Britain’s youngest ever political leader, and the first to be openly gay, is about to give birth to her first child while in office. Ruth Davidson talks to Anna Fielding about blazing trails and breaking boundaries.
The woman in the red jacket, that one there, the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party? Oh, she’s good, isn’t she?
It was late June, 2016, and Ruth Davidson was on stage at Wembley Arena, ardently making a case for Britain to stay within the European Union. She was clear and on message and she’d really done her research. The soundbites offered by the Leave speakers were torn to shreds. You couldn’t stop watching her.
For most of the United Kingdom, the EU referendum debates were the first time many had paid much attention to Ruth Davidson. It was two days before the vote. There were 6,000 people packed into the auditorium and BBC cameras relaying it to nearly another four million at home.
“We refuse to dismiss the experts. We listen to them,” said Ruth, full of belief and brio. “They all agree that Britain is better off in. You are better off in. There is nothing more positive than having a stronger economy supporting jobs and opportunities and that’s why I believe you should vote Remain! Thank you.”
She smiled and it looked like a genuine grin, not a politician’s tooth flash. The arena gave her a roaring ovation. Social media exploded. It was a debate performance for the history books. A performance that made you shout and whoop at the television like someone watching a football match.
As we all know, Team Remain didn’t win. But Ruth Davidson had found a national audience. In Scotland, of course, and for politics watchers, she’d been known for a while. In 2011, she became the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. At 32, she was young to take up such a senior position. She was not from a privileged background and she was gay, the first out woman to lead a UK political party.
She wasn’t what was expected. In the onslaught of weirdness that has made up the last few years in global politics, the phrase ‘the new normal’ has been bandied about a great deal. The new normal is worrying about the far right. It’s fake news and Russian conspiracies. It’s Donald Trump.
But 10 years ago, you’d have been incredulous hearing that a gay, pregnant woman was leading a political party. A Conservative one to boot. Perhaps, just sometimes, the new normal is something that should never have been unusual in the first place.
“There’s no right way to do this”
Ruth shows up for our interview and photo shoot in a cab, on her own. She spends some time thanking and paying the driver. It’s the last week in August and Edinburgh is expending its final Festival energy. The roads are jammed with cars and lost tourists and hopeful comedians handing out flyers. And here is Ruth. She, too, is full of energy and, also, seven months pregnant.
The pregnancy is another first. No other UK political leader has ever given birth while in office. Globally, her only contemporary comparison is Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand.
“Do you know,” she says conversationally. “I could’ve swung for her!” This isn’t a diplomatic incident, she’s talking about maternity leave. When Ardern announced her pregnancy, Davidson also knew that she was pregnant, “but far too early on to be able to tell anyone. She came out and said she’d be back at her desk in six weeks. And I was like, ‘I am so not doing that.’
“I’m actually taking quite a bit longer than that. For my life. There is no right way to do this and hopefully that’s the lesson. But for my family, we’re both working, there is not the opportunity to be back at my desk in six weeks.”
She’s been with her partner, Jen Wilson, a marketing executive, since 2014. Their baby was conceived after IVF treatment, “because we’re a same-sex couple, it’s not like we can go on holiday and, oops, we’ve come back with a surprise! These things are quite planned.”
But the baby wasn’t planned to give her another first. “In terms of me choosing to take some time away to have a child while in office… that’s not a political statement by me, I’ve just always wanted a family. You know, I’m 39. The window was closing! Fingers crossed I’ll be able to come back and carry on with the job.”
Ruth is a big believer in graft and getting on with the job. It comes up again and again. ‘Professionalism’ is a popular Ruth word and she smiles throughout our shoot, despite heartburn and needing the loo a lot. She talks admiringly about hard work throughout her new book Yes She Can, which features interviews with successful women in traditionally male-dominated fields, combined with stories from Ruth’s own life (“I’m the least interesting woman in that book by a country mile”).
