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by Paris Gourtsoyannis
15 March 2014
Up for the fight: Interview with Ruth Davidson

Up for the fight: Interview with Ruth Davidson

After the Scottish Parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage in February, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson went into her office, sat down and cried. “I cried deep sobbing tears of relief and release and joy and pain and pride and dozens of other emotions all mixed up together,” she wrote in a Sunday Herald column that week. “In truth, I didn’t really know why I was crying – I hadn’t expected to – but I couldn’t stop for a full five minutes.”

It’s not an image of Davidson that’s easy to picture. Her leadership campaign was all about the kickboxing TA veteran who had overcome life-threatening injuries in a childhood road-traffic accident, defending the party from the reckless reforms of opponent Murdo Fraser. Her weekly jousts with Alex Salmond at First Minister’s Questions are generally in the same vein: punchy and pugnacious, occasionally laced with wit or with her former journalist’s instinct for a killer statistic thrown in, but light-years away in tone from the schoolmarmish tellings-off of her predecessor, Annabel Goldie.

So when she rose to speak during the Stage-2 debate on the Equal Marriage (Scotland) Bill in November, Davidson’s words were touching and not a little surprising – even though we knew that as an openly gay party leader, her contribution would be uniquely personal.

Describing the security and love that her parents’ 40 years of marriage gave their children, Davidson said: “I look at what they have and I want that too, and I want it to be recognised in the same way. That recognition matters. Presiding Officer, from childhood, you have known without even thinking that if you found someone you loved and who loved you in return, you would have the right to marry them. The same unthinking right to marry extends to the Cabinet Secretary, the Labour Party leader and the Liberal Democrat leader. I want that right to extend to not just me but the thousands of people across Scotland who are told that the law says no and that they cannot marry the love of their life.”

Davidson thinks back to the day of the vote and how she felt – in the office next door to hers, which she says is too untidy to be photographed – pausing to consider her words carefully. “It did mean quite a lot to me,” she says. “That’s an intensely personal story to tell, and as politicians, we’re not called upon to bring our personal into the political sphere very often. Oftentimes, we choose not to. It makes you feel quite vulnerable to be so honest and so personal about things that matter to you and are involved in the core of your being and who you are.”

Despite how personal the issue of equal marriage is for Davidson, it’s also a source of intense personal conflict for her. She was raised a committed member of the Church of Scotland, attending church regularly and teaching Sunday school; she would go to church more regularly now, she says, if politics wasn’t a seven-day-a-week job. “That’s why for me, when I’ve talked about this subject – and I don’t talk about it often, but when pressed – it’s always been both sides of the divide, both my sexuality and my faith, and it’s touched on both of these elements that are intensely personal.

“I think that it’s a good bill, I think the protections are in there for the churches and that was important and had they not been there I would have felt hugely conflicted over the legislation. For me, this us wiping away the last legal barrier that says gay people are different, and for me, that’s important.”

Davidson is speaking to Holyrood with a week to go until the Scottish Conservative Party conference, and a more public and political internal conflict is at the heart of the agenda. Labour has had internal squabbles over plans to devolve income tax to Scotland in the event of a referendum ‘No’ vote, and the Liberal Democrats have published Menzies Campbell’s call for a federal United Kingdom. The Tories, however, are keeping everyone waiting.

That includes the party’s own members, who won’t have anything to debate at their conference. The Strathclyde Commission, set up by Davidson to consider what the Tory position on devolution should be if Scotland stays in the Union, was initially reported to be preparing an interim report for the end of 2013. It now seems unlikely that there will be any interim findings at all, and that the final report won’t appear until May. Davidson insists there is no delay.

“When I set this up, I asked Tom [Strathclyde, the former Conservative leader in the House of Lords] to go away and look at what would be best for Scotland, how to make devolution work best, and the only timescale I put on him was come back in good time for the referendum so we can show the people of Scotland what our thinking is,” Davidson says. She adds both that the commission’s work is “at an advanced stage”, and that party members will be able to contribute their views during a conference session – an interesting approach to party democracy.

Davidson must feel thankful that she doesn’t have a gang of restive MPs to deal with, like Johann Lamont. The Tories, nonetheless, have their own divisions over further devolution. Most of the MSP group is content with the idea of more powers for Scotland, barring a few recidivists like Margaret Mitchell. However, Westminster would need to sign off on any changes, and while George Osborne is reported to be in favour of more tax powers for Scotland, there’s no guarantee that Tory backbenchers will follow the script.

