YES SHE CAN: Why Women Own The Future by Ruth Davidson
The last piece I wrote for ConservativeHome about Ruth Davidson, provocatively entitled “Davidson, the best hope of the Stop Johnson campaign“, attracted 243 comments. She is a figure of great interest to readers of this site, and indeed far beyond it, for she is not one of those mealy-mouthed careerists who have risen without trace by sucking up to the powers that be and taking enormous care never to say anything in the slightest bit witty or risky.
And now Davidson has written a book. Most books by professional politicians are pretty bad. They want to justify themselves, an aim to which any obligation to entertain the reader comes a distant second, if it is remembered at all.
Apart from anything else, it is difficult, in the midst of a political career, to find the time to write a good book. Disraeli and Churchill managed it, but they were geniuses. Barack Obama composed his admirable memoir, Dreams from My Father, after becoming the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, so a decade before he became a well-known politician.
Davidson cannot have had very much time to devote to this book, but shows how good she can be in her first paragraph:
“My best friend’s mum tells a story. When we were eleven and twelve, her daughter and I – always competitive – raced each other back to her house after school. As we doubled over, hands on knees and sucking in breath, she told us that John Major had just become Britain’s new prime minister. I straightened up and asked, ‘Can a man even be prime minister?'”
A paragraph, however, is one thing. How does one write 200 pages? Davidson decides it is not all going to be about herself. She gives us a harrowing account of how, after going to Edinburgh University at the age of 17,
“I started hurting myself: punching walls, cutting my stomach and arms with blades or broken glass, drinking far, far too much and becoming belligerent and angry, pushing people away. I was punishing myself and hating myself for it at the same time.”
We also get the grave accident she suffers at the age of five, when she is run over by a truck while crossing the road outside her house, and the quite serious accident she suffers at the age of 25, during an Army selection course at Westbury, when she dives through an open window onto some frozen sand and breaks her back.
But these anecdotes are, in a sense, compensation for not telling us very much about her parents, her religion or her love life. Why should she? In many ways one approves of her discretion, which makes her more trustworthy.
She tells us more about her career as a BBC journalist, and this book might be described as an extension of that trade. For she decides to make it a collection of interviews with “some of the world’s mould-breaking women”, in order to see what lessons they can tell us about how women can “own the future”.
Davidson says she has renounced any ambition to write a book which will last:
“I hope very much that it will become an obsolete curio in my lifetime: a text to be puzzled over as to why it needed to be written at all.”
As a journalist, one knows all too well that sometimes one does interviews which are a delight to broadcast or to transcribe, and sometimes one finds oneself left with a collection of platitudes which with the best will in the world are never going to make an exciting piece.
Davidson imposes an additional handicap on herself, which is that she is expounding what has become a highly conventional thesis, unchallengeable in polite society, namely that women should enjoy complete equality with men.
She talks to Theresa May, and is unable to get anything very remarkable out of her:
“I was brought up in an atmosphere where the news was always on and I read the paper. It wasn’t always a discussion about current affairs – I used to argue with my father as to who was the best England opening batsman, things like that.”
On the topic of “Getting Started”, Professor Dame Sue Black, eminent anatomist and forensic anthropologist, is better value, so Davidson uses her early on:
“The Metropolitan Police had a case of a missing person person they believed had been dismembered, body parts put into plastic bags and stuck in a landfill site.
“They were bringing in bits, saying ‘Is it human or is it not?’
“When I got there, one policeman looked me up and down as if to say, ‘Girl? What does she know?’ I took the bones they’d bought, put them in a plastic bag, sealed it, stuck it on the radiator and let it warm up. I took it off the radiator, opened the bag and stuck it under his nose. ‘What can you smell?’
“And I said, ‘Exactly. That’s because it’s a sheep.'”
The ultimate effect of these interviews is rather disjointed, for Davidson brings in the same speakers in on a number of different occasions, as she considers different aspects of the question, such as whether or not to have children.
The most interesting of the 10 chapters is the sixth, which is called “Antisocial Media”. For here we get the vile reaction against the conventional view that women are equal with men, and should be given every encouragement to do just as well as men:
“Far from being a place where women can feel free to express themselves, social media too often becomes somewhere that the kind of abuse of women we thought we were eradicating has space to thrive…
“As a female politician, with female colleagues from across the political spectrum, I don’t know of a single one whose motives haven’t been questioned, whose appearance hasn’t been derided and who hasn’t been told multiple, multiple times that their voice is not welcome in the public debate. Not one who hasn’t been subjected to vile imagery and coarse, expletive-deleted language.”
Davidson remarks that in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape is used as a weapon, and in our democracy, and democracies across the world, the threat of rape is used online as a weapon against women.
Here is a sharp corrective to the optimism of most of the rest of the book. Melissa Gates says that when she was in college, 37 per cent of computer-science grads were women, but that has fallen to 18 per cent.
Progress, it seems, cannot after all be taken for granted. Why is there so much “bile” on Twitter, as Laura Kuenssberg calls it here? Davidson does not have time to look into this question, to which no one perhaps yet has a full answer.
She says elsewhere that she cannot remember being talked to differently in the workplace because she is a woman, though “it may have happened and I just bulldozed my way through it without thinking”.
Davidson is a bulldozer – a well-driven bulldozer – and it is a pleasure to watch her roaring this way and that with a great grin on her face. But she has not produced a work which is designed for continuous reading. “It’s a dip,” as my friend the literary agent says of a book in which one can find good things by opening it at random.