Interview: Ruth Davidson MSP
Although the Conservatives are in power at Westminster, Scottish Conservatives have been something of an endangered species for quite some time. Given the party’s less than sterling history on gay rights, it came as a surprise to some that there are now more openly gay Tories gracing Parliament’s benches than any other political party. North of the border, the party can now point to another reason to believe that it has shed its ‘nasty party’ image in the LGBT community, with the recent election of Ruth Davidson MSP. Davidson is now Holyrood’s only lesbian MSP, after Lib Dem Margaret Smith lost her seat to the SNP.
Davidson, a former BBC journalist, represents the Glasgow region, and lives in Partick with her partner. Just over a month after assuming her seat in Holyrood, she spoke exclusively to So So Gay about her election, her conservatism and her hopes for Scotland.
SSG: Congratulations on your election to the Scottish Parliament. How have your first few weeks in office been?
Ruth Davidson MSP: Manic! It’s a strange time. I’ve been trying to sort out an office and a team, and familiarise myself with the Outlook system; the same things that everyone goes through when they start a new job. But I’m also preparing for my maiden speech and there’s a reception with the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay [Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall’s titles in Scotland] to prepare for.
Why did you stand for election, and what do you hope to achieve for your constituents during your time in office?
I was one of those who came forward when David Cameron went on the Andrew Marr show and said ‘We want candidates that have had a real life'; not career politicians who’ve been the social secretary of the local Conservative branch for twenty-odd years, but people who have Conservative values and think that they might be able to give something to the party. I was a journalist before I entered politics, so I was always questioning the decisions that politicians were making, and it was a natural progression to make the transition to this side of the fence.
Glasgow is a fantastic, vibrant city: however, it has significant problems. We’ve huge issues with things like life expectancy, health outcomes and educational attainment. There are problems that we need to deal with. I want to speak up for Glasgow at Edinburgh, and ensure that it gets the attention that it needs, and I want to ensure that we make progress on the issues that are holding the city back. I also want to be a part of the big Conservative voice at a national level.
What do you think the Conservative Party in Scotland needs to do to grow its support north of the border?
We need to reach out to groups of people that we haven’t formally embraced. I think we’re seen to talk too much to ourselves. The David Cameron revolution that happened down south doesn’t seem to have hit Scotland; we need to be able to embody a new type of Conservatism, one that’s modern and in touch and understands what families need. The Conservatives have a huge opportunity in Scotland; a lot of people who voted for Alex Salmond don’t believe in independence. They’re the sort of floating voters that won’t stay with him forever and there’s a huge base there that we can tap into.
Many of our readers will still associate the Conservative Party with Section 28. Do you think that the party has managed to shake off its spectre, and has it really changed in its attitudes towards the LGBT community?
I think we’ve gone a long way towards shaking off that image. When David Cameron became party leader he stood up in front of a Stonewall audience and said ‘I apologise for Section 28, we got it wrong'; that’s pretty unequivocal. The policy has been reversed and we’ve moved on. The Conservative Party as a parliamentary group has more gay representatives than the other main parties put together, and I think there’s huge support for the party amongst the LGBT community; you’ve just got to look at our membership. We’ve said that we’re sorry for Section 28. I don’t think that there’s much more to do on the issue.
I’m sure that it will have left an indelible spectre over the party in some peoples’ minds, and there are people who will always hold it against the party because they don’t like the party or they don’t like the party’s stance on something, and they can’t let it go. It’s probably the same as how Clause 4 has obstructed the Labour Party, but we have to move on. I certainly believe that the Party has changed in its attitudes towards the community; I wouldn’t be a part of it if I didn’t.
You’re not the first lesbian MSP, but you’re currently the only sitting lesbian MSP. Do you feel that that gives you an obligation not just to your regional constituents, but to the lesbian community more widely in Scotland?
I’m not sure. First and foremost I’m a regional MSP. If other people want to invite me to things as a lesbian MSP then I’m happy to attend and I’m happy to speak up. I’m very open about my background and what I am. Have I attended pride rallies, have I done stuff to do with the community? Yes I have. Is that the only policy area I’m interested in? No, it’s not.
What are your views on Scottish independence?
I want to see a progressive Scotland that’s comfortable in its own skin, happy being a nation on its own, but also as a part of the UK. I was born in Scotland and I’ve lived and worked my entire life in Scotland. I find Alex Salmond’s idea that because I don’t want independence I’m not a patriot abhorrent. I fly two flags and I’m proud of both of them. I’m both Scottish and British, and I think that we gain a lot from being in the United Kingdom. I do not want to see this country go it alone. For the future prosperity of this country we need to be positive about the United Kingdom, and about being a part of the union settlement.
The other big issue facing this parliament is the economy. I know many of the economic levers are operated from Westminster but there’s a lot that we can do to help with employment, help with opportunities, help to encourage investment, and help with the business climate in Scotland so that we can move forward as a more prosperous nation.
As a Conservative, but also as a gay woman, what are your thoughts on the Coalition’s record on LGBT rights over the past year?
They’ve only been in office for a year, and there hasn’t been a great deal of time to get bills in motion. Regarding allowing religious organisations to hold civil partnership ceremonies, I think that they’re going about it the right way. As a Christian, a Conservative and a gay woman, I think its right to bring people with you in this progress as you go. I think we’ve come on leaps and bounds in the last ten years, and, credit where credit’s due, the last government did a lot for gay rights in this country and we need to ensure that there’s no backlash against the changes that have come in.
