Illustration by Tim Mcdonagh

Can Ruth Davidson save the Tories?

She has a reputation for being a different kind of Conservative—but just how far can Davidson go?
August 21, 2018

Before Ruth Davidson went for her new job, she had her hair cut very short. Looking back at 2011 and her audacious bid to lead the Scottish Conservatives after just a few months as a member of the Holyrood Parliament, she now sees the gesture as over the top. After all, no one in the party had made her sexuality an issue. But at the time, she felt she was making an important point: elect me, and you’ll know what you’re getting. I will not change to suit your purposes.

That directness is the core of Davidson’s appeal. There are other ingredients: her effervescence, her bawdy humour and the counterbalance she provides to the stuffy ranks of Tory men. But it’s her unshakeable sense of her own identity, an insistence on being “out and proud”—whether it’s in relation to being a Church of Scotland-going lesbian, or a Tory in post-Thatcher Scotland—that is her unique selling point.

That same authenticity is the reason why Davidson, the newbie, beat her more experienced rival, Murdo Fraser, to become leader of the Scottish Conservatives. And seven years on, it is also why, even without a Westminster seat, moderate Tories are latching on to her as a potential future prime minister, an ambition she denies perhaps a little too forcefully. So, after successfully resuscitating the Tories north of the border, could Davidson really offer her party, and Britain, a brighter tomorrow, beyond the Brexit storm?

Davidson’s determination to do things on her own terms was in evidence again earlier this year when she revealed her IVF pregnancy. She was, party sources say, determined it should not be presented as some big “gay moment.” But Davidson has an instinct for publicity, and the announcement received a good deal of respectful attention.

The thrust of her message, reiterated at a recent gender summit, was that she and her partner Jen Wilson were just ordinary women who would juggle the demands of childcare and a busy working life. But now, as all her Tory counterparts at Westminster sink into the quagmire of Brexit, Davidson’s forthcoming spell of absence on maternity leave looks serendipitous. She’ll quit the scene in October, allowing her to sit out the next six months and return in the spring, just after Brexit is supposed to be done.

In the meantime, the 39-year-old Remainer is energetically ensuring that she is not forgotten in her absence. This summer she stuck her neck out by loyally backing Theresa May’s unpopular Chequers White Paper, but also reached out across the Brexit divide by launching Onward, a new Tory think tank that’s supposed to help the party reach out to the next generation. And in September she will publish a none-too-subtly titled book, Yes She Can: Why Women Own the Future. Rather like Profiles in Courage, the book John F Kennedy wrote about the giants of US history three years before running for the White House, Yes She Can’s focus on inspirational women is surely intended to borrow a little of her subjects’ stardust.

Equality campaigners who still trenchantly oppose the Tories will point out that they were until recently the party of Section 28, which restricted teachers’ ability to talk positively about gay people. Davidson’s personal critics also suggest that she wasn’t willing to stand up against the so-called “rape clause,” a rule that requires some mothers to prove their pregnancy was the product of assault in order to qualify for certain benefits. Even so, her new book will ensure that, amid what could be the ugliest Conservative conference in recent history, there in the newspapers will be Davidson: heavily pregnant, putatively progressive and one of the few Tories anywhere with something to smile about.

How did she take Scotland from being the lost Tory cause to the party’s last source of comfort? What sort of path did this state-educated lesbian take to get into the Conservative Party, which was so deeply out of favour across Scotland? And what were her origins? The answers to these questions highlight a good many misunderstandings about modern Scotland in general, and about Davidson in particular, especially regarding the degree to which her Conservatism veers from the mainstream.

The Davidson parents were from traditional working-class stock. Her father Douglas, who was at one time a professional footballer with Partick Thistle, was the son of a factory worker and auxiliary nurse. He was brought up in Castlemilk on the south side of Glasgow and left school at 16. Her mother, Liz, came from a neighbouring estate.

By the time Ruth was born in November 1978, however, the family had already moved to Selkirk, in the rural Borders where Douglas became a junior manager for the textile company Laidlaw and Fairgrieve. Russell Fairgrieve, the former owner, was an old-guard, patrician Tory MP and, notably, a staunch Europhile. The Davidsons upped sticks again in 1983, when Ruth was five, moving to Lundin Links on the coast of Fife where Douglas had a job in whisky exports.

