to school under the SNP.
“I don’t think that’s anything to do with the constitution, and everything to do with opportunities for our young people.”
Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour, however, have proposed a rise in income tax to pay for investment in education.
“They seem to assume that the only thing that’s missing is money. I don’t think that is the case. I think there are lots of changes you can make that are revenue neutral,” says Davidson, suggesting the £100m Attainment Fund should follow individual children rather than be allocated to local authorities.
On school autonomy, would she advocate a version of England’s controversial free schools scheme for Scotland? Davidson says the Scottish Conservatives have “cast their net wider”, looking at technical schools in Japan, charter schools in New Zealand and Canada and some of the vocational school models in Germany.
“I think it’s ludicrous that local authorities are the only provider of non-paid for schooling, of comprehensive education. It is arrogant to suggest that all these countries around the world who all have different schools’ models, many who are way ahead of us in the international league tables, to presume that Scotland has nothing to learn from them,” she says.
Vocational learning is key, she says. “For years we have had an imbalance between vocational learning and academic learning. We’ve prized our universities so much higher than our colleges. That is why I think it’s been so easy for the SNP to therefore cut and cut away at our colleges. We need to rebalance.”
This, Holyrood suggests, sounds a little bit like traditional Labour territory, and it is not an isolated case. Last month in a speech on poverty, she claimed: “It is possible to say – all at the same time – we are individuals, the state doesn’t have all the answers, the market is not king, there is such a thing as society and government can be a force for good.”
A clear pitch for Labour voters?
“It’s not Labour or Liberal or Nationalist or anything else to want a broad range of opportunities for young people. We should all want that for our country’s children. The second thing I’d say is most voters don’t label themselves at all, ‘I’m a Labour man’ or ‘I’m a Tory’, or whatever. Perhaps not any more.
“And I think we’ve seen a lot of movement within voters in Scotland. I would absolutely say to somebody, no matter who they voted for in the past – if you believe as I believe that we need to concentrate on these big issues which are devolved, if you want us to protect your pay packet so we’re not the highest taxed part of the UK, if you want us to hold the government of the day to account, make sure they focus on the day job, and if you want us to stand up for the two million people who voted No and say, ‘we had a referendum, so stop flirting with this second referendum proposal’, then I don’t care who you used to vote for, but you’ll find a voice in me, and I’ll stick up for you.”
In policy and language, a distance from the UK Government has been forged under Davidson’s leadership, as much to do with a shortage of conflicting Westminster and Holyrood parliamentary groups as it has been a conscious effort to rebrand the party in Scotland.
“Well, we are wholly autonomous in huge areas of what we do, and I think that’s very healthy. The whole point about devolution… despite the fact it was the Labour Party who implemented it, I think the Scottish Conservatives, certainly in the last five or ten years, has understood devolution a lot better.”
The fact the Scottish party does its own policy development will be evident in the difference between last year’s manifesto and this one, she says.
As for the public image of the party, change is inevitable, with over half the sitting MSPs retiring. Davidson says she has spent around four years “identifying, recruiting, supporting, testing and training” the new crop of candidates, predicting the average age in the parliamentary group will drop “15 to 20” years.
“They’re going to add heft, they’re going to add intellectual rigour, they’re going to add real world experience, and knowledge of subject areas we sometimes haven’t had.”
Davidson sees herself as a mentor to the recruits, in the same way she says she was “trained up” by the late David McLetchie and retiring MSPs Annabel Goldie and Alex Fergusson.
A “quiet word” was had with the parliamentary group to encourage those who were thinking of retiring to make it known early, to help the party plan for the future. Davidson says she told them: “I completely understand that you may not want your constituents or associations to know in advance because there will be still things you want to achieve in this parliamentary term, but if you want to give me a quiet word, it’ll help us as a party see where we’re going to have openings and gaps, and bring new people through.”
While the level of ambition is clear, what really constitutes success in this election? Davidson says she’s been consistent in calling for “the best result, the most votes, the most seats that we’ve ever had in a Scottish parliamentary election”.
From worst result to best result in one parliament? Asked how on earth it is achieved, Davidson jokes “an awful lot of shoe leather!”
