Ruth Davidson: I'll never do anything more important in politics than this
Is the Scottish Conservative party leader destined for Westminster?
It is sometimes (rather unfunnily) said that there are more pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs. While this is undoubtedly true – Edinburgh Zoo houses two of the black and white creatures while there is only one David Mundell in the Commons – it doesn’t tell the whole story.
At the Scottish Parliament elections earlier this month, the number of Tory MPs soared from 15 to 31. That’s an awful lot of pandas.
Significantly, the party has also usurped Labour to become the main opposition to the SNP.
Leading the Conservative renaissance for the past five years has been Ruth Davidson. She needs little introduction, but here is a quick upsum: working class, lesbian, former BBC journalist with a penchant for kick-boxing and love for football. Not your average Tory, then.
So how has she done it? As with everything in Scottish politics at the moment, the 2014 independence referendum has played its part.
Shrewdly, Davidson realised there was a market for the majority of voters who believe that ‘No’ should mean no. While Labour has prevaricated – Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale even suggested during the campaign that she could vote for independence at some point in the future – the Tories have been unequivocal in their support for the United Kingdom.
Davidson, however, remains cautious and is fully aware that she hasn’t sealed the deal with a sceptical public. “I think the tales of our demise were overspun, but then so are tales of our renaissance,” she says during a rare trip to London.
“I fully accept that there were many people who voted for us to do a job who are not dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives, and who are not guaranteeing us their votes at future elections.
“We are on probation and I have got a really big job to do to try and demonstrate to people that I will make good on the promises I made to them and the role that I said I would fulfil in terms of being a strong opposition party that challenges, that scrutinises and introduces a level of debate and discourse that we’ve not had in Scotland because of the cosy, soft-left consensus.”
She adds: “We were not saying I’m going to be prime minister, what we were saying is I will hold the Scottish government to account after nine years in which they’ve kind of got away with murder. The Labour party’s not laid a glove on them.
“We wanted to bring back the scrutiny and pressure that all governments should have. There was a real response to that.”
Two pieces of SNP legislation in her sights are the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act and the Named Person scheme.
The former was a well-meaning attempt to clamp down on sectarian singing at Scottish football grounds. But critics – and many judges – have pointed out that the way it was drafted renders it virtually unworkable.
Davidson explains: “This is a law which says you can arrest a man for singing a song in a bar if the bar has a television with the football on in the background, but you cannot arrest the same man for singing the same song in the same bar if the TV is playing rugby. That is a bad law.”
Under the Named Person scheme, every child in Scotland is given a state-appointed guardian to monitor their wellbeing. “As well as being illiberal and unworkable, it’s flawed in that it spreads resource too thin,” says Davidson. “By focusing on every family in Scotland, you take it away from vulnerable children who need it most. We’re hopeful that now the SNP no longer have a majority, we can force a re-think.”
It’s easily forgotten that not very long ago, Scotland was very much Labour country. Their votes were weighed, rather than counted. So when significant numbers switch to the Conservatives, it is clear that something big is going on. According to Davidson, Labour’s woes at Westminster also played their part.
She says: “It’s worth saying that the Scottish election wasn’t about David Cameron versus Jeremy Corbyn. It was about Nicola Sturgeon versus Ruth Davidson versus Kezia Dugdale, and it did focus on the devolved administration – voters in Scotland know what they’re voting for.
“What did help in terms of the Corbyn factor was it reinforced this idea that Labour’s in a bit of a mess and isn’t really strong enough to stand up to the SNP. What is happening to the party at Westminster reinforced this idea.
“In Scotland, the Labour party is on its sixth leader in nine years. They lost 40 of their 41 seats last year at the general election. Between a quarter and a third of Labour voters voted Yes in the referendum. Of those that are left, a large cohort included traditional working class Scots who had saved up, bought their own house, their children were the first in the family to go onto further or higher education, they’ve paid off their mortgage, they have always paid their taxes, they believe in the welfare state – and a contributory part, so they don’t like when they see people taking out of the system when they haven’t put in.
“That sort of proper traditional working class vote in Scotland, Jeremy Corbyn does not speak to them in the way that Gordon Brown would have. Those people had their faith in Labour shaken, and that has been reinforced by Jeremy Corbyn.”
We meet in a hotel a mere stone’s throw from Number 10, where Davidson will later attend an LGBT reception being hosted by the prime minister. Inevitably, her success in Scotland has led to feverish speculation that she will, sooner rather than later, be plying her trade at Westminster. Some even say that with her impeccable blue-collar credentials – her mum was a secretary and her dad a whisky-maker – she is the ideal successor to David Cameron.