Compared to the early lives of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, her childhood was certainly run-of-the-mill: not for her Eton, or anything like it, but a comprehensive school, Buckhaven High. While the young Nicola Sturgeon has said she was politicised by the Proclaimers song, “Letter From America,” Davidson was educated in the shadow of one of the many Scottish places it lamented: Methil, a town where the power station is now demolished and the docks have been in remorseless decline.

But the Davidsons owned their own home, which was near The Old Manor Hotel. Lundin Links—with its then-segregated men’s and ladies’ golf clubs—was a far cry from Castlemilk where Douglas had started out. Stand on the shoreline facing south towards Leven, you can see the wind turbines and oil platforms of Scotland’s energy sector. As children paddle in the rockpools, all that industrial hubbub seems far away. The village itself is pretty and well ordered; there are homes with names like Birch Tree Cottage and flowerpots on the doorstep. A notice outside the volunteer-run library advertises an amateur production of The Winter’s Tale. Inside there is an exhibition of old photos, some of the beach thronging with visitors.

“Lundin Links was always about tourism,” says one man, whose daughter was in the same school year as Davidson’s sister. “I reckon most people here would think of themselves as middle class.” “They call this ‘the Bubble,’” adds a white-haired woman walking her dog along the sands. “You can see why. Over there, there is activity,” she said, pointing towards the yellow oil platform bases at the BiFab fabrication works at Methil which were themselves recently threatened with administration. “But in Lundin Links nothing much changes.”

The Davidsons still live in Lundin Links and everyone knows them, though not everyone knows Ruth is their daughter. One girl looked it up on Wikipedia just to check I was right. It’s a friendly village; every single person I pass smiles and says hello, and it occurs to me that it’s here Davidson developed her easy-going public persona. It’s also a part of the world that voted Conservative until the second half of the 1980s, and where the values of community, country and church are well embedded. That, combined with her parents’ work ethic, has given Davidson a blue-collar Conservatism that believes in striving, personal responsibility and social mobility; it’s a “no one owes you a living” Conservatism that was once—pre-Thatcher, pre-poll tax—common enough across Scotland.

But long before she was in a position to air any such political vision, Davidson’s future was almost cut short. When she was five years old, she was run over outside the family home, crushed by a lorry, which broke her leg, fractured her pelvis and severed her femoral artery. “I remember feeling someone put a blanket over me on the tarmac,” Davidson recalled in an interview. “Then I remember opening my eyes in the ambulance and my mum being there… then I blacked out again.” She was given a 50/50 chance of survival and spent months in a full-body cast. But after reconstructive surgery, the future would-be voice of Scotland’s strivers fought back to become the only girl on the boys’ football team.

Davidson and her older sister, now a doctor in Newcastle, were the first in their family to go to university. At Edinburgh, she felt uneasy among the public schoolboys. “I remember her as quick-witted and a ferocious swearer,” recalls the political journalist Alex Massie, who first met her on the university debating circuit, where she was “good, but not world-beating.” She hadn’t come out back then, which may have added to her sense of -dislocation. But mostly it seems to have been born of the same distaste for the elite that has much more recently been on show in her scarcely-disguised dislike of Boris Johnson.

This first became plain when she went up against him in the BBC’s Brexit debate at Wembley Arena. It has been evident ever since. When asked about Johnson’s likening of the Irish border to the line between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster, Davidson was withering: “This is a serious and technical issue that requires serious minds to give it the correct amount of thought. It’s not really one for casual disregard.” In August, she again took the former foreign secretary to task over his inflammatory comments on the burqa.

Her disdain is perhaps rooted in the fact that, unlike Johnson, Davidson had to make it for herself, and—as she might see the contrast—where the entitled Etonian is always finding ways to use the country to further his ambitions, her politics are born of conviction.

Like many a Tory hero of the past, Davidson wanted to join the armed forces, but her childhood injuries ruled that out. She joined the Territorial Army instead, but in 2006 she sustained service-ending injuries jumping through a window during training. (It’s hard to imagine Johnson doing the same, at least without the cameras present.) She went on to become a journalist on the Glenrothes Gazette, Kingdom FM and then the BBC. Though her ideology was already formed, she wasn’t in any political party in her twenties. It was in 2009, when she quit journalism to do a masters in international development at Glasgow University, that she finally joined the Tories.

