16 April 2015

Ruth Davidson is just what the Tories need


She’s a proud Scot from a working class background, representing her party in May’s election and promising to stand up for the wider electorate, not just “those who’ve already made it in life”. And she could be just what Scotland needs right now.

No, I’m not talking about Nicola Sturgeon. I’m talking about Ruth Davidson.

If that’s a name you’re mostly unfamiliar with, you’re not alone. The leader of the Scottish Conservative Party has not been featured in any national debates, and while her Labour counterpart Jim Murphy was posing for photographs with Miliband and Balls last Friday, she appears to have been forgotten by the Westminster Tories until the launch of the manifesto in Glasgow today.

Superficially, it’s easy to see why. The Tories currently have just one MP in Scotland (cue the easy joke: “There are now more giant pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs”), and that is unlikely to change radically in this election – the most the Tories can hope for is three seats. The Conservatives haven’t won a majority of seats in Scotland since 1955 (where they beat Labour by two seats), and one of the major arguments deployed by the Yes campaign ahead of last September’s independence referendum was that Scotland could be ‘free’ from a Conservative government. The major electoral battle in Scotland in the next three weeks will be between Sturgeon’s SNP and Murphy’s Scottish Labour Party, and Davidson, and her fourteen other Conservative members of the Scottish Parliament, seem rather insignificant.

But Ruth Davidson, and the type of Conservatism she represents, should not be overlooked so quickly. Educated at a local comprehensive school in Fife, with a father who worked at a woollen mill and grew up in social housing, she embodies the aspiration for which Thatcher fought so hard.

And she’s tough. As if standing as a Conservative in one of the most anti-Tory parts of the UK was not enough, Davidson is out as a lesbian, and her partner featured in an election broadcast about “the Conservative family” in February. She is the first openly gay leader of a major UK political party, which is even more impressive considering that it was the Conservatives who enacted Section 28 in 1988 (restricting the “promotion of homosexuality”), and that 136 of the 175 MPs who voted against gay marriage in 2013 were Tories. Davidson’s rise to prominence within a party with many socially conservative back-benchers, who fought their leader on marriage equality, is fascinating.

It is this confounding of expectations and stereotypes that makes Davidson such an asset to the Tory party, which is still struggling to combat its image as a party for the rich and old-fashioned. As Alex Massie from the Spectator writes:

“Background matters, you see. David Cameron can make the argument that welfare and educational reform benefit the poor more than anyone else but the sorry truth is that many people have no desire to hear that message coming from a leader who looks and sounds the way he does. Unfair? Indubitably. The way it is? Hell, yes.”

Davidson, with her state school education, working class background and time in the Territorial Army, can argue for school choice, hard work and personal responsibility without sounding disingenuous and condescending. The party which elected a green-grocer’s daughter as its leader currently has relatively few high profiles representatives who can say the same.

She was also the star of last week’s Scottish leaders debate. As CapX Editor Iain Martin put it in the Telegraph:

“What was most encouraging for anyone who thinks that modern Scotland is a tragedy in the making, with an economically illiterate political class suffering from a moral superiority complex, is that Davidson spoke up strongly and clearly for ideas that hardly ever get a hearing in left-wing Scotland. She talked about public spending restraint, enterprise, self-reliance and reforming public services.” 

So if Davidson is an asset, where is she in the UK campaign? Why wasn’t she in Swindon on Tuesday when David Cameron announced the Tory manifesto?

Perhaps those in the Westminster bubble are just too insular to notice the woman who could boost their popularity among key demographics. This is a real missed opportunity, as she manages to demonstrate how pro-business policies can and do benefit workers: her manifesto released today includes extending the Small Business Bonus Scheme in Scotland further to cut business tax rates for small and medium-sized enterprises that voluntarily pay their employees a Living Wage (a policy which is conspicuously absent in the main Tory manifesto).

Ruth Davidson is a leader who calls into question what the average voter thinks they know about the Conservative Party. Her most recent advert emphasises this, and subtly reminds voters that she is just as aware of the Tory stereotypes as they are, but is working to combat them:

“I’m voting for a break for low paid workers. I’m voting for schools that end inequality. I’m voting for more nurses in our hospitals. I’m voting for a local police force. I’m voting for a fairer Scotland. We’ve got more in common than you think.” 

She’s a pro business, pro work, pro low taxes compassionate Conservative, who has one quality that is becoming increasingly rare among high-profile politicians: she appears to be an ordinary person rather than a polished concoction of catch phrases and PR. She can even eat an ice cream without making a mistake. Her broadcast features a shot of her walking with her parents and her partner, over which she asks Scots to vote Tory if they are “unashamed and unembarrassed to believe in family”. She could not sound more genuine.

Ruth Davidson should be front-and-centre at this election. The Tory party needs more like her, and so does Scotland.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.