“I’ve previously joked it’s much harder to come out as a Tory at the BBC, than it is to come out as gay,” Ruth joked when I asked her about her struggles with her sexuality. As the previous leader of the Scottish Conservatives and journalist for the BBC, Ruth Davidson throughout her life and career has been open about coming to terms with her sexual orientation. Being LGBTQ+ has not always been easy, but she knows that Scotland has come a long way.
When she was growing up, “it was still illegal to be in a same-sex loving relationship when I was born,” she revealed, but over the forty years of her life things have changed dramatically. Having been a part of that journey during her leadership years, I could tell brought her pride, as she “was one of the group of politicians in Scotland who passed the law that said those same-sex couples, those same people that could have been prosecuted, can now marry.” When she was elected in 2011, Davidson was the first openly gay elected Scottish parliamentarian for the Conservatives whether that was MP, MEP or MSP. Although she said that may feel like a long time ago for young university students, she retorted that “2011, that’s not ancient history.”
Scotland was one of the last places in the UK to decriminalise homosexuality, and Ruth’s contribution on that journey of acceptance is once she is honoured by: “I’d like to think that my leadership has been a huge part of that,” she says. Personally of course, this was a victory which allowed her partnership with Jen Wilson and the welcoming of their son, but also was part of a UK-wide effort by the Conservative Party to diversify.
Davidson spoke fondly of David Cameron and his work, such as his apology for section 28 and his move in making the Party more diverse. “In terms of the road the UK Conservatives were on,” Ruth continues, “that started before I was a member, [and when] you look at some of the things that David Cameron was saying when he was running for the leadership in 2005,” the process had begun then. Cameron’s cabinets and prominent figures in the party such as David Mundell and Justine Greening indicate that “I think, and I certainly feel like the party has changed hugely,” in those years.
I asked Ruth about the relationship between being a mother and being a political leader, and if that work-life-balance can ever be achieved in a job of such intense responsibility. I could tell that her answer to my question was one which she had been thinking about for a while now, as she revealed the self-questioning of whether you’re doing a good job at either. “As you miss another birthday, or as you miss another wedding that you can’t go to because you’ve got something else on,” you begin to question “whether you’re giving enough of yourself to the people in your life that you love,” she begins.
Ruth was quick however to reveal that this pressure was completely self-imposed and although “people are very forgiving,” she believes, “there comes a point where you just feel like you’re not giving enough of yourself to anything, while giving too much of yourself to everything.” Her expectations and motivation for her position as Scottish Conservative leader meant that she could not give one hundred per cent to either, and so you “have to make a decision, so I made a decision,” she said. That doesn’t mean that she has any guarantee that she’s made the right choice this time, she says “don’t get me wrong there have been times since August,” when she wished she “was still the person in the room that was making the decisions, but I know that I couldn’t do it as well as I’ve done it before with my responsibilities as a mother.”
The problem of gaining that balance for women, and men, is not simply confined to politics, Ruth suggested, that as more and more women become primary earners and primary carers the question will continue.
“There was absolutely no pressure from the party for me to resign or hang up the boots, in fact, quite the opposite, they wanted me to stay on,” she revealed, thinking perhaps that I didn’t agree with her decision. She reassured that “they were offering help in other ways in my life to try and make sure I could do both.” I asked her about the modern myth of ‘doing-it-all,’ a common way in which many women are shamed for their decision either to prioritise work or their career. “I’m quite impressed with the generations younger than me who make decisions [about]…work-life-balance or making decisions about the sort of life they want to lead and the sort of person that they want to be,” she retorted. Mental health, of course, plays a huge factor for Ruth: “I think it’s really healthy for people to be aware of their mental health and mental wellbeing, making sure that they have balance and stress-relief in their life as well,” instead of trying to “work their way up the greasy pole or going for the dream job and knocking their pan in do it at the expense of all else.” She thought that perhaps killing the notion that in your lifetime you can do anything was “disparaging” for 20-something-year-old university students, but I thought it was refreshing.
A couple of years ago there were wild claims about Ruth running for the Conservative leadership in Westminster, although she was quick at the time to discourage it, she emphasises how it is “physically impossible” because she has never been an MP. As someone concerned about mental health she urged people to understand how “unbelievably lonely” the position at Number 10 is, revealing, “the decisions that get to you when you are in that sort of office are the 49 to 51% decisions and you will never know if you will get the right, and you’ve got to trust your gut.” Although “leadership is not easy” and “it’s not designed to be easy” she qualifies, she believes we are in a particularly damaging period of politics. She says, “we judge people extremely harshly and we prejudge their motives without ever listening to why they made the decision,” we’re in a period she continues where compromise and across-party discussion is never on the table, but she hopes we will return to a “kinder politics.”
I asked if this change was the result of social media in her opinion: “it changes the way people consume information, and if you’re consuming information from 180 characters, the nuance doesn’t feature anymore,” continuing that “you don’t get the luxury of telling people in a paragraph something that they can read, from reading a sentence with three exclamation marks and an emoji!” While at the moment she laughs, “we’re all just standing on Twitter screaming at each other” she reveals the politics of today is exhausting and it’s not “the kind of politics of hope.” She chuckles again, “sorry, that was really Obama-esque,” she jokes.
Politics of division is something everyone understands to have been at least heightened by the Brexit referendum, but “in Scotland, we’ve had these two constitutional referendums so we were a couple of years ahead of the rest of the UK,” Ruth suggests. The “level of fractiousness in Scotland [was] pretty high and the warning that I had been giving people around 2016…was that Scotland got more divided after the referendum than it was before.” Although Ruth was famous for her speeches supporting the Remain campaign, now she moves on to accepting the decision and thinking “what do we then choose a post-Brexit Britain to look like?”
Her ideal Britain, as I was expecting, was one of community: “personally, I want to demonstrate to countries and allies that we still shoulder a burden that we want the things we’ve done before,” she says, “we need to demonstrate that we’re not isolationists, were still good neighbours and part of that leadership group of nations that understand that the size of our economy means we have a responsibility to others who perhaps can’t do that for themselves.” While this may have hints of paternalist Tory responsibility, her liberal views on immigration and free movement, completely go against the rhetoric of the UK Conservatives at the moment.
She openly discussed how beneficial and how personally she loved the system as it was, partly due to having an Irish wife and son now, but also being part of something bigger. She recognises that may not be how the rest of the UK feel: “if that’s no longer the case then let’s start from first principles of what it is that we need.” In terms of the labour market, having less than 4% unemployment is “getting close to full employment,” and there are gaps which cannot necessarily be filled by citizens coming out of UK schools because “the profile won’t necessarily fit.”
Ruth’s views on immigration have been seen as progressive Conservativism since her campaigning in 2016 over the referendum: “people who do something as brave as pick up all their belongings and families and travel half-way around the world to try make a better life for themselves, are exactly the sort of people who will improve our country and improve our society.” She continues, and “it shows a motivation…that frankly,” she whispers, “might be considered Conservative!”
Talking about Theresa May’s party conference speech the “‘citizen of everywhere, citizen of nowhere’” one, Ruth recalled comically saying “‘lads this is the most conservative thing ever’ it’s picking up everything that you have and trusting yourself to be able to go someplace, work hard and build a better life.” Having heard John Major speak on immigration many times she reiterated, “we should be supporting this,” and, “I don’t know where the party moved away from that idea.”
I asked Ruth whether she had changed her mind on a second Scottish referendum, now that there was the possibility her country could re-join the EU after independence. Talking about the SNP, she says they are trying to argue something almost impossible: “[that] leaving one union of nations, the EU, is so terribly damaging that the only option that we have is to leave another union of nations that we’ve been a member of for much longer, that we trade more with.” In essence, she believes “they’re basically saying the only answer to losing a toe is to chop off your whole leg.”
Although she understands this is an emotional and national debate, there are so many practical reasons for why this would be a bad decision, she believes. Scotland would have to lower their deficit to under 3%, they have no central bank, and they would have to take on the Euro which could mean a floating currency for some years. She also noted that over 1 million Scottish people did vote to leave the EU, many of which were indeed SNP voters: “it’s a much more mixed picture than necessarily Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP would project on a UK-wide stage, which is fair enough because they’re trying to build an argument.”
Ruth belongs to an ilk of Tories which in the present political climate we had all but forgotten existed, while she was speaking, I almost wished we could return to the happy days of the 2010s. I jokily asked her if she felt sometimes, that she wasn’t a Tory?
“Oh, I know I’m a Tory,” she quickly came back, the Party, “operates at its best when it recognises people from all different backgrounds and thought-strains within it.” Ruth joined the party when her particular strain of Conservativism was popular, but “it’s nonsense to think your particular strain in the party will always be in the ascendency.” The way in which a Party operates effectively she believes is by having different strains and different voices, so “it just means those of us who aren’t in the ascendency need to keep our nagging voices going.”
Speaking about the position of Labour at the moment, she was praising of the party in the Blair years and some of their achievements, as Blair and Prescott “between them they demonstrate the breadth of the Labour Party as was,” the issue she believes is that, “the Labour Party finds itself in now, is it went down a route where you either agree with the party doctrine or you were an outcast.” She warned: “you only have to look at the election we’ve just had to know what a warning that should be for parties.”
Going back to a period of political cohesion and a community working together, she believes that “most people out there in the real world want the same things, they want their kids to have a better life than they did, they want to be able to buy a house, they want to have a job. They want to feel as if they’re been treated and rewarded fairly for the work that they do, and they want to think the next generation coming along will have things better than them.” The way in which she thinks politics operates well is when steps are made to make things just a little bit better, there is justice and people feel like there is progress.
I think back to when Ruth exclaimed that “leadership is not easy” but Scotland and the Conservatives lost a great leader and voice in August. I felt like saying, I hope your predictions for a kinder, progressive and inclusive politics are prophetic and extend to the Conservative government at the moment.