Alexis Anne MacKenzie
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There Won't Be Blood: Suzanne Moore on the menopause

The female body can be a mess, so I simply decided to have it – the menopause – one cold November weekend a few years ago. But women my age won’t just melt away and we won’t become invisible.

Something in me has died. Not an actual thing. I know what that feels like. I have had a dead foetus inside me and been told to go home and wait to miscarry “naturally”. This is different. Another kind of ending. The bits that made me a woman of some description . . . they are still there, but they have no useful function. No more ovulation. No more bleeding. No more babies. No more contraception. No more wondering. No more tampon tax. The curse is lifted.

I want a medal, a paper hat, a prize; some kind of public recognition or a rite of passage at least, involving fire-eating, chanting and mescalin. Instead I find that no one wants me even to talk about it. “It” being the menopause. “My womb is a tomb” doesn’t seem to work well as a conversation starter.

“Can I have some sort of certificate?” I ask my poor GP.

“It doesn’t really work like that.”

“When can I say it’s over, that I’m done?”

She sighs. I like her and I feel if she could she would give me more than a wry smile.

No one really asks me how I am getting on with the old “change of life”. Especially not men. They probably think that would be rude and I would bite their heads off and they would probably be right. I don’t really have the mood swings that some talk about. I have just the one mood. Rage. I am enraged as soon as I wake up, enraged by the news, enraged by how the world is, enraged when I can’t sleep, and I can never sleep.

Some women cry. A lot. My friend cried because she saw a baby: “A baby at the bus stop. I cried at the bus stop.” She repeats the story several times until the bus stop is more significant to me than the baby. This is the hormonal horror that awaits. Weeping on buses. She is fully gone, I think to myself. A few years older than me, and constantly fanning herself. An evening with her is a trial, as the heating has to be switched on and off several times. Her thermostat has packed up. Her actual thermostat, the one in her house. It’s all the fiddling.

It is somehow reassuring to know most of my women friends are even more deranged than me. They talk of herbs and potions from hippie shops, black cohosh and sage tea, which is revolting. But some of the sisterhood around this time of life is what my kids would call “judgy”. There are right ways and wrong ways to do it. The natural and the unnatural. That is what being a woman is, I decide. Doing it the wrong way. I am further incensed.

“Are you having hot flushes?” my doctor asked at one point.

“I don’t know.”

“Then you are not,” she says. “You would know if you were. You are in the perimenopause.” She doesn’t have time to explain the perimenopause. I suspect it’s because she can’t. It can go on for ten years, apparently. Ten years?!

It’s just as well I am handling everything so well. I end my relationship because it’s bad and I end it badly because there is no other way. A process of shedding starts. Some hoard and hold on. This is not for me. Some intuition tells me that freedom will demand letting go.

At the time, I didn’t see these feelings as menopausal. But now I do. This deep sense of time passing, through one’s flesh, of not wanting more of the same, a sense of coming into the present and only the present, understanding that time is valuable and time has passed: these come through knowing that parts of my life are over. I can no longer create life – and I have created three – so now I must create my own. This self-creation is either selfish or absolutely necessary to survive. Yes, I can jump out of a plane, get a new “hobby”, rush around in a flurry of activities involving Zumba and watercolours . . . but why would I? The manic overachievement of the menopausal feels a lot like denial.

Read the medical books. Look at the fashion spreads. Women dry up. Youth is moist, wet, dewy. Old women are husks with coarsened skin and thinning vaginal walls and the cause of this curse is hormonal: oestrogen. We no longer produce enough of it. The ovaries stop their egg production. The average age for the menopause is 51 but it can come much earlier. Chemotherapy will bring it on. IVF treatment induces it; this is the fresh hell.

Some sail through it. I asked a brilliant 80-year-old I met smoking at a party about it. “Honey,” she said, “I was too damn busy to notice.” That generation was tougher than
mine in every way. Some of our angst is cultural. To put it into perspective, historically a lot of women just died before they got to this age. We are the lucky ones.

Having lost enough friends along the way, I know this but I can’t avoid the questions: what does it mean to be a woman who, having served her purpose – reproduction – may have another kind of life? We may not define ourselves by our reproductive organs, whether we have children or not, but we are defined by them. Whatever your opinion about your role, your sex, your gender, your identity, your biology, your destiny, something is physically happening. If one enters “womanhood” with menstruation, now you are exiting it. A predator whose bones are thinning is a woman to be feared. A woman whose ovaries no longer do what they should do is somehow ungendered and possibly disgusting.

The sanctioned discussions around the menopause are fairly limited, mostly to “ageing”. The physicality is rarely mentioned. Instead we ask: “Can we have more older women on TV?” “Can a grandmother be a president? “Can mutton be a lamb shish?” Well, yes, obviously, if these are the parameters of the debate.

Inevitably, then we see pictures of women who look good for their age. Helen Mirren, Carine Roitfeld and the other one. You know, some other one who is still desirable. I want to scream. It is their job to look good. This is not the job of most women, although we are increasingly groomed to think it is, to define ourselves purely physically. The advice comes thick and heavy as we try to stop being thick and heavy. It is relentless and relentlessly boring. Exercise and everything in moderation. Another part of me dies.

The menopause is not sexy. We get it. We don’t get it. It might be ultra-sexy, actually. Hormones are druggy and – rather like in pregnancy – some women find their libido shoots up; for others, it declines and they express relief. We are all different but the truism remains that our bodies, battle-scarred as they may be, are now somewhere we ought to feel at home. To not feel at home is the source of terror. To feel the fear of where this all might be heading.

