Is Ruth Davidson a new type of Tory for the 21st century?

A kick-boxing, Territorial Army-trained, gay Christian with working-class roots, Davidson has taken the stereotype of a Conservative politician and tossed it into the Clyde.

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A little after 9pm on Friday 6 May, Ruth Elizabeth Davidson arrived home after 40 hours of work. She pulled on her pyjamas, poured a large glass of rum and sat down on the sofa to watch MasterChef. It was a typically humble response from a politician whose authenticity had just won the Tories a notable triumph in the Scottish parliamentary election.

The Scottish Conservatives, once more of an oxymoron than a political organisation, are now, for the first time since the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, the largest opposition party in Holyrood. While Labour is down to 24 seats from 37 in 2011, the Tories more than doubled their representation – winning 31 seats, up from 15. And it’s all thanks to Davidson. Well, almost.

It should be stated that the Tories received just 22 per cent of the popular vote (less than in the 1992 UK general election), and still sent only one MP to Westminster in 2015. But with the help of Labour’s collapse and fears over a second independence referendum, the reputation of the Scottish Tories has shifted under Davidson’s leadership.

Davidson is a kick-boxing, Territorial Army-trained, gay Christian with working-class roots. She is only 37 but has already taken the stereotype of a Tory politician and tossed it into the Clyde.

Born in Edinburgh, though brought up in the Borders and Fife, Davidson speaks often about the circumstances out of which she emerged. Her parents grew up on housing estates in Glasgow – the city Davidson has called home for most of her adult life – and left school before the age of 17. Her father, Douglas, worked in local textiles mills until they closed, and then went into whisky-making (“which I thoroughly approved of”, says Davidson, who isn’t shy about enjoying a drink). It was a Presbyterian upbringing, and she remains a member of the Church of Scotland.

According to Davidson, her family represents the “working-class, blue-collar Tory vote we used to have”, something that explains her personal alignment as a “John Major Conservative”. “What does the Conservative Party offer a working-class kid from Brixton?” asked the Tories’ successful election campaign posters in 1992. “They made him prime minister.”

Although the Daily Mail has labelled her “Maggie for the 21st century”, Davidson has distanced herself from Margaret Thatcher, who remains unpopular in Scotland. She was six months old when Thatcher was elected in 1979, and finds her rule as distant as “Gladstone or Disraeli”. Yet so accustomed was she to seeing Thatcher and the Queen in power that, aged ten, she asked her mother: “Can a man even be the prime minister?”

Davidson has been tipped to become a Conservative leader. Indeed, David Cameron mentioned her as a potential successor during an interview on Woman’s Hour last year. Davidson – who has a standing invitation to cabinet meetings and attends monthly – insists, however, that she is “not up to” the top job. Perhaps not yet.

All the same, stylists have reportedly asked her to grow her hair and ditch the trouser suits. But her image continues to play well with voters. “I’ve never been part of the short skirts and push-up bra brigade,” she told the Herald. “Suits have to be the uniform for men and women politicians.”

A self-confessed “photo tart”, Davidson staged quirky photo ops that have acquired a cult following. Careering through the countryside in Scotland with her schoolboy crop and Barbour waxed jacket, she can resemble nothing so much as a woman on a mission.

A photo of her posing triumphantly astride a tank beside a Union Jack during the general election campaign was shared widely online. She has been snapped railway signalling, puffing away at the bagpipes, steering a ship, straddling a buffalo, feeding a young reporter a Solero in front of the press, playing ice hockey, rugby and football, cradling a large trout and pulling a pint.

This may risk making her look clownish or cocky, but a brazen campaigning style is working. While the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, was dependent on the proportional list system to gain a seat at Holyrood, Davidson won her seat of Edinburgh Central, where the previous Tory candidate came fourth.

One thing that unites the Tory and Labour leaders in Scotland is that they are both openly gay women. Davidson, a former BBC journalist, came out in her mid-twenties, and lives with her partner, Jen Green. She has spoken of a struggle to accept her sexuality, having assumed she would one day have a “big white wedding and [a] chap on my arm”.

There are personal costs. Davidson has been routinely abused by pro-SNP “cybernats”. But, with trademark toughness, she has dismissed their taunts – answering back only when they become homophobic.

“I’ve got a lot of young followers on Twitter,” she told Newsnight in January. “I think they have to see that it is OK to say: ‘That’s not acceptable language. I do not have to accept this.’ It’s important in their lives,” she said. Even if it doesn’t bother “a tough old bird like me”. 

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 12 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump

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