She can afford to laugh at the suggestion – but stops short of ruling out becoming an MP at some point in the future. “There has been a real progression,” says Davidson. “At first it was ‘do you want to be a backbench MP?’ Well no, that’s actually quite a big demotion from what I’m doing now.
“Then it was ‘oh you’d get a ministership’. Again, minister for paperclips in the Cabinet Office is a bit less than what I’m doing now, thanks. And now it’s ‘do you just want to ask David to give you the keys’ and I’m like ‘no, I don’t think so’.
“As delightful as that is, I’ve got a pretty big job and it’s just become a whole lot bigger and it’s very important to me. I genuinely don’t think I will ever do anything more important in politics than this critical period of keeping the UK together.”
So is she ruling out ever becoming an MP? “I’m certainly ruling it out for now because I’ve got a pretty bloody big job,” she says. “There is also the question, with all the new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament, MSPs have a lot more to do than backbench MPs from Scotland do now. It’s now a bigger and much more interesting job to be an MSP than it is to be an MP from Scotland sitting on the backbenches.”
But surely being Prime Minister one day must appeal?
She says: “I’m in a hugely privileged position in that I get to regularly see behind the door at Number 10, and it looks like the loneliest job in the world and I do not seek it.”
Davidson is in London to do her bit for the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. As well as being a natural communicator, the prominent role she played in holding the UK together makes her a major asset to the Remain campaign.
“I spend a lot of time talking to Scotland’s big business organisations and they are saying almost with one voice that it’s better for them to be inside a free trading area of 500 million people,” she says.
“My parents are working class Glaswegians who grew up in housing estates. My dad worked in manufacturing his whole life – first in textiles, then in whisky – and it’s no exaggeration to say that every plate of food that was put down in front of me and my sister growing up was because he made stuff and sold it abroad.
“I want to make it easier for Scottish businesses to do that, not harder. I don’t see in the Brexit campaign them telling us what the alternative looks like and why it’s better. What we’ve learned from the Scottish referendum campaign is that it’s not enough just to criticise the status quo, you’ve got to show how what you’re offering is better for people.”
Davidson insists that while the Scottish and European referendums are not comparable, she is in no doubt that a UK outside the EU would be significantly diminished.
She says: “Whether we’re in or out of the EU, Britain will still stand. If Scotland had come out of Britain, it would have changed the status of all of us.
“For me, the EU referendum is more of a cost/benefit analysis. There are questions about whether we want to be outward looking, leading the debate about how our continent is reformed and interacts with its neighbours. There is an element of that, but it’s mostly for me a hard-headed pragmatic approach.
“When it came to the independence referendum, it was much more about feelings of national and personal identity. I got really upset and angry when the SNP were trying to make out the UK was something other to Scotland, because actually the UK wouldn’t exist without us. It felt like the SNP were trying to take something away from me as a Scot and a Brit and they never really told me what I was going to get back in return.
“In many ways, the weight of the decision is not the same for me as a Scot, but a lot of the arguments do seem a bit of a re-tread.”
Davidson also has her doubts that a vote for Brexit would, as Nicola Sturgeon suggests, make a second Scottish referendum almost inevitable.
“What I’ve yet to see is anyone within the SNP hierarchy articulate to me why being part of a political union like the EU, to which we export 16% of our goods and services, is so important that in order to stay in it we would have to leave a union to which we export 64% of our goods and services, which is the rest of the UK,” she says.
“And until someone can make that case to me, I don’t know how they can take that case to the public. They’re sabre-rattling. They didn’t put it in their manifesto and they didn’t get a majority, so there’s two reasons why it’s a hard sell.”
If there is a Remain vote, item one on the prime minister’s agenda on 24th June will be healing the deep wounds the referendum debate has opened up within the Tory party. Davidson says senior figures have “a responsibility” to do so quickly.
“I think somebody like a Michael Gove figure is very important in bringing the party back together, in terms of the Cabinet coming back together,” she says. “We shouldn’t also forget the belief in duty and service that people in the Conservative Party have, and that includes our activist base and ordinary members.
“I think particularly when you look at the state of the Labour party UK-wide, and you see a party that is willing to sacrifice the nuclear deterrent and the defence of our nation, you see a party that’s at war with itself for other reasons, whose leader shares platforms with Hamas but says he won’t share a platform with the prime minister, who has an economic policy that would be damaging to all of us.
“Don’t underestimate the sense of duty that Conservatives have to make sure we continue as a government. Because if not us, my God it can’t be the other lot given the state they’re in.”
This article first appeared in the House magazine.