Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. She is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow.
A few weeks ago, before the Christmas break, I did a Sunday Telegraph interview to be held for their festive stockpot.
A pleasant hour was spent talking across any number of issues – the state of Scottish politics, the upcoming Holyrood elections, the European question, tax credits, Syria and Jeremy Corbyn. We also strayed into my background, home life and cavalier attitude to personal safety which has resulted in me breaking multiple bones on multiple occasions.
At one point in the interview, I was asked about succession – now that David Cameron had indicated this was his last term of office, who was my money on to be the next UK Conservative leader?
As with all direct questions I’m asked, I endeavoured to answer it honestly, openly and to the best of my ability (I know, I know, it’ll never catch on).
I said that our party had a history of looking beyond the obvious and that I had a sneaking suspicion that someone from the hugely impressive 2010 intake would come through the middle.
The interview was published on Sunday and – as it seems to have caused a minor stir – I thought I might use this week’s ConHome column to expand and explain my thinking as well as talk on leadership in general.
Firstly, I’m not about to claim that I was somehow misquoted, hoodwinked, taken out of context or otherwise done up like a kipper. I wasn’t. The article is scrupulously fair and the journalist who conducted it – Kate McCann – is one to watch; bright, agile and engaging.
It was, however, only part of the story. These things always are. If you talk as fast as me, the transcript of a 60 minute interview runs to several pages of broadsheet – so, inevitably, most of the discussion hits the cutting room floor.
I said – as I always do when I’m asked ‘who would make the best PM?’ – that we are blessed to have the current incumbent and I hope he continues in post for some time. This isn’t mindless flattery or the fealty of office, I genuinely believe that David Cameron is a huge asset to our party whose reach extends beyond the tribe.
I am also privileged enough to know him personally and to be able to attest to his finer qualities. He’s smart, he cares and he gets it. I want all of these things in my Prime Minister and David Cameron has them in spades. Beyond that, he has an individual tenacity the like of which I have seldom seen, and which his often laid-back persona partially obscures.
Let’s not forget, when David Cameron was elected Conservative leader in 2005, his Labour opponent was Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy led the Liberal Democrats, John Howard was still the Prime Minster of Australia and the Elysee Palace was inhabited by Jacques Chirac.
As an aside, I was a young BBC journalist in 2005 and my radio programme interviewed all five of the long-listed leadership candidates. In my mid-20s precociousness, I had the temerity to ask Malcolm Rifkind whether he and Ken Clarke ran the risk of looking like ‘dinosaurs from a bygone era’ in comparison to the other three in the field. He promptly quit the ISDN studio in disgust.
While I would never now show such disrespect to people who have demonstrated that level of service over so many decades, there is a point to the question (however inelegantly asked). A leader isn’t selected for their past glories, but for their future potential. Do they have the judgement, the energy, the stomach for the fight – in short, are they a winner and can they lead?
I’ve never been on any management courses or gone to any professional self-help or self-improvement seminars. The only leadership training I’ve ever had is the officer training I received from the British Army when I was in the TA. I believe HM Armed Forces to be one of the finest training organisations in the world and I am not embarrassed to say that a dozen years on, the instruction I received still absolutely shapes my thoughts on leadership.
My bookshelf still contains the volume Serve to Lead which is given to all prospective officers at Sandhurst, containing writings from field marshals to poets. Each excerpt has been selected to reinforce the skills and values the army demands – decision-making, discipline, self-sacrifice, judgement, initiative, daring, integrity, loyalty, motivation and moral courage.
It ends with a quote from Field Marshal Viscount Slim (whose book, Defeat into Victory, is the best long-read on leadership applied in warfare I have come across). It says:
“You will put first the honour and interests of your country and your regiment; next you will put the safety, wellbeing and comfort of your men; and last – and last all the time – you will put your own interest, your own safety, your own comfort.”
For armed service, so goes politics. I have no wish ever to be Prime Minister. I have seen behind the door at Number 10 and it looks the loneliest job in the world. It should not be taken on lightly, so the person who pursues it, has to want it.
But here’s the rub. They can’t want it for their own sake. It’s not a crown to wear or a prize to win in order to feed the ego of the ultra-competitive. True leadership is about putting yourself behind others, not in front of them. Of serving the nation and its people. Whoever seeks to succeed David Cameron must see clearly a need in the country and believe that they are best placed to move the nation forward.
On a wholly different scale, when I ran for the leadership of the party in Scotland four years ago, it was not in my best interests. I had been elected only a few short weeks. I would have benefited both professionally and personally from learning my trade on the backbenches, not making my inevitable mistakes in the full glare of the public gaze. But my leadership election happened just after the SNP achieved a majority government and an independence referendum became inevitable. I was convinced that a Scottish Conservative Party that split from its UK brethren and rebadged itself – meaning that there would be no Conservatives in Scotland at all – would damage our ability to keep Scotland British. How could a Conservative Prime Minister possibly come to Scotland during that campaign and ask voters to keep our country together when he couldn’t even keep his own party together?
Doing everything I could to stop the break-up of Britain has become my guiding mission in politics, and I willingly made compromises of our party during that campaign in order to further a No vote. I would again. I fear that mission still has some years to run.
But when it comes to the UK leadership, and, presumably, the premiership of our country, I want someone with clarity of purpose and drive to succeed. A pragmatist with both warmth and intelligence. A committed Conservative who doesn’t let dogma override the peculiarities of practical application. Someone with understanding as well as strength. I want a leader who asks hard questions and doesn’t look for easy answers. I want someone with the moral courage for the fight. I don’t know who that person is yet, and I don’t know when they’ll be needed. But when the best person in the job takes the step back he’s indicated, I know that’s the person I’ll be looking for.