At the time, the Labour government in London was looking exhausted. But in Scotland the Conservatives were as unpopular as ever: in the 2010 general election Gordon Brown took 41 Scottish seats to David Cameron’s one. Offering her services to a party where volunteers were in short supply, Davidson soon ended up working for the Scottish leader Annabel Goldie, a moderate with a charismatic personality. She immediately saw in Davidson an opportunity to change the party’s dynamic. “The first thing that strikes you when you meet Ruth is her positive aura,” Goldie said. “She has an enthusiasm and vibrancy tempered by common sense and a real practical grasp of priorities.”

Most Scottish political journalists’ first memories of Davidson’s Tiggerish zeal date from the Glasgow North East by-election of 2009. The young Tory, who had made the journey from new-blood to candidate in no time, threw herself at the solidly-Labour seat as if it were a marginal. She knocked on doors that had been ignored by Conservatives for years and was met, as often as not, with grudging respect.

She lost, of course, but her show of energy and determination helped get her on to the candidate list for the seat of Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, which had fallen vacant in the wake of the expenses scandal. She didn’t get selected—but this dalliance with an English seat was an early signal that we shouldn’t assume that her ambitions stop at the border. As it turned out, in the 2010 Westminster election she fought—and lost—in Glasgow North East again.

"She knocked on doors that had been ignored by Conservatives for years and was met with grudging respect"

Though safely ignored by the outside world at the time, the Tory Party in Glasgow at the time was a hotbed of intrigue. There were accusations of internal vote-rigging, and dark mutterings about new members suddenly appearing at selections to vote on party lists. Among all this, just weeks before the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections, Malcolm Macaskill, a Tory stalwart who topped the party’s Glasgow list, was deselected amid a bitter row over his business history. He was later paid a five-figure settlement by the Scottish Conservative Party over its decision to remove him.

Amid that turmoil, Davidson was a breath of fresh air. And helped by her association with Goldie, she replaced Macaskill at the top of the Glasgow list. Overall, the Scottish Conservatives fared badly that year, losing two seats as the SNP cleaned up with an overall majority. But under the Scottish electoral system Davidson still got a Holyrood seat. She had made it to the Scottish Parliament.

When, soon after, Goldie announced her resignation as leader, Davidson emerged as a potential successor. Where her main rival, Murdo Fraser, had big plans to detoxify the Scottish Tories by splitting from the national party, the “kick-boxing lesbian,” as she was tagged, didn’t just talk about change—she embodied it. It hardly mattered that, beyond LGBT issues, her views were traditional: church-going, pro-military, with robust views on crime and punishment. Her conventionality came wrapped in a feisty, no-nonsense package that somehow looked modernising. Even though Fraser had been regarded as favourite from the start, she won in a narrow final vote.

She had done it. But there were teething problems. She lacked experience, and support from the small parliamentary party, and was often trounced by Alex Salmond at First Minister’s Questions. Initially too, she guarded her privacy, becoming defensive if she was asked about her faith or sexuality. But that changed when she started receiving letters from young gay men telling her she had inspired them. She grasped her responsibility—and perhaps her potential appeal—as a role model.

The 2014 independence referendum marked the beginning of Davidson’s real rise. Suddenly the Scottish Tories had something to campaign on, and for the first time in decades they sensed they were on the winning side. Labour, the main opposition, led the rather dull “Better Together” campaign, but it was the Scottish Conservatives that reaped the rewards from its success. By the 2015 General Election, Labour’s decision to fight for No alongside the Tories meant “Red Tories” graffiti was being daubed all over their former strongholds. Meanwhile Davidson’s grin was ubiquitous, as she was photographed pulling pints, and sitting on tanks and buffaloes.

She also had a knack for attracting new recruits. Adam Tomkins, a professor in constitutional law and now a Conservative MSP, met Davidson in 2012 while working on devolution. “Though I had never in my life voted Tory, the more time I spent with Ruth, the more I realised that we had a lot in common… Then I went to the Scottish party conference and Ruth was making her leader’s speech. She joked: ‘It’s hard to come out... as a Scottish Conservative,’ and when she said it, she looked at me. I thought: ‘Yes, that is probably what I am.’”