Simone de Beauvoir could barely look at herself in the mirror, her own ageing was so horrific to her. For some, the cloak of invisibility of middle age is worn with aplomb; for others, it is a shroud. The worrying about libido, too much, too little, is real. If you want to depress yourself, google “clitoral atrophy”. Although I am not a doctor, the solution seems to be: use it or lose it.

The lack of information around the menopause is one of the things that has shocked me most. It is a mystery to many well-informed women. The perimenopause, for instance, is an all-purpose diagnosis for all kinds of ills. Many women are told they are “peri” with no idea what this means. Erratic bleeding, insomnia, itching, vaginal dryness, memory lapse and vasomotor disturbance are just a few of the symptoms that could make you “peri”. You are post-menopausal when you haven’t had a period for over a year.

The lack of definition bothered me. The female body can be a mess, so I simply decided to have it – the menopause – one cold November weekend a few years ago. I took to my bed, decided that my time was over and nested in a cloud of self-pity. By the Monday I was bored and went out and saw a great gig. These are a good menopausal activity, as they occur in dark spaces and no one cares if you perspire.

But I am not surprised so many women end up utterly depressed. If the menopause is seen as basically a disease, as lack, then women’s bodily chemistry must be rebalanced with hormone replacement therapy or antidepressants. Lately I am seeing that a lot. Middle-aged women are now on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for what are basically the symptoms of menopause. The encroaching darkness must be kept at bay. Having seen women go from crawling around on all fours to functioning well on HRT, I know it can help. But why is there so little discussion about long-term medicating of the female body?

Despite my melodrama, in truth, I hardly suffered at all. Why would I? I never had terrible periods: indeed, I used to see PMT in others as a form of attention-seeking. But when menopausal insomnia hit me I felt unable to function.

“Can you not fall asleep, or do you keep waking?” the doctor asked.

“Both.”

More blood tests. Too much cortisol. “It’s the stress hormone. Your body is somehow trying to kick-start your ovaries. It will try anything.”

“I hate my ovaries,” I wailed. The doctor prescribed me tricyclics, the old-fashioned kind of antidepressants, just to use at night. Immediately I trebled the dose. When Michael Jackson died, my first thought was to wonder what sleeping medication he was on. Can I get that? That is what insomnia does.

***

As the drugs didn’t work, I was offered the sleep clinic. Off I trotted weekly to cognitive behavioural therapy, the NHS’s new bargain-basement cure-all. The first thing I was told by a shrink was that I must stop referring to our therapy as “The Insomniac Club” or, indeed, referring to myself as an insomniac. My thinking needed reframing.

Again, no one wanted me to use the word “menopause” but they pushed me to learn something called “sleep hygiene”. When I described physical feelings of insomnia that were decidedly menopausal, that I could actually feel descending on me, they talked about turning off my laptop. This did not help. Mostly I didn’t understand why I was having group therapy with a perfectly nice but unemployed man who couldn’t sleep at night because he slept all day; a wired and scratchy young woman who was always shivering; a very angry man who claimed not to have slept for ten years; and a shy emo who did sleep, but was troubled by the idea of seasonal affective disorder.

But the reason I was there summed up for me what is wrong with our attitudes to the menopause. A psychiatrist had assessed me over the phone.

One of the questions he asked was: “Do you have dark thoughts?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of thing?”

“I just think about how I will die and everyone I know will die and how dying is when everything you hold dear is taken away from you bit by bit.”

“Do you have those thoughts often?”

“Yes, often. I always have had. But now a lot.”

To me, this is normal. The NHS clearly does not have a tick box labelled “existentialism”. Somehow over the phone I had been assessed as mildly suicidal. Nothing happened. I just got a letter telling me as much, which is . . . cheerful, first thing in the morning. The thing is, I’m not in the least suicidal – but menopause is something to do with death and yet no one wants you to say this out loud. No one at all.

To deny the connection to death is a lie. Your body is not returning to a previous state. The death may be metaphorical, as you are not dying, unless your body was only ever there for childbearing. Are women who have not had children lesser women? Are we only defined by motherhood and fuckability? No, of course not. We are more than that. That’s what we tell ourselves. But what is this more? How do we reproduce ourselves for ourselves? If you have a moment. If you are not looking after children and parents. If you can be bothered.

Maybe that’s why so much cheery advice on looking younger (it’s not happening) or getting a pet or internet dating can be grating. And inane. A further denial of loss. I’ve never met a woman who misses having periods, but I know many who felt a form of mourning in middle age. The mourning is unvoiced and unsure because one of the things women learn very young is that ­putting yourself at the centre of things is unbecoming. The flood of feelings about life, death, ageing, sex and the whole damn shebang is easier to push away, to belittle, than to confront.

This may also explain the constant uplift of some of the blogs on the subject. At least women do exchange information online, and because most of us are so clueless this is useful. I knew far more as a teenager about what menstruation was than I knew about the menopause as a fiftysomething. While information is scant, the drive to be happy is so manic that it is near hysteria.

My favourite advice was on the value for menopausal symptoms of a nice, hot bath with Taoist oils (no idea). There was a picture of an antique bathtub and an inspirational quote – “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them”, from Sylvia Plath. The Sylvia Plath. That well-known life coach.

Is a jaunty sense of humour a response to fear? Germaine Greer may have been right when she said that what women “are afraid of losing is not femininity, which can always be faked and probably is always fake, but femaleness”. If by femaleness she means the ability to reproduce – certainly not a defining part of every woman’s life – then the return to the individual that existed before menstruation raises interesting questions. Her view may be seen as unfashionable essentialism, or rather we may begin to see the menopause as a form of transitioning. For it is a time of transition. Undoubtedly. Is a woman who is free of her “sexual and reproductive destiny” less of a woman? If so, someone needs to explain what a woman is exactly and why she may not now become more of herself.

