There seems to be an ‘all-eyes on Ruth’ effect in the media. Everyone is listening out for what she will say next, or anticipating which armoured vehicle she’ll jump into after. The press seem to anticipate her hurtling aura, but can never quite keep up. She’s quick to correct any conceited questioning, or to straighten out her side of the story.
It’s hard to argue with the success of Ruth Davidson. Her label as ‘The Fighter’ has arisen from her contesting 6 national elections and 2 referendums. The Conservatives have historically been a somewhat alternative party in Scotland. Since heading up the party in 2011, under Davidson’s leadership the party has more than doubled its number of MSPs from 15 in 2011 to 31 in 2018, tripled its number of councillors, and multiplied its single MP to 13 MPs. What’s more, the 2015 election result was the party’s best performance in terms of votes since 1979. The Scottish Conservatives are now the second largest party in Holyrood and