“The genesis of it was picking all these different areas of public life where women are outnumbered massively. Looking at those people who have made it, what they’ve done differently and what their experiences are. Some of them you’ll have heard of… Maria Bello was in ER, Katherine Grainger’s won medals at five Olympics. But also, people you’ve never heard of, so a doctor in a Syrian war zone setting up children’s hospitals. Or an Indian, for want of a better word, ninja who teaches the Indian Special Forces how to do close quarter battle.
“And the bits for me that are the most striking aren’t the bits where they’re talking about how good it’s been, or what it’s like sitting on top of the world. It’s when they’re talking about how hard it’s been to get there.
“The line I use in the book is ‘it looks like they eat sunshine and sh*t rainbows.’ Well, actually, nobodies’ lives are perfect. Just because yours isn’t doesn’t mean that you can’t go and achieve in whatever your chosen field is.”
Yes She Can is a positive and fascinating read, especially the stories of Dr Seema Rao, the Indian Special Forces trainer, and Dr Sue Black, who overcame low expectations and abuse to become a forensic medic. Dr Black has identified bodies in mass graves in war zones and is now working on a pioneering method of identifying paedophiles in videos by looking at the extreme detail of their hands. “She’s doing God’s work,” says Ruth.
Ruth has written a manual saying that everyone can succeed and, although she acknowledges the barriers women face, there’s little thought given to those who struggle without success. It doesn’t come across as callow, more that it hasn’t occured. Hers is an up-by-the- bootstraps model, where graft is everything and opportunities are only made by individuals, never systematically denied to a group.
She does, however, have admiration for women who have come before her, and a strong sense of responsibility towards those on their way.
“My life is easier because she went before me,” she says, referring to Sandi Toksvig’s struggles to be accepted as a lesbian and a mother. “And part of my role is to make it easier for whoever comes next. I think that comes across really strongly in the book – all of these women are telling their story in order to make it easier for the next generation.”
The graft-and-determination model is one that’s worked for her. She was born in Edinburgh, and grew up in Selkirk and Fife. At school she was on the debate team and was the very first girl to play on her school’s football team. She studied English literature at Edinburgh University, going on to take various junior journalism jobs. By her early 20s, she’d landed a job at BBC Scotland.
“I think there are very few people in this world who are actually boring,” she says about interviewing people as a journalist. “If you keep asking questions for long enough you will find that kernel, that spark that gets people going. But I wasn’t able to change Scotland.”
She went into politics in 2009 to try and make those changes. By 2011 she was party leader. These days she also has an unusual amount of influence. Ruth is earthy and genuinely funny – even if you don’t agree with everything she says – and these qualities proved invaluable to Theresa May in 2017’s general election when they translated into surprising popularity with Scottish voters (who usually skew centre/left). She helped make up for Conservative losses in other areas by securing 12 new seats in Scotland.
“It was a team effort,” she says. “But yeah, I was leading the team at the time.”
There was one more thing that helped out the Conservative Party after the election. They made an agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to back them in key votes, meaning they could guarantee a parliamentary majority.
The DUP, however, are against abortion and same-sex marriage. In 2014, a survey found two thirds of DUP members considered homosexuality to be “wrong”, while 73% oppose the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.
“I spoke to the Prime Minister the morning after the general election and we had a fairly frank conversation and I made it clear I would not be pleased if there was any sort of formal coalition between our two parties…” says Ruth. “Frankly, I think it’s obscene that there’s still part of the UK where equal marriage doesn’t exist.”
Leading the way
Ruth came out in her early 20s, having fought to square her sexuality with her faith. She was raised Scottish Presbyterian and taught at a Sunday school. When she became leader, she was surprised and touched to receive admiring emails from younger gay people.
“I found it quite arresting to have kids just write in. ‘I’m not a Tory but… I’m so pleased to see that you got it.’”
How do you find being held up as a role model?
“Particularly at the beginning, I found it really difficult. Because I’m from a Presbyterian background, we don’t do the ‘I am the Great I Am’ stuff. At all. As soon as anybody gets a little bit above themselves you cut them off at the knees. That’s the Scottish Presbyterian way!