In the early 1990s the menopause and what it meant were explored by feminists such as Greer and Gail Sheehy, who stood at opposite ends of the spectrum. For Sheehy, the menopause was something that women as health consumers would lobby around, breaking the last great taboo. HRT would stop osteoporosis and heart attacks, and women could embrace a second adulthood in ways men couldn’t. Some medics described women low in oestrogen as “the walking dead” and Sheey’s 1991 book The Silent Passage is a call to arms to demand intervention.

Since then, debates about HRT and breast cancer have raged and the standard dosage of HRT has come down.

The theory is that sexless cronehood can thus be swerved. The practice turns out to be different. The sexed-up older woman, the “cougar”, honed and toned, botoxed and HRTed up to the nines, is still a figure of fun, for men and for other women. We do not like the bodies of older women even when they are our own. And every pleasure-giving thing from sunlight to gin is said to age us faster. The menopausal woman must decide whether she will go with thinning bones or a higher risk of breast cancer – and for many it is no choice at all, as they feel so terrible. We still have to function.

The production (and politics) of oestrogen is incredibly complicated both within our bodies and without. Too much of it is bad for us. Too little of it is bad for us. This was brought home to me when I was in a hospital with yet another friend with a tumour in her breast. “It’s because I smoked, isn’t it?” she said to the consultant.

“No. We see every type of breast cancer here and the only things that all the women have in common is that they have breasts and produce oestrogen.”

Not all cancers are related to oestrogen but some are. It is produced in the female body, mainly through the ovaries, but also the liver and the adrenal glands. A few of the things that make us produce too much of it and are therefore dangerous are excess fat, too many carbohydrates, alcohol, meat and perfume – basically what I would call the finer things in life. Then there’s all the excess oestrogen in the environment from plastics, pesticides and from women who are leaking it out all over the shop because they are on the Pill.

At this point, if you are sensible, you may make an informed choice about a healthy diet and exercise to get through menopausal symptoms. Cortisol – the likely cause of my insomnia – is related to insulin production, so I can vouch that if you cut out all sugar and alcohol your mood will level out, your cravings will stop and your night sweats will ease. After three weeks of this, however, I felt such a life wasn’t really worth living.

Upping your calcium is a good idea. Women swap hard-won tips such as “tahini is a great source of calcium” but it’s all a bit reminiscent of that time when you’ve just had a baby and you go out and people assume that all you want to talk about is babies, when it’s the last thing you want to do. Except this time it’s even worse, because you’re talking about seeds. Still, you are now in the zone of bone scans and mammograms, with bowel cancer tests to look forward to.

I was called in for a smear. While the cold metal was still inside, the nurse said casually: “Well, you won’t be needing these so often. Cervical cancer is a young woman’s disease.” As I was putting my knickers back on she pulled back the curtain to hand me a leaflet on pelvic floor exercises.

This was one of the better days.

***

As always, for the rich, there is something better and more “natural”. The common or garden kind of HRT is made from hormones extracted from the urine of pregnant horses. Private doctors prescribe BHRT instead: bio-identical hormone replacement therapy. Bio-identicals are said to be natural. They are made not from horse piss but from Mexican yams, which, let’s face it, sounds a lot nicer. And somehow more feminine.

Bio-identicals are prescribed in carpeted offices and individual doses after a series of tests. Those who take them swear by them. As so often, though, a lot of sense goes out of the window when people start talking about drugs versus naturally occurring chemicals, Big Pharma versus . . . private “BHRT” medication.

It’s a minefield of wishful thinking. This is an argument about giving women synthetic hormones rather than the naturally occurring versions that some of their advocates insist are not drugs. This is patently rubbish: if something is stopping your hot flushes and depression and keeping your skin smooth and all the things that BHRT claims, then it’s a drug. Perhaps BHRT is a better drug and the way it is prescribed is better than the random handing-out of normal HRT by stressed-out GPs. Perhaps it is a better way, but to argue for access to these better drugs, or more information, we would have to think politically about the menopause and it is hard to be political about things that embarrass us.

Indeed, we may begin to question why this stage of life must be dealt with by chemicals at all. Are women to spend most of their lives ingesting hormones to stop them getting pregnant, and then the rest of it ingesting others to mimic the effects of oestrogen? For this is what we are doing.

Is the answer to every woman struggling with aches, pains and questions about her very being simply HRT or SSRIs? It can certainly feel like that. At one stage I dabbled with HRT. I can’t remember why. It was a locum and I think he wanted to get me and my dark thoughts out of his surgery. For nine days I took the pills, waiting to feel something. But there was nothing. On the tenth day I woke in the night with what I can only describe as labour pains and with puddles of blood everywhere. My “femaleness” had returned with a vengeance and it was so horrible, I had to stop myself dialling 999 and telling them I was Carrie.

HRT may be a godsend for some, but there is something very odd in tricking the female body into thinking it is still capable of reproduction when it is not, just in order to remain lubricated and shiny. Those with partners now have no excuse for twin beds or relief from “conjugal duties”. With Viagra and HRT and the ideology that sex is compulsory for health and happiness, we can all go on for ever and ever. The time when women could call it a day or no longer need to scratch that itch is gone. For some, there is joy in no longer fearing pregnancy; for others, sex is one less chore they have to perform. Or it may be that many older women renounce sex because men have renounced them for a younger model and it’s easier to pretend it’s a choice.

Lubrication is important in so many ways. Use lube for sure. But know that you no longer have to be it. All those years when femininity was enacted as social lubrication have gone. You don’t have enough time left to go round making everyone else feel comfortable. Let them sort themselves out. What does return – or never left but I can only now admit to – is what I can only describe as the delightful cockiness of adolescence.