Davidson herself has been on a personal journey over further devolution, covering a lot of territory in just a few years – in a variety of different directions. Her leadership pitch was built on her opposition to any additional powers at all – her infamous “line in the sand” that ended up being washed away by the tide. Last year, she recanted in setting up the Strathclyde Commission. “The Scottish Conservatives are committed to a new path; more responsibility for the Scottish Parliament and a strengthening of devolution,” she said. “Scotland is a mature country. It’s now time for its parliament to grow up too.” However, before any of the main parties had published their own plans, Davidson was once again out on her own, saying there would be no cross-party agreement on more devolution.

Asked why that is, given there will be similarities as well as differences between the offers, Davidson says that “politics doesn’t stop because there’s a referendum,” and adds: “I think it’ll be pretty obvious to the public what the Venn diagram is in terms of what overlaps.” So just where does she stand personally, since she has consistently had such strong inconsistent views on the matter?

“I want what’s best for Scotland, and I want devolution to work for Scotland,” Davidson says. “The difference between the Better Together side and the SNP is the SNP appears to have no interest in making devolution work. They want to end devolution, that’s what independence would mean. I want it to work well, and not just as an academic exercise. I want it to deliver for people, for businesses, for voters, so that we have a constitution that serves the voters, not the other way round.”

That’s not the trumpet blast for more powers that some in her own party might want – to say nothing of wavering referendum voters. Davidson talks about localism in the same breath as “making devolution work”, suggesting moving powers away from Edinburgh ranks alongside shifting them north from London in her thinking. On the Think Scotland website, one of the party’s vice-chairmen, James Reekie, writing for the website Think Scotland, is less equivocal: “I believe that the Conservative Party needs to offer its own distinctive approach that it seeks to deliver in the event of a No vote in September. It’s about more than making the Parliament accountable, it’s showing how that accountability can lead to a better economy and society. There is a centre-right case for more devolution and we have to make it.”

The Scottish Conservatives gather in Edinburgh this spring, the first time any Scottish party has held its conference in the capital in several years. The decision is deliberate; it is the party’s last conference before the referendum, and Davidson wants the party to be seen by as many people as possible. “I want people to come. I want them to see myself, my colleagues in here, my colleagues down south, speakers from other walks of life, talk about why we’re not just Conservatives but we’re the Conservative and Unionist Party too.”

Gunning for that sort of attention means the party needs full seats for the media and particularly the TV cameras. This time last year, in Stirling, a journalist from the Financial Times noticed that the Albert Halls were mostly empty most of the time – and organisers had only set out 240 chairs. “I’ve held my hands up since the beginning – as a party, we have a lot of work to do to reconnect with people across Scotland. When I took over we’d had 20 years of stagnation and decline. You don’t turn that around overnight, but you do lay firm foundations. You build from the bottom up.”

In the past two years, sound foundations have been laid, Davidson claims. Membership is up, and the Tories’ own pro-UK campaign, Conservative Friends of the Union, has 80,000 backers. “I would say that’s a mass membership group. People are happy to be aligned with the Conservative Party and fight with us on that issue.” In the background, there has been an overhaul of policy, with the publication of significant pieces of work on rural affairs and energy. “I’d always thought that the party had been a bit policy light in Scotland,” Davidson says.

Structures and governance have also been reformed, from the local association level right up to the top, where a new chairman, Richard Keen QC took office in January. “In terms of overhauling the party, that was no small body of work – new chairman, new associations, new management structure, new funding structure, new everything. That may sound wonkish and internal and political, but it matters.”

The processes may be internal, but Davidson hopes people will begin to notice once her efforts to literally “change the face” of the Tories take hold. One third of the party’s new councillors in 2012 were new, and if the Tories retain their MEP in European elections this year, he will be new, too: Ian Duncan tops the list of candidates to replace the retiring Struan Stevenson.

The new broom will eventually sweep through Holyrood. “I would expect to see a big turnover of our MSP group too. It’s about constant renewal,” says Davidson. So far ahead of candidate selection, that may upset some Tory Holyrood stalwarts. Sources in the Conservative Party have told Holyrood that Nanette Milne and Mary Scanlon are amongst those likely to step aside, joining Annabel Goldie, who now has a seat in the Lords. However, Jamie McGrigor and Alex Fergusson are rumoured to be considering running again.