Strategically, Davidson says the party has become wiser to the electoral system. “We’re concentrating hard on the regional vote in a way we haven’t done in the past. In our first election in 1999, we spent about ten per cent of our campaigning budget on the regional list vote and 90 per cent on individual seats, whereas at this one, I’m flipping that on its head and it’s more 80/20 the other way round.” Regional support can be grown and built upon to provide a platform from which to target seats, she insists.
She does concede being a regional MSP has its challenges, however. “I’m the only MSP for the Glasgow region. I cover nine or ten constituencies myself. That’s really tough to do.”
During the selection process, Davidson shifted from Glasgow to the top of the list in the Lothians. Critics accused her of jumping ship, others thought it represented a homecoming to the city she was born and studied in.
In fact, for Davidson, the decision was a tactical one, demonstrating the ambition of the party.
“I’m pretty sure I could have held that seat for quite some time but I don’t think any extra votes I brought to the table as leader, and with the profile a leader naturally has, would have got us a second seat there, maybe, at this election,” she explains.
Lothians, meanwhile, has its two sitting Tory MSPs retiring. Davidson clearly believes three can be elected from that list.
“We’ll see if the gamble pays off, see if it works,” she adds.
If Davidson realises her ambition, and the Conservatives really do become the first opposition at Holyrood, she claims Scottish politics would change by bringing back a left/right narrative. “The SNP and Labour, despite the fact they hate each other so much, are really very similar. We’ve had that soft-left consensus,” she says.
Social Attitudes Surveys reveal attitudes in Scotland are not markedly different from those south of the border, despite the political narrative, and Davidson believes the Conservatives can capitalise.
Could some potential allies on certain policy areas be found within the broad church of the SNP, Holyrood wonders?
Davidson laughs at this. “How close on the ideological spectrum, if you take the constitution out of it, are Fergus Ewing and Christina McKelvie? One, I would suggest, plausibly to the right of me, and the other one is to the left of the Labour Party leader, so it’s a massive, massive broad church in there. They all work towards an independent Scotland, but they all want that independent Scotland to be a wholly different beast.”
Perhaps, then, those on the right of centre may well have found a home in a resurgent Scottish Conservative Party if Scotland had become independent? Davidson refuses to be drawn into the fantasy.
“We’re the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, and we believe in it wholeheartedly. This isn’t about intellectual positioning or parliamentary gain for us. This is a bit of an article of faith.”
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have softened their stance on allowing members to support independence since the referendum campaign. Davidson is disappointed in her one-time allies.
“So swiftly after, they’re putting their own parties’ electoral gain ahead of what was a really tough fight. And they put a shift in, they really did do a shift. Baffled!”
Davidson’s own personal ambitions have been frequently raised, more often than not by English journalists who tip her to take an English seat at Westminster, or even succeed David Cameron.
She says sitting on the back benches at Westminster would be a demotion. “I kind of sit at the top table anyway. One of the reasons I was down yesterday was to go to political cabinet. George Osborne wasn’t there so I was sitting in his seat, across from the PM. Quite nice. So, you know, I’m already treated like I am in the big boys’ club of the party, and I am. If they treated me any differently they’d soon hear about it.”
Only London mayor Boris Johnson and Welsh leader Andrew Davies share the prominent position of a big role within the party outwith the whip, as “the biggest beasts who don’t have to toe the line”, she points out.
“It’s brilliant fun. They’re weighed down with all these cares of massive ministerial salaries and lots of cars and all the rest of it, but we have freedom, and that counts much more.”
It’s easy to forget Davidson is only in her first term as an MSP. She has time on her side. But will the shifting constitution and arrangements for English Votes for English Laws mean an MP with a Scottish seat is unlikely to become Prime Minister again?
“I would put money on there being a Scot coming up through the ranks. Scots are quite good at politics. Genuinely, look at UK history. Scots have more than got themselves to the top of the tree in politics, as in so many other policy areas in the UK. Top of the tree in sports, in philosophy, in literature, in banking and business. Scots tend to be quite competitive, quite good at stuff.”
There’s that confidence again. Doesn’t the cabinet see her as the troublesome Scot at the table?
“Michael Gove and David Mundell already manage to hold the line on that one. I get asked this all the time and honestly, I see no barrier to it whatsoever. It just won’t be me.”