Alongside this is the rage. The rage I felt so intensely is so obviously a rage against the dying of the light that I am suspicious of New Age stuff that seeks to pacify it. Holding on to this rage and not caring what people think of it is powerful.

What helps is paying attention to yourself – and I don’t mean exfoliation regimes, I mean attention to your interior self, because the outside is going to decline whatever you do. Listen to your psyche beginning to grasp what it does not want to let itself know: that it is not immortal. Listen and learn, for this is the place creative thought comes from. Creation is always to imagine something living beyond yourself out there in the world. This urge surely is not reducible to femaleness or reproduction. So this time of loss may be a time of gain if you allow it.

Pleasure is still possible because at this time, thankfully, most of us start needing glasses. We can no longer see all the flaws that young girls with luminous skins search for on themselves with eyes like microscopes. The light may indeed be dying but we all need a dimmer switch at hand.

As we start to exit “womanhood” we need again to redefine it. The curse. The change. These old words come up as some seek a power grab in the realm of the spiritual, too often the substitute for real power. Serenity can’t possibly be a bad goal, though I don’t see so many middle-aged men seeking it. Instead, I prefer Angela Davis’s take on the serenity prayer: “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”

Menopause makes us impatient. This is good. Women my age won’t just melt away and we won’t become invisible. It’s a fight for sure, but then it always is. Womanhood and femaleness, born or made, is nomadic. That place we call home shifts so much over the course of a lifetime. In this movement lies some knowledge that may scare us as much as it may set us free.

“The change” can be medicated, but what the menopause does is tell us explicitly that although parts of us are now “done”, there is more to do and it’s now or never. Accepting this can feel bloody awful sometimes and whatever gets you through the night may indeed be worth having. Unquestioningly dulling all these feelings associated with menopause exacts another price, too. Natural is not better than unnatural yet surely by 50 or so women should be able to make informed choices that can only happen when we discuss exactly what those choices are. Too few do. Doctors who are trained to prescribe HRT do not know quite how and when to take women off it. There is withdrawal, and there is no soft landing for so many. HRT is not a cure for menopause but a ploy to delay it and the devastating symptoms often return. Except now you are in your sixties, not your fifties. Many seem unclear about this.

For me, some clarity comes after and even during the heat daze. It just does. One day I am in an office and a guy says to me: “You’re on fire lately, Suzanne.”

“Wow!” I think. “What a sensitive sort of man is this man, knowing about my fluctuating hormones. How does he know that I’m currently what one of my friends describes as ‘sweaty and mental’?”

Normally when women are given a compliment we demur. But there’s no need any longer.

“You are right!” I say. “I am actually on fire!”

He looks slightly worried. He backs away. He clearly thinks I am mad, so I decide to leave the building and go to the revolving door.

It whirls round as I push the door harder, as I am now on the way to the next place. Everything changes. Inside and outside. All the time. How did I ever think life was anything but this?

This. Now.

I am “in the moment”, as they say.

The door jams. I have pushed it too hard. We are all stuck. Now a young woman trying to come into the building starts tutting that I am making her late. I burst out laughing to myself and I don’t care who sees me cackling.

Then the door starts moving again and through I go. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Is it Ruth Davidson's destiny to save the Union?

Ruth Davidson is a Christian, gay, kick-boxing army reservist who made a passionate case for the EU and has transformed the fortunes of the Tories in Scotland.

In the end it made no difference, but during the EU referendum campaign Ruth Davidson achieved something that nobody else did: she made the case for Remain sound thrillingly righteous. In a live, televised BBC debate at Wembley Arena in London, she denounced the “lies” of the Leave campaign, turning to the crowd to declare, twice: “You deserve the truth!” Funny, fervent and pugnacious, Davidson pounced on the bluff assertions of Boris Johnson with gusto, a terrier savaging a shaggy dog. As she departed the podium, flashing a light-bulb grin, she left a question hanging in the air: how far can Ruth Davidson go?

On the face of it, it was a risk for the ­Remain campaign to send the leader of the Scottish Conservatives to Wembley, when most of its persuadable voters lived in England. Yet, according to Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s pollster and an influential Remain strategist, “Ruth’s name was inked in from the beginning.” After the debate, nobody called this confidence misplaced. Davidson was acclaimed as the star of the night. English observers began to appraise her as a major player in national politics, even as a possible future prime minister.

The EU debate was, for Davidson and for Scots, the least energetically contested of four recent contests, following the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the general election in 2015 and the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016. In the last one, Davidson led her party to second place, overtaking Labour, and the Conservatives became the main opposition to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalists. It was their best result in nearly 60 years and evidence of an astonishing turnaround.

When Davidson was elected leader in 2011, it was like being declared the mayor of a ghost town. Her party’s core voters had long fled, first to Labour and then to the SNP. Margaret Thatcher and successive national Tory leaders had made it almost impossible for Scots to admit to voting Conservative, or even to being friends with anyone who did. It wasn’t just that the Tories were poisonous to the touch; they were on the verge of irrelevance. They held 15 out of the 129 seats at Holyrood. They barely mattered.

They matter now. The stigma of voting Tory has not been entirely erased, but the Conservative brand has been saved, or perhaps subsumed by its Scottish leader’s personal brand. On the ballot paper in May, voters were invited to put a cross next to the slogan “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”; party activists knocking on doors introduced themselves as being from “Team Ruth”. A recent poll found that Davidson was the most popular politician in Scotland, surpassing Sturgeon.