Other party reforms designed to pump in new blood could end up harming the patient. Local party associations are now able to hold open primaries to select their candidates for the 2015 general election. An American import, open primaries give a selection ballot to anyone registered to vote in the constituency, hopefully generating greater interest and name-recognition for a candidate among ordinary voters, rather than just the party faithful.

The constituency of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk held the first such selection in Scotland in February, and by some accounts, Davidson is in danger of becoming a victim of its success. John Lamont, the MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, was chosen ahead of Borders council group leader Michelle Ballantyne, and will be taking on former Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and his 5,675-strong majority.

You’d get long odds on the Tories increasing their tally of Scottish MPs, but Lamont has proved himself to be one of the party’s best campaigners, seizing his Holyrood constituency from the Lib Dems in 2007. He’s also Davidson’s closest lieutenant, serving as her leadership campaign manager. Indeed, Lamont was one of only two MSP colleagues who backed her leadership campaign, and was rewarded with the post of party whip when she won. If he did win, it would represent a huge victory for the party – but according to some, a huge loss for Davidson.

Lamont’s selection also raises questions about where the party’s best young talents see as their best prospects to advance their careers – Holyrood or Westminster. The other open primary to be held so far was in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, where another of the party’s younger MSPs, Alex Johnstone, was defeated by local businessman Alexander Burnett.

“John has been a great whip to me, and he was a great justice spokesman to Annabel. I think he’s a great Borders representative, and he wants to represent more people in the Borders, and it’s a bigger constituency at Westminster. I think he’s one of the best campaigners we have in the party, and if anyone is going to take the seat from Michael Moore, I think John’s got the best chance,” Davidson says. “I’m the leader of the whole party in Scotland, so the MPs report to me, not just the MSPs, I’m not just the leader of the MSP group. So he’ll still be working for me, he’ll just be working for me in a different place!”

The conference message, Davidson says, is putting the Scottish Tories and the Scottish people on the same page. “This is going to be about the Conservatives working for the people of Scotland, working to deliver policies that both improve the quality of their lives, improve the opportunities for their children, but also fighting for the very fabric of their country. How as a party, we are aligned with the people of Scotland’s views.” The idea that the Tories are inherently out of step with social-democratic Scotland is false, she says. “We are on the majority side of the debate in terms of the Union. People believe in what we’re talking about in terms of reforming welfare. People understand when we talk about the economy it’s about giving working people a fair crack at the whip, making sure it pays to be in work.

“This is about us aligning ourselves foursquare with the people of Scotland, as a majority party, a professional party, a party that’s serious about being in government down south, about approaching government up here, and delivering for people in Scotland.”

Waking up that silent majority is difficult if you don’t hold the megaphone. Conservative policies struggle for recognition in public debate, not just because of the narrowness of the party’s support, but because in the past 18 months, the referendum has left little room for anything else. On education, for instance, the party has radical plans to reform school governance and funding that rival anything Michael Gove has to offer – but they hardly feature in debates within the sector.

“I think that as we slide down international rankings, as people see difficulties with practical issues as well as educational – the amount of money you have to pay to get a house in a good catchment area, it’s appalling that your education system should be designing your housing policy almost in terms of private renters and buyers. I think the debate may not have happened yet, I think the Conservatives may be ahead of the game in terms of that, but we’ll keep banging on about it because this is important.

“We’re not just competing against people from down south, and that seems to be the misconception that the SNP has: as long as on some indicator we happen to be better than England and Wales somewhere on something, than everything’s alright in Scotland. Well actually, do you know what, that’s a lack of ambition, I want more for our kids than that. I don’t want to just be competing against other European countries; I want to be competing with some of the Asian tiger economies. I want our children to have absolutely the best chance anywhere in the world to go on and do great things, and I think having a one-size-fits-all education system is a block to that.

“I think the real tragedy in Scotland is the lack of debate around education and educational reform, the lack of a challenge to the status quo. I think it is absolutely incumbent upon me to challenge that. I think that it’s a crying shame that there’s not a much greater debate, and I keep pushing and pushing – and one of these days I’ll win through,” Davidson says.
Another battle against the odds, then – but Davidson has probably lost count of those.

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