More and more people have undergone similar conversions. At the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections, Davidson doubled the number of Conservative seats and knocked Scottish Labour back into third place, becoming—astonishingly—the leader of Scotland’s main opposition. Whereas Scottish Labour struggled against the separatists, she presented her party as the bulwark against a rising nationalist tide and pulled off the personal coup of winning the seat of Edinburgh Central. She campaigned as a Tory, but seemed happy to put a distance between herself and the party. Theresa May tried it last year with her “strong and stable” slogan—only in Davidson’s case it worked. The leaflets read: “Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition.” The Conservative brand was somewhat muted.

In 2016, for the second time in two years, she had a good referendum—this time as an energetic spokesperson for the lacklustre “Remain” campaign. She lost an ally when David Cameron quit, but soon enough threw her weight behind May.

Though not a Westminster candidate last June, Davidson reprised her “strong opposition” line to even greater effect. The SNP was pushing Brexit as a justification for a second independence referendum, but Davidson tapped into a widespread public weariness. Having travelled across the country during each campaign from 2014 on, I was surprised to see once fired-up SNP voters switching allegiance on the grounds they couldn’t face another trip to the polling station. The SNP lost 21 of its 56 seats in the Commons, while the Tories won 13, their best result since 1983. And now Davidson’s appeal was assuming UK-wide importance: without those extra MPs, May wouldn’t have had the numbers to govern.

Despite her ascent, there are those who see Davidson as “policy-lite.” She’s not devoid of ideas—some of her thinking on education has been co-opted by the SNP—but she is perhaps better at defining what she doesn’t want Scotland to be rather than what she does. That’s bound up with the symbiotic relationship between the Tories and the SNP. Davidson needs the threat of a second independence referendum to kick back against, which is why she talks about it endlessly while simultaneously urging the SNP leader “to get back to the day job.”

So how far can she go? Her confidantes hesitate at that question. Some maintain that Scottish First Minister is the extent of the ambition of a forceful woman who is not yet 40, and that might be plausible if it were not still so hard to see how the Tories could win a majority at Holyrood. Despite their recent strides, they’ve not won the popular vote since the 1950s, and various structural factors, such as the large public sector workforce, probably limit their appeal. So it is hard to imagine that her ear is entirely deaf to all the Westminster chatter over who will succeed May—the Scottish Tory leader, untainted by the rolling catastrophe of Brexit, looks an ever-more appealing option.

But is she a realistic one? After all, she’s not even an MP. History shows that it’s possible for an ambitious Scottish Tory to become an MP, leader of the Westminster party and PM all in one go—Alec Douglas-Home did it when he renounced his peerage back in 1963, and found a pliant MP to step down and create a by-election.

The comparison with that grouse-moor grandee is not one that Davidson would necessarily welcome, and—besides the obstacles (see are formidable. It could very well be that a Brexit-obsessed UK Conservative party is not in the mood for her brand of common sense. But British politics has entered an uncertain period, in which the big parties are unloved, narrow and fractious, but also unpredictable. If the Conservative Party is interested in reconnecting with the country as a whole, then just maybe it will look at Ruth Davidson and see in her a winning candidate.

A path to power?

Even if Ruth Davidson wants to be prime minister, the road from Holyrood to No 10 is long and winding.

1. Find a Westminster seat before the next leadership election

Timing is Davidson’s first problem. Assuming the Tories dump May before 2022, Davidson will need to be in the Commons in order to stand. That means a Tory MP, ideally Scottish, standing down and Davidson winning the by-election. Will an MP be willing to sacrifice his or her seat? And will the electorate be happy about voting in a by-election foisted upon them for such transparent reasons?

2. Persuade enough MPs to vote for her

The liberal, “Remain”-backing caucus in the parliamentary party is small, which means Davidson will have to win the votes of those who disagree with her. Not impossible, but it could be tough to make the MPs’ top two.

3. Win the membership vote

In the final vote the wheels are likely to come off. The elderly, Leave-sup- porting, socially-conservative member- ship—which probably numbers around 120,000—has the final say. Will they plumb for Davidson or an arch-Brexiteer?