Ruth Davidson has been a politician for just five years. If you need reminding of how hard it is, even if you are clever and able, to become a high-level political performer on half a decade’s experience, recall the defining moments of a few Labour MPs of the 2010 generation: Liz Kendall’s flameout, Chuka Umunna’s failure to launch, Owen Smith’s bellyflop. David Cameron’s rise might seem to have been comparably quick, but he had been working in Westminster politics, on and off, for 13 years before he ­became an MP. Three years before being elected leader of the Scottish Tories, Davidson hadn’t even joined a political party.

Davidson may be the most gifted politician in Britain. “She’s a natural, and they are very rare in politics,” Cooper told me. The question for her is whether she will ever convert talent into power.

 

*****

In August, I went to see Davidson speak in Belfast at an event organised by Amnesty International on behalf of the campaign for gay marriage in Northern Ireland. She made a case for equal marriage that was also a case for the institution of marriage. “More than 40 years married and my parents still love each other – and I look at what they have and I want that, too, and I want it to be recognised in the same way,” she said.

She paused to note that the passage was taken from an address that she made at Holyrood during the first reading of Scotland’s equal marriage bill in 2013: “I’ll be honest. I was absolutely bricking it.”

Davidson met her partner, Jen Wilson, in 2014. The couple got engaged this year on holiday in Paris, just after the May election campaign. Wilson, who is 34 and from County Wexford, Ireland, works in the charity sector. In 2015, she appeared with Davidson in a party political broadcast, which showed the couple strolling along Elie Harbour, Fife, and taking selfies with Davidson’s parents. It wasn’t a big deal and yet, at the same time, it felt significant. As Davidson noted in her speech, homosexuality was still a prosecutable offence in Scotland in the year she was born (it was not decriminalised north of the border until 1980).

After the event, I met her for a drink with members of her team at the bar of her hotel. She had returned to Edinburgh from a holiday in Spain in the early hours of that morning, shortly before boarding a plane to Belfast for a full day of engagements. Yet she bristled with energy, giving the illusion of movement even when she was sitting still, her attention distributed between emails on her phone, the conversation at the table and the level of everyone’s drinks. She had enjoyed the event, she said, although she had been hoping for more argument.

In September, we met again for a longer conversation in her small office at Holyrood. In person, she is friendly in a businesslike way, mentally fast (often starting her response before the question is finished) and generous with her answers. As she talks, her eyes fix you in your seat. “Ruth is a brilliant reader of people, including our opponents, and spots weaknesses very early,” her colleague Adam Tomkins told me. “She can see through me. I would hate to play poker with her.”

Before our meeting, I watched First Minister’s Questions, the first after the summer recess. The atmosphere in the chamber at Holyrood is very different from that in the Commons: quieter, less theatrical. The leaders of the main parties are not cheered to their seat. Sturgeon, dressed in black, walked to her desk at the front of the hall, unacknowledged by her colleagues, as a cabinet secretary answered a question on national parks. Davidson entered shortly afterwards, in a violently pink jacket that contrasted vividly with the muted tones preferred by most MSPs.

In the chamber, Davidson often holds her own against the First Minister. The two have contrasting styles: Sturgeon poised and coolly effective, Davidson a study in controlled fury. “Ruth has a real aggression to her,” says the journalist Kenny Farquharson, a columnist for the Times in Scotland. “She’s always looking for the next fight.”

 

*****

Ruth Elizabeth Davidson was born at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion in Edinburgh in 1978, the second of two daughters to Douglas and Elizabeth Davidson. Her family lived in Selkirk, where her father worked at the wool mill. This was Douglas’s second career: his first had been as a professional footballer, for Partick Thistle and Selkirk FC. The Davidsons moved to Fife when Ruth was a child, after the mill closed. Her parents were Tory voters, without being especially political.

When Ruth Davidson was five years old, she was run over by a truck near her home and nearly killed. The accident shattered her leg, fractured her pelvis and severed her femoral artery, leading to a huge loss of blood. In interviews, she makes quick work of what other politicians might be tempted to craft into a narrative turning point. “My legs are still a bit squint . . . but it has never really stopped me from doing anything,” she told the Scotsman in 2012.

Her family was Presbyterian, in the Church of Scotland, a more austere and morally fiery tradition than Anglicanism. (A Scottish journalist remarked to me, “To us, Anglicanism is Christianity with all the fibre removed.”) Davidson is a practising Christian. Her piety does not extend to abstention from alcohol or profanity – she is a world-class swearer – but it is manifest in her moral muscularity, preacher-like cadences and horror of malingering.

In Fife, Davidson attended Buckhaven High School, a large comprehensive with a working-class intake. She is often referred to as working class, which isn’t quite right. Her mother and father were working-class Glaswegians. Her mother left school at 15, her father at 16. Douglas grew up on an estate in Castlemilk, a district then infamous for its deprivation and crime. He was one of the few Protestants in a solidly Catholic community, during a time of deep divisions.

The Davidsons, however, were upwardly mobile. Douglas had been a manager at the mill in Selkirk and then ran a whisky distillery on the Isle of Arran. The children had the importance of effort and self-improvement drummed into them. Ruth has recalled getting a school report that gave her a 1 for results in science – the best possible mark – and a 2 for effort. “I got a mini-bollocking for that. My mum would have been much happier if it had been the other way round.” Both children attended university (Ruth’s sister is now a doctor).

Davidson did well at school and excelled at sport. She played squash for her county and tennis to a level at which she can teach it. In adulthood, she took up kick-boxing, condemning herself to be forever tagged as a “kick-boxing lesbian” in the British press. Sport has been central in her life, not so much a leisure activity as a method of striving for new goals.