I’m also pleased that Alex Salmond has indicated that there will be a referendum on gay marriage in Scotland in this parliamentary term. There’s not a uniform line about this from within the community or outside it, but I want to play a part in this debate, and I might be coming at this from a slightly different angle from where you might expect Conservatives of the past to come at it. Certainly I envisage that my voice might be different to Conservatives of the past.
You’ve said you’re a member of a religious community, but you’re also a member of the LGBT community. The viewpoints of these communities are often opposing: how do you think we should balance the rights of both?
I think that we have to be prepared to work together and listen to opposing points of view, and to listen to very valid ideas that aren’t necessarily the same as your own. I think that a little understanding goes a long, long way. There are areas of common ground. In the Christian sense there are a lot of Christian organisations who would take a more New Testament view about gay rights than an Old Testament view.
I think that the way the government should get involved is the same as in any situation where there are opposing views; you make sure that everyone is respectful within the confines of the debate and make sure that no one crosses any line that exists in law and legislation. I think that where things tread very strongly on areas of personal belief, it’s right that government takes the time to take people with it rather than alienating communities.
Are there a unique set of issues facing women in Scotland?
There are still the hardy perennials that we haven’t cracked at a UK level; things like the gender pay gap. But I think that one of the biggest, most persistent problems in Scotland is the low conviction rate for rape, in terms of the percentage that of cases that reach trial, and the percentage that result in a conviction; it’s shockingly, shockingly low. We need to find a way in which we can either support the victims of rape through the process, or adapt the legislation or the manner in which the court works in order to ensure that people are getting a fair hearing and that the same levels of application of the law apply in all cases. It’s a real problem in Scotland; if we cannot show victims that there’s a fighting chance that your abuser will face the full force of the law then this will make victims shrink away from reporting the crime.
We need make people feel comfortable. I think we’ve done lots in this country in terms of police response, in terms of people being taken seriously, but in terms of actually being able to secure convictions, it’s shockingly low.
Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative Party’s leader, is stepping down. What sort of qualities will you be looking for in her successor?
The first thing that I’ll be looking for in our new leader is the ability to connect. I want them to be able to reach out to the electorate and say ‘we’re concerned about the same issues; my values are your values.’ I also want the new leader to have something about them; they’ve got to have vision, to be able to make decisions, and they’ve got to have moral courage. These are the qualities of a leader. If people see that, they respect it; and that’s the sort of person that will encourage people to come to our banner.
How will the Conservative Party be showing that it’s in Holyrood for the right reasons?
There are a lot of people who are struggling right now; we need to talk about business, and make sure that Scotland doesn’t fall behind. We’re seeing all of these reforms going on down south that are passing Scotland by. I want to see a return to first principles: is our health service the best service that we can have in Scotland? Is our education system the best it can be? Why are so many of our children not achieving what they could achieve? Are we funding our further and higher education establishments properly, to give our young people the best opportunities in life as they go forward? These are the issues that affect people, and we have to take a long hard look at where we are, not just as a party but as a country and consider how we take that forward.
What will you and your colleagues, as part of a new generation of politicians, be doing to reach out and regain the trust that has been lost through things like the expenses scandal?
Politicians are placed in a position not just of trust, but also of influence. They’re paid by the taxpayer, by the people they represent; to abuse that trust is absolutely unforgivable, and I’m as damning of Conservatives as I am of Labour politicians who’ve ended up in court over this. We have to prove by our actions that we are cut from a different cloth, that we’re not in it for ourselves. It’s not enough to say that ‘I could be earning this much if I wasn’t in Parliament’. We have to show that we’re in this for the right reasons, that we’re wanting to make a positive change, and that there are things on which we’re prepared to take a stand to make Scotland a better place for everyone.
We also need to show a younger generation of voters, who might not be so party political, that political parties have a role to play within the system; that we might not completely agree with what you’re advocating, but you should look to parties as another vehicle with which you can achieve the aims of whatever it is you’re campaigning on.
What are the key Conservative values that resonate with you as an individual?
I’ve always been a Conservative. I grew up in a conservative household, but for me personally, I think the first value is responsibility. We have to trust adults in this country to be treated like adults, and to let them make decisions about how they live their life without state interference. I believe that a pound is better spent by the person who earned it than by the state.
I’m quite old-fashioned as a Conservative. I’m kind of a throwback to the Disraelian definition: understanding that the State exists to give people a hand up from the bottom, but also to empower them to go on and leave the State behind. There shouldn’t be this culture of second, third and fourth-generation unemployed – we shouldn’t be letting it get to that stage. We should be empowering people with the skills that they need in order to make that break. I don’t necessarily believe that the State should be providing catch-all services in all instances. For example, I’m not sure that the Jobcentre is necessarily the best provider to get everybody whose unemployed back into a job. I think that we should be looking to use public money to pay organisations that can do things better than the Jobcentre in certain cases. If you’re looking at a person with a disability then a disability charity far better understands preparing that person to get back into work than the Jobcentre would.
Aside from politics, what do you enjoy doing?
I love hill walking. I like watching Scotland play football. I like it even better when they win, though it doesn’t happen very often! I’m also a kick-boxer.
On a more personal note, who were your heroes? Who inspired you?
A lot of my heroes are fictitious. Possibly the most inspiring politician I’ve ever read is the Shakespeare’s representation of Henry V; I know that’s quite a long way from the actual Henry V, but the fictitious Henry is a hugely inspiring figure. Again from literature you’ve got characters like Sir Thomas Moore in A Man For All Seasons, and Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird; these were literary heroes growing up as I found them instructional in showing the sort of person I wanted to be and the sort of life I wanted to live. I think they help show you how to make sense of the things that are important to you, whether that’s standing up against injustice or fighting for the rights of your nation or defending your stance against persecution.