Ruth Davidson and the Resurgence of the Scottish Tories by Andrew Liddle
To write the life of a politician who is still alive raises ticklish questions in the author’s mind. I know this, because in 2004 I set out to write the life of Boris Johnson. I was not especially worried about inflicting pain on him: it seemed to me he was pretty resilient; that as a public figure, already spoken of as a future leader of his country, he must expect scrutiny of every aspect of his life; and that painful episodes in his past were better dealt with now than if and when he became Prime Minister.
My acute worry, which never abated, was that I would hurt people who were close to Johnson, quite possibly by publishing things I did not even realise were hurtful. On the plus side, my subject was only 39 years old, so I could talk to people who had known him at every stage of his life.
Ruth Davidson is now 39 years old, and like Johnson, a pretty robust character. She too is a former journalist, at ease (unlike many politicians) in the company of journalists, and shrewdly aware of the publicity value of providing good copy for her old trade. She became leader of the Scottish Conservatives in November 2011, and in an interview with ConHome in January 2014 confirmed the story of how, as a lesbian, she dealt with the question of her sexuality:
“When I announced that I was standing for the leadership of the party, I said that in terms of embarrassing personal details that I wanted to get out of the way and address first of all, the rumours are true, yes, I did used to work for the BBC.”
Yet on the second page of his life of Davidson, when he is still only on his acknowledgments, Andrew Liddle writes: “I know Ruth professionally, and I therefore only delve into personal aspects of her story where necessary.”
Here is an opportunity which Liddle’s fellow Scot, James Boswell, the greatest biographer in the English language, would never have missed. Readers, whose interests must come first, want to know the personal stuff, and so do voters. Where does she come from and how was she formed? Does the private life correspond with the professional?
Among the many faults of this book is that it does not convey Davidson’s gusto, or what good company she is. What is it like to go drinking with her? What is it like to hitch a lift in her campaign car, knee-deep in empty Diet Coke cans? Liddle must know, but does not tell.
Part of the trouble with poor, inhibited Theresa May is that she is able to give away virtually nothing of herself. For a short time after she entered Number Ten, this refusal to wear her heart on her sleeve was refreshing, but during the general election campaign of 2017 it became a crippling limitation. She froze in the spotlight, unable to connect with the public by letting herself go, for letting go was something she had never done.
Davidson gives every appearance of being able to let go. In an interview with the BBC in 2015, quoted by Liddle, she describes how she “didn’t want to be gay”, but came out in her mid-twenties:
“I did struggle with it for a number of years before I would admit it to myself, never mind to anybody else. But there comes a point at which you make a decision and that decision is either that you’re going to live a lie for the rest of your life, or you’re going to trust yourself. That’s what I had to do.”
People feel they can trust Davidson because she trusts herself. She has the air of having nothing to hide. What a pity Liddle rejected, from misplaced scruple, the chance to talk to her family, teachers, friends from school and university, comrades in 32 Signal Regiment, colleagues from the BBC. In the end, he would have found, almost everyone wants to have their say.
This book consists, instead, of a useful digest of what has already been in the newspapers or on websites such as ConHome, leavened by a large number of background conversations with politicians and journalists, but generally excluding anything which might be classified as personal rather than political, unless it has already appeared in print.
A partial exception to this rule is the interview Liddle carried out with one of the commanding officers, Colonel Steve Bargeton, under whom Davidson served in the Territorial Army:
“She did extremely well at battle camp, which is a ten-day intensive course. It’s not SAS training, but nevertheless it is ten days in the field. You’ve got to have your personal admin sorted out, you have to be switched on about how you look after yourself, you have got to be sharp about giving orders, receiving orders, executing orders. There’s a lot of physical stuff, a lot of patrolling. And of course, there’s a lot of commanding. There’s this way of commanding men – ultimately, you have to get people to buy into what you want to do – and Ruth had that.”
One would like a corporal’s view of her too. Nothing disrespectful to Davidson gets through Liddle’s journalese, an omission which is in a curious way unfair to her, for she herself is no respecter of persons.
She loved the Army, yearned to train as an officer at Sandhurst, went there to be assessed, and told The Daily Mail what happened next:
“For the physical courage test we had to jump through a glass window and I volunteered to go first, as I do, but the sandpit behind the window had frozen solid. I landed awkwardly on my neck and cracked vertebrae. I spent almost two weeks in hospital and had to wear a back brace.”
If this accident had not occurred, she would have pursued a military career. But although she very much wanted to carry on, she was told she couldn’t, for she was now “an insurance risk”.
Because there is nothing tweedy about Davidson, people often fail to recognise how traditional she is. Liddle recounts the mid-twentieth-century success of the Unionists, as the Conservatives were known in Scotland, their high point coming at the general election of 1955, when they took 50 per cent of the vote. Traditional Scottish Unionists knew how to make the case for Scotland, and express a distinctively Scottish identity, within the Union with England, and so does Davidson.
Working-class Protestants could unite just as enthusiastically behind this cause as the landed aristocracy did. But in 1965, at the start of Edward Heath’s leadership at Westminster, the Scottish Unionists merged with the English Conservatives. At the Declaration of Perth, in 1968, the Conservatives promised a devolved Scottish assembly. Sir Alec Douglas-Home drew up plans for this, but after the Conservatives returned to power under Heath in 1970, nothing was done.
Under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, from 1975-90, the Conservatives instead became more and more hostile to devolution, while introducing the poll tax a year early in Scotland. North of the border, they were seen more and more as an English party, and Thatcher herself as an alien hate figure.
Davidson’s parents both grew up on council estates in Glasgow. Her father played football for Partick Thistle, became the manager of a woollen mill in Galashiels, and when Ruth, born in 1982, was only three, moved to Lundin Links in Fife to take up a managerial post in the whisky industry.
At the age of five, Ruth was lucky to survive a horrific accident when a lorry hit her, crushing her femoral artery, shattering her pelvis and breaking her right leg. She has been toughened by adversity, for a time attending primary school with a Zimmer frame, after which she went to Buckhaven High School, a comprehensive.
Under her mother’s influence she grew up as a devout member of the Church of Scotland, where she not only attended Sunday school but in due course taught it. Here is another traditional (i.e. constantly evolving) institution to which she is loyal.
Davidson read history at Edinburgh, trained as a journalist on the Glenrothes Gazette in Fife, did some commercial radio and joined BBC Scotland, doing both radio and documentaries. The sight of British troops working as peacekeepers in Kosovo inspired her to join the TA.
The Scottish Conservatives were meanwhile in deep trouble, having lost their last Westminster seats in 1997, when they took only 17.5 per cent of the vote. At the Scottish Parliament elections in 2011, at which the SNP under Alex Salmond won a majority of seats at Holyrood, their vote sank yet lower, to under 14 per cent. Davidson was nevertheless at the age of 32 elected an MSP, thanks to being top of the list in Glasgow.
The Conservatives then held a leadership election in which she, despite being a newcomer, managed to position herself as the candidate of the Establishment, and defeated Murdo Fraser, who thought the only way forward for the Scottish Conservatives was to reinvent themselves under a new name.
Her leadership did not at first go well. Salmond mashed her up in debate, and Alan Cochrane, who knows the Scottish Conservatives better than anyone, confided to his diary (later published) that “she is totally and utterly useless”, and was not much more flattering about her in the pages of The Daily Telegraph.
But within a few years, Davidson turned things round. In the Scottish referendum campaign of 2014, she set out to appeal to all Scots who supported the Union, and not just to those who had voted Conservative: a move which began the process of supplanting Labour as the main opposition to the Nats. And with covering fire from Lord Strathclyde, as Establishment figure as you could hope to find, she abandoned her opposition to devolution.
The Scottish Conservatives were back doing what they do best, defending Scotland within the Union, instead of seeming to suppress Scotland under pressure from the English. These politics, including a plethora of elections, are described in some detail and with considerable expertise by Liddle.
What he cannot describe is the future. Conservative Europhiles at Westminster yearn for her to come south, save them from Boris Johnson and lead them to a general election victory in 2022. But how can she do this before she has fought the next Scottish elections in 2021, and will it not by then be too late to parachute her into a Westminster seat?
Her unavailability strengthens the belief of the Europhiles that for the time being they must stick to May, for fear of finding something worse.