After graduating from Edinburgh University, where she studied English literature and took part in debating competitions, ­Davidson moved to Glasgow and started a career in journalism. In 2002 she joined BBC Scotland, becoming a radio presenter on a drive-time show, reporting on gifted pets one minute and traffic disasters the next. By all accounts, she was excellent: fluent, well prepared, interested in whomever she was talking to. Her producer Pat Stevenson remembers her as “a fantastic interviewer, incisive and forensic, able to spot bullshit a mile off. And she was fun.” Her abiding image of Davidson at the microphone is of a head thrown back in laughter.

Stevenson recalls being vaguely aware that Davidson held right-of-centre views, though these were less of a talking point with her BBC colleagues than her Christianity, or, even more so, her weekends spent deep in a forest, being shouted at while trying to read a map. Davidson served as a signaller in the Territorial Army for three years from 2003 and trained to be an officer. “It was very tough,” says Steve Bargeton, who oversaw the officers’ course. “Most fail or drop out, but Ruth flew through. She had tremendous character.” Davidson won a place at Sandhurst but broke her back during a training exercise, forcing her to end her military career.

She soon set herself a new goal: to be elected to parliament by the time she was 40. In 2009, she left the BBC and joined the Tory party. Davidson has attributed her career change to David Cameron’s call, after the MPs’ expenses scandal, for people who had never been political to get involved, but it is likely she had already decided that politics was the next hill to climb. Either way, she quickly acquired influential sponsors in Edinburgh and London. By the 2010 election, she was head of the private office of Annabel Goldie, the then leader of the Scottish Tories. She stood for an unwinnable Commons seat in Glasgow, twice, both times winning barely 5 per cent of the vote.

Even as the elections to Holyrood came around in May 2011, she was not expected to make it to parliament. She was second on Glasgow’s regional list, which all but ruled her out. A couple of months before the vote, however, the candidate at the top of the list was removed following allegations of past financial problems. The Conservative Party chairman promptly promoted Davidson, who was elected to Holyrood (she won a constituency seat of her own this year in Edinburgh, where she now lives).

In the 2011 election, the SNP, under Alex Salmond, won an unprecedented overall majority in Holyrood. This success transformed the politics of Scotland, and thus that of the UK. Labour’s grip on the votes of working-class Scots was broken. The Conservative Party, already a corpse, failed to twitch. It at once became clear that Salmond had won a mandate for a referendum on independence and that this would be the defining question of Scottish politics until it was resolved.

On the Monday after the election, Annabel Goldie announced that she was resigning. Four days after her election to the Scottish Parliament, Davidson began to consider a run at the leadership of her party. She was encouraged by senior figures, including David Mundell (then a Scotland Office minister, now the Scottish party’s sole MP in Westminster) and David Cameron. In her way stood the Scottish Tories’ deputy leader, Murdo Fraser, an Edinburgh-based lawyer who had been a Conservative activist for a quarter of a century. It was, by common consent, his turn.

Fraser, sensing a threat, committed to an act of excessive radicalism that proved to be his undoing: he proposed that the party ditch the name “Conservative” and break entirely from its southern counterpart. He argued that this measure (Alex Massie, writing in the Spectator, called it the euthanasia option) was the only way to move on from the past and compete with the SNP as a truly Scottish party. He did not recommend a new name; mooted alternatives included the Scottish Reform Party, the Caledonians and Scotland First.

Fraser’s gambit propelled Davidson into the race. She felt that his proposal would unmoor the Scottish Conservatives from their purpose, and also that it was politically naive, as there was little chance that voters would not realise that this was the same party in different clothes. In tactical terms, Fraser had opened up space for a candidate to run on preserving the status quo, rarely an unpopular position among Tories. For his challenger, it was a ripe alignment of conviction and opportunity, a ball bouncing into the perfect position for a killer forehand. Davidson declared on 4 September 2011 and won the final round against Fraser, 55 per cent to 45 per cent. She was 32.

 

****

It is easy to underestimate how much politics, in opposition, is simply about getting noticed. When Davidson became leader, Scottish politics was a (rather one-sided) battle between the SNP and Labour. She needed to fight her way to centre stage and into the calculations of voters – there wasn’t much point repositioning the Tory brand if nobody was watching. As Andrew Cooper put it to me, “You didn’t get to the toxic problem until you dealt with the irrelevant problem.”

Davidson excels at getting noticed. She has – even if she would not appreciate the comparison – a Donald Trump-like understanding of how to get and keep attention. She is at home on social media, something that is true of all the Scottish party leaders, though Davidson’s tweets are the most fearless and funny. She is also an artist of the photo opportunity: here she is in a pink scarf, bestriding the gun of a tank, a Union flag fluttering in the background; playing the bagpipes, or being played by them, eyes popping out of her head; smashing a football into the back of the net.

Such photos do more than get attention. They reinforce the sense of a person unintimidated by the rules of political protocol; indeed, of someone who scorns limitations. There is something almost cartoonish about Davidson’s public profile: the big eyes, the flashing grin, the unstoppable, barrelling walk. In debates, as she winds up to a clinching point, you can, if you half close your eyes, see her swinging her arm through a hundred revolutions before extending it across the stage to smack an opponent. She is one of us, and not like us at all. Flattened by a truck, she gets up and walks away.

Davidson’s willingness to play the fool wouldn’t work if she was not able to convey seriousness at the same time. The leadership race set the template for her political profile as an untraditional traditionalist. Davidson doesn’t look or talk like a typical Tory, but her ideological touchstones are profoundly Conservative. She is a British patriot, a churchgoer, a passionate supporter of the armed forces, an advocate for marriage, a believer in self-reliance. On becoming leader, she set about reviving a type of blue-collar Conservatism not seen since the 1980s. The former Scottish Tory MP Sir Teddy Taylor coined the expression “tenement Tories”: working-class voters with conservative instincts, sceptical of high taxes, patriotic but not nationalist. Davidson, the daughter of tenement Tories, is able to pitch herself as one of them.

