Ruth Davidson tells of being outed as Tory at 16

Ruth Davidson has had tough times in her life which has stood her in good stead for politics. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ruth Davidson has had tough times in her life which has stood her in good stead for politics. Picture: Jane Barlow
2
Have your say

ON the wall next to Ruth Davidson’s bed hangs a framed photograph of Edinburgh taken on one of those magical, bitterly cold, clear winter evenings, when the air swirls with the descriptive words of literary greats.

Greats like Norman MacCaig, whose poem November Night, Edinburgh is printed alongside the image – “the night tinkles like ice in glasses, leaves are glued to the pavement with frost”. Davidson is trying to remember the rest, but she is, she admits as we sit in a non-descript parliament meeting room, not quite running at 100 per cent. She had been out celebrating her 36th birthday the previous night. “Just a few libations” she laughs, swigging back some Diet Coke.

We are talking about Edinburgh, a city she obviously loves. “I have always felt a connection. I was born here and although I grew up in Fife it was still the big city we came to, and when I graduated I came to live and work here.

“I have lived the last 12 years in Glasgow and it amazes me that with such a short distance between the two, they are such different places. Glasgow is such a handsome city, whereas Edinburgh is beautiful.

“I love those nights in Edinburgh that the MacCaig poem describes – you don’t get that in the west because it’s damper. Edinburgh does this time of year very well – the change from autumn to winter, why would you be anywhere else?” She has, however, been around. Her parents are Glaswegians who moved to the Borders, then Buckhaven in Fife. She lived in Perth for a while and studied at Edinburgh University. Her campaigning too has taken her all over the country – from Gretna to Lerwick and everywhere in between. She talks about the scenery of the journey north through Perthshire and into the Highlands with something bordering on awe, “we live in a glorious country, we don’t take enough time to stop and look around”, she says.

She is waxing lyrical about the bleakness of the countryside north of Blair Atholl. This is not the guarded, word-watching politician you might expect. She’s obviously retained a love of words from studying English and Scottish literature at university, although she mostly reads non-fiction these days, analyses of wars and other military matters in particular. “But Walter Scott and his landscapes are wonderful, and the austere writing of Muriel Spark. And I love our crime fiction writers too.”

Davidson is not what people typically expect of a Conservative party leader. She’s young, she has a comprehensive education and a career before she entered politics, she’s female, she’s gay – and she doesn’t care what people think about any of those things.

She also had, according to many political commentators “a good referendum”, along with Labour’s Kezia Dugdale and, of course, the new SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. Unlike the other two though, she had the baggage of being a Tory in a near Tory-free country to deal with and as a result of her capable performances on television throughout the independence debate has been described as “the acceptable face of Scottish Conservativism”.

She says: “I don’t think Annabel Goldie was the unacceptable face, or David McLetchie. Both were very highly respected even if people didn’t necessarily vote for their policies. I think it’s a lazy comparison. I think the reason the party was seen to have a good campaign was because we rolled up our sleeves and got stuck in and worked hard for something we believed in.

“People saw us put our hearts, bodies and souls into talking up our relationship with the UK. We don’t see the UK as being other or different. And I think people, voters, can tell when you mean what you say.”

What Davidson is though, which is perhaps her best qualification for her job – especially as she’s only been involved in politics for six years, three of those as an MSP, is tough. And little wonder. She lived her formative years in Fife, a part of Scotland in which the word Tory is readily used as an insult. Prior to that she’d been in Selkirk and had her happy life there uprooted to the Kingdom after her dad – a mill worker – lost his job. Being the new kid in school is always character forming. And of course, growing up knowing that you’re gay is never an easy option. Perhaps most telling of her strength of character, though, is the fact she has had two major accidents which could have left her either dead or paralysed, and has come through almost unscathed.

“I was hit by a truck when I was five,” she says. “I had a broken pelvis and a crushed femoral artery. I spent a lot of time in the Sick Kids getting specialist surgery. I had to learn to walk all over again. At first I had a zimmer frame to help and I can remember being frustrated by it. I wanted to play football and climb trees again.”

She speaks of it matter-of-factly but her parents were told her survival was 50-50. She pulled through, but with scars, hence trouser suits.

Then there was the time she was in the TA – hoping to become an Army officer. During a training exercise for Sandhurst entry, which involved jumping through a window, she landed on her back and cracked a number of vertebrae. She was in hospital again. She was she says “very lucky by a fraction of a fraction of an inch”.

With the Army then ruled out she turned to journalism, carving out a career in local newspapers before moving on to broadcast and the BBC. “I grew up in a house where my parents voted Tory but were never political. They weren’t party members or did any campaigning, nothing like that,” she says. “What made me first realise that politics were fascinating was getting to stay up late one night to watch the news because the Berlin Wall was coming down. I wish I’d been five years older to grasp what it was about, but even so I thought if this is politics it’s interesting.”

But she has her work cut out knocking down the Scottish wall “I’ve always been a Tory,” she laughs. “I was outed when I was 16 when a newspaper ran a feature on “Saffy Syndrome” focusing on girls who were like the daughter in Absolutely Fabulous. My school put me forward for it as I was so sensible, and so I was outed as supporter of the Conservatives. The other kids didn’t care, but some of the teachers got a bit sniffy.”

Some were a bit sniffy too when she went for the party leadership just six months after she became an MSP. But her election has, say those who know the Scottish Tories, been a breath of fresh air.

“I have changed things, yes,” she laughs. “We are changing our approach on some policy issues, just look at gay marriage. I don’t think there could be a better Tory policy than giving people the individual freedom to marry who they love.

“In the past we spent a lot of time speaking solely to a dwindling band of voters. We need to open up the discussion of our policies to many more people, people who are not Tories, so we’ve had a rural commission, we had the Strathclyde Commission and now we’ve launched a pamphlet for discussion on education.”

It was in 2008 that Davidson gave up her media career to work full-time in politics. Her election in 2011 was a surprise and then on her first day in Parliament her leader resigned. “There was a series of low points for us in that election. My only plan was to learn how to be a good MSP, not become leader. But I did know we had looked like amateurs in the election and that had to change. Coming up to next year’s general election, the job isn’t complete but we’ve taken huge steps. How will we do? I’ve put a fatwa on anyone discussing how many seats we might win. It’s too early, Scottish politics is in such flux.”

She says that at the Tory conference in Birmingham there had been some asking her when she “might join them in Westminster”. She laughs again. “Why would I want a demotion? Why would I want to be on the backbenches when there are so many new powers coming to Scotland? Why would I want to be anywhere else?”