Unusually for a modern Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson seems to enjoy meeting voters. When I joined her on the campaign trail, she had been posing with a giant eagle in Kirkcaldy. Then she jumped on to a Harley Davidson in Stirling. Such props, she says, are a ‘springboard’ to talk about Scottish Conservatism — which, thanks to her, is no longer an oxymoron.
Davidson’s sparkling performances in the various debates stood in welcome contrast to David Cameron’s. Not once has she mentioned the ‘long-term economic plan’, or the other clichés issued from Conservative HQ. Her message is simple: thanks to a Conservative-led government, she says, Britain now has less pensioner poverty, more jobs than ever, and fewer children in workless households than ever. Such things don’t happen by accident: if you want them, you have to vote for them.
She considers herself a ‘good, old-fashioned’ working-class Conservative. ‘We used to have a lot of that traditional blue-collar Toryism in Scotland,’ she says. But it’s not her tradition: she joined the party seven years ago, when Scottish Conservatism seemed to be at its lowest ebb. ‘The party spent so long after the 1997 wipeout talking only to itself, it was apologising and wearing sackcloth and ashes,’ she says. ‘My job, as leader, is to fight campaigns where we can focus our vote so that people can see us winning again.’
Five years ago, she says, ‘We started every conversation with “I’m sorry, I’m a Conservative but…”.’ She has replaced this, she says, with: ‘I believe in X and if you believe in X, you’re a Conservative too.’
In some ways, Davidson, 36, is a Tory moderniser’s dream: the first openly gay politician to lead a party in Britain. Her sexuality is not an issue in Scotland — and nor does she seek to make it one. She’d rather talk about her hobby, kickboxing, which she says gave her a greater appreciation of the NHS, since she has broken nearly every bone in her body.
She has been hailed in London as precisely the sort of voice the Tories need in Westminster. But she flatly rules out following Michael Gove and Liam Fox into a winnable English seat. ‘Sitting on the backbenches in Westminster would be a bit of a demotion from the big job I’ve got,’ she says. ‘I love this job. Look at my campaign this year: I’m having the time of my life.’
Her ambitions are in Scotland: first to help the Tories replace the Liberal Democrats as the third force in Scottish politics, then replace Labour as the opposition. ‘I have no limits to my ambition,’ she says, ‘either for myself or for my party.’ The idea of a Conservative running the Scottish Parliament may seem unbelievable. But as Labour has found, unbelievable things are happening rather a lot in Scottish politics.
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