To do so has required performing a balancing act with respect to her party in Westminster. She admired Cameron and, politically speaking, was in his debt. Her leadership is staked on the unity of the Scottish and English branches of the party. Yet she has managed, somehow, to position herself against the party’s privileged English elite – the “private-school boys”. Her evident animus against Boris Johnson is both strategic and personal. During the EU campaign, as the polls tightened, she asked Downing Street if it wanted her to go on a “suicide mission” against Johnson, a senior aide to the former prime minister says.

 

****

In Ruth Davidson’s first year as leader, her inexperience showed. She made a prolonged and embarrassing climbdown from a foolhardy promise, made during the leadership campaign, to draw a “line in the sand” against further devolution. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, a skilled and pitiless debater, successfully patronised her every week at First Minister’s Questions. An impression that she had been promoted prematurely was discreetly given credence by members of her own party (most Scottish Tory MSPs had voted for Fraser).

Davidson was learning not only how to be a leader in public, but how to manage an organisation, a skill for which journalism had not prepared her. A rule change that came into effect when she took over gave her far-reaching powers over the party. As she says, she suddenly found herself responsible for MSPs, staff and activists, but with “no idea how to manage”. She fell back on her training in the Territorial Army. “I had to apply what I learned about leadership in the British army. The toolkit I used was from officer training: how to identify problems, make decisions, bring people with you.”

At Wembley this summer, debating national security, Davidson remarked icily, “I think I’m the only one on this panel who’s ever worn the Queen’s uniform.” Her TA training provides her with a rhetorical trump card and legitimises photo opportunities on tanks, but it does more for her than that. Military metaphors pervade her thinking and fire her imagination. One of her favourite books is Defeat into Victory, an account of the Allied forces campaign in Burma in the Second World War, by William Slim, a British field marshal. “It is the best examination of leadership you’ll ever find,” she told me, and then related, excitedly, an encounter she once had with a Second World War veteran who had witnessed Slim addressing his troops.

After getting heard, Davidson’s most urgent task as leader was to overhaul a demoralised and moribund institution. She focused on candidate recruitment – looking for better signallers. “I wanted to rebuild around the message carriers,” Davidson told me. After their run of bad elections, the Tories had stopped trying to pick winners: “They were asking good, hard-working foot soldiers to stand, just to get a name on the ballot.” Long-standing members would be asked to put their name down and reassured that they wouldn’t have to do anything, and so, by and large, they didn’t.

Davidson put together a new candidates’ board: a former human resources director for Royal Mail, a QC who had been a world champion debater, an expert in corporate leadership. She designed a series of tests based on the officer assessment test that she underwent before Sandhurst (“minus the assault course and press-ups”).

Applicants were asked to sit around a ­table with three others, each with a piece of paper in front of them. When they turned it over, they discovered who they were and what they needed to solve. A new policy was about to affect voters in four neighbouring constituencies, but in different ways: it would be detrimental to those in the first constituency, neutral for those in the second and third and advantageous for those in the fourth. Each candidate represented a different constituency. How would they agree a position?

“It was about making people interact in a way they hadn’t before,” Davidson said. “I made every sitting MSP go through it, including myself.” Her aim was to assemble a team of experts, from business, law, the armed forces and the third sector.

Among her recruits was Adam Tomkins, a professor of public law at Glasgow University, now an MSP and one of Davidson’s closest allies. “By late 2011, it was clear the referendum was coming. I wasn’t involved in party politics but I was a strong believer in the Union and I knew I wanted to do something. I wasn’t a Tory, though. In fact, I had been pretty hostile to them.” He offered his expertise to Labour but came away from meetings with the party’s leaders depressed by their tribalism. Davidson was different: intellectually curious, open-minded, eager to take advice. In 2013, she formally asked him to help the Tories formulate a constitutional policy and he agreed. On New Year’s Day 2014, he joined the Conservatives.

The Scottish independence referendum was the making of Davidson as a national leader, as it was of Nicola Sturgeon, who escaped Salmond’s shadow to become a force in her own right. In TV debates during the campaign, Davidson was the most compelling defender of the Union, capable of winning sympathy for even its most unpopular ingredients. “Ruth emerged as someone who could defend Trident and get applause,” says the journalist David Torrance.

After the referendum in September 2014, she once again had to battle for attention. She needed to convince the media that the Conservatives might yet play a big role at Holyrood – that she was more than an amusing sideshow. The referendum had shown her how decayed Labour’s relationship was with its own voters, and this gave her renewed impetus. She also grasped that, far from enabling Scottish politics to move on from independence, the referendum was still having the opposite effect.

In September 2015 the new Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, announced that Labour MSPs would have a free vote on independence in the event of another referendum. In April 2016, she committed to an increase in the top rate of income tax. Together, the two moves were an attempt to move past the issue of independence. “I want people who voted both Yes and No to see that the Labour Party is the vehicle for progressive change in this country,” she said. Yet Dugdale misjudged the relentlessly centrifugal dynamic of Scottish politics after the referendum. Every policy position – from tax rates to tuition fees – returned to the question of what it signalled about Scotland’s relationship with England.

Davidson understood that if Labour was softening its position on the Union, she need only harden and amplify hers. At this year’s Holyrood election, she presented herself not as an alternative first minister, but as the most forceful voice of opposition to Sturgeon. In the campaign debates, she demonstrated it. By doing so, she was able to convince enough pro-Union Labour voters to defect to achieve second place.