“But the first thing that I had was ‘don’t be terrible at the job’. Any other gay people are looking to you. They may not agree with you, may not vote for your party, but at least be professional and not embarrassing at it.”
She’ll make jokes, though. I say I’m about to ask her some practical questions and she jumps in with, “Well, I can build you any sort of shelving unit that you want. Got a tool belt. Will travel. Stereotypes exist for a reason!”
Ruth for Prime Minister?
If we’re talking about stereotypes, then we need to talk about how far Ruth Davidson – Scottish, gay, comprehensive educated – is from what most people imagine when they hear ‘Conservative politician’.
“People put that poshness on to us. It sometimes sticks in my craw that I get called posh when I’m not,” she says, laughing. “Or that the Tories all get called posh and that’s not my experience of the Conservative party at all.” She lists Tory leaders going back 40 years, pointing out that David Cameron’s Eton education wasn’t at all typical.
There are a few prime ministers in that list. Would Ruth Davidson ever be a name that gets added to the roster?
“I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”
You don’t think so?
“No, no. I think it’s obviously hugely flattering when people talk about that, but you’ve got to want it and I don’t want it. I value my marriage and my mental health too much.”
Ruth’s toned it down a bit in recent months. She’s more open than the majority of politicians but still chooses her words carefully when asked a tricky question – although she does it with charm and skill. (Don’t forget, this is a woman who knows how to interview people herself.)
She’s been tipped as a potential prime minister many times and hasn’t always rejected it so emphatically. She uses the word “frank” a lot and you get the sense it’s a word she’d happily apply to herself. As the deadline for a Brexit deal approaches, and whispers circulate about hardline Brexiteers wanting to oust Theresa May, Ruth seems less outspoken.
“That scar on my back”
Yes. Brexit. The terms for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU are supposed to be finalised in just three weeks. Ruth casts her mind back to the debates two years ago.
“The sad thing was we came off stage and we thought we’d done enough,” she says of her fellow Remain debaters, London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan and union leader Frances O’Grady. “We had a bit of a moment backstage. Sadiq’s wife was there and some of the people who’d been helping us practise. And we had a bit of a group huddle afterwards and we honestly thought we’d done enough.
“It was just so crushing a couple of days later to know that if we’d just done 4% more or 4% better, a lot of the last couple of years could have been avoided. I don’t know if that scar on my back is ever going to heal if I’m honest.”
So, what does she think of Brexit now?
“Firstly, it’s going to happen. I know some people think someone might step in and stop it. But it will happen. There’s no mechanism to stop this and there’s nothing being proposed by either of the two main parties. I didn’t vote for it, I didn’t want it, I argued against it, but unfortunately 17 and half million people decided differently. It’s going to happen; therefore how can we make it happen in the most pragmatic way possible.”
“I don’t think things will turn out well just because we wish it so. It requires a lot of detail, a lot of groundwork. May has put a plan on the table that has got to go through negotiation with a lot of interested parties… And for those who have decried that, we’re two years down the line. Where’s your option, where’s your plan? It doesn’t exist, so at the moment we’ve got a plan versus no plan. Lots of people screaming ‘betrayal this’ or ‘back-on-your-word that’ but there’s nothing concrete there.
“And you know, we’re about to send the Prime Minister into a room, to sit across the table from the heads of 27 other nations to try and get the best deal for our country and I think she deserves our support. Nobody’s ever done this before. Not just in the UK – nobody, anywhere.”
Ruth and Jen’s baby is due in October. She doesn’t know what exact effect the baby will have on their lives. But they’re embracing the uncertainty and she’s quietly joyful.
“Because I’m slightly older it does feel like a late bonus,” she says. “We are pretty happy and we’re just waiting to see what comes next. It doesn’t mean we’re naive and that it’s not going to be hard. Probably the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but it should be fun too.”
Yes She Can (£20, Hodder) is out now
Images: Mark Harrison / Getty Images