For someone who is still relatively new to politics, Davidson has well-tuned strategic instincts. When I asked Tomkins what she excels at, he said: “Her framework is politics, not policy as such. She is brilliant at tactics, messaging, strategy.”

Davidson seems to have developed a serious interest in politics only as an adult, and then only because she thought that it presented a worthy challenge for her abilities (by contrast, most of the leading Scottish Nationalists joined the SNP before they were 18). A little like David Cameron, she just thought that she would be good at it. When I asked her to name her political heroes, or politicians whom she particularly admired, she struggled to come up with any from real life, naming Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare’s Henry V and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. She wasn’t being coy – it’s just that, like most people, she has never looked to politics for role models. With prompting, she eventually named Peter Mandelson, for his part in making the Labour Party electable again, and William Hague, for his work on women’s rights while foreign secretary.

This lack of political nerdery is part of what makes her able to connect so directly with voters, but it is also a limitation. A consistent criticism of Davidson, even among those who admire her, is that she is not interested in policy, or at least that she does not have a set of distinctive policy ideas. This isn’t quite fair – she has published a paper on education and successfully focused attention on the attainment gap between poor and middle-class students. But she has not yet committed to a detailed alternative (a school vouchers policy was raised and then quietly dropped). Other than “maintain the Union”, it is difficult to know what a Davidson-led government would do.

The word everyone uses about her is “authentic”; like Sturgeon, she projects comfort in her own skin. But in a sense Davidson is a lucky politician, as well as a precociously accomplished one. It is much easier to be yourself in politics when what you believe matches so neatly with what you need to do to win. Her decision to present herself in the Holyrood elections as an effective opponent, rather than an alternative first minister, was tactically smart, but it raised a larger question. As one observer put it to me, “We know what she’s against. But what is Ruth Davidson for?”

 

*****

On 12 July, the day after it became clear that Theresa May would be the new Conservative leader, Davidson spoke at a Press Gallery lunch in Westminster and delivered what was, in essence, a stand-up comedy set. Even by her standards, it was indiscreet. On the difference between the Tories’ truncated leadership contest and Labour’s lengthy deliberation, she remarked: “Labour’s still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying a post-coital cigarette after withdrawing our massive Johnson.”

It is difficult to say it without sounding like a stick in the mud, but to me this routine felt misjudged. Political leaders can be funny but not that funny – not without compromising our sense of their stability. Nor was it wise to be so rude. Johnson is in the same party as she is, after all, and may yet become leader (nobody, possibly least of all Davidson, is sure what she would have done had Johnson succeeded Cameron). Like many funny people, Davidson metabolises anger into humour and I suspect that, after Brexit, her anger was surging.

It wasn’t just that she thought the decision was profoundly wrong, or that she was contemptuous of Leave’s tactics. It was also that she was being forced to rethink her future. If Remain had won, the chance of another independence referendum may well have receded, allowing Scottish politics to normalise. The SNP would have found it harder to present itself as being simultaneously in office and opposition. Davidson could have embarked on the last stage of the Scottish Tory recovery: making it an alternative government. She might even have considered the option of taking a Westminster seat – after which, who knows?

The vote in favour of Brexit knocked all of this on the head. It put independence firmly back on the agenda. Instead of either disappearing or becoming imminent, the prospect of a second referendum will squat in the middle distance of Scottish politics for years to come. In a sense, this is convenient for Davidson, because she will remain the strongest voice on one side of the only real issue in town. She can make further inroads into the heartlands of a Labour Party that, at a UK-wide level, is strangling itself to death, while picking up SNP voters who lose patience with Sturgeon when she blames every problem with the National Health Service or schools on London.

Theresa May is not nearly so good a bogeyman for Sturgeon as Cameron was. Davidson gets on well with her despite some stylistic differences. Both are observant Christians and care about their duties to the Tory flock. When May came to Scotland to meet Sturgeon in the week after she became Prime Minister, she also attended a meeting of local Conservative members, which Davidson greatly appreciated (Cameron wouldn’t have done such a thing). Davidson has not, as May has, marinated for years in local Tory association meetings but she takes her responsibility to the membership seriously, in the manner of a general concerned with the troops’ morale.

Yet a referendum that is always two years away is one that she can never win or lose. It is hard for her to come up with distinctive ideas when there is little point devoting effort to envisioning a policy agenda that will be distorted through the prism of independence. Given the odds that she overcame to take her party to where it is now, nobody should dismiss the chance that she might one day become first minister. But Scottish politics is defined by long periods of single-party hegemony and the SNP under Sturgeon may well have just started its turn.

Then there is the option of running for a (Scottish) seat in Westminster. Davidson says that she has no interest in swapping Edinburgh for London, either politically or personally, and I believe her. Yet there may come a point at which she is forced to confront the possibility that this is the only way to escape a career in permanent opposition. She might also come to see it as the best way to defend the Union. Sturgeon has suggested that there is no longer any such thing as British politics. What a rebuke it could be to that idea to have one of Scotland’s most popular politicians in the cabinet at Westminster, or, indeed, in 10 Downing Street (a possibility hardly less plausible than Davidson’s elevation to first minister). On the other hand, Davidson may leave politics altogether. She was strikingly keen to emphasise, in our interview, that at some point she will seek an entirely new challenge.

We like to think that the best politicians will somehow find their way to power – that talent will rise to its appropriate level. But Davidson has only two paths to high office open to her: becoming first minister, or quitting Edinburgh for Westminster. Both are exceedingly steep. If she cannot or will not take either, in decades to come she may be remembered as we now recall her performance at Wembley: a firework show, lighting up the landscape without changing it.

Ian Leslie’s “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” is published by Quercus. Twitter: @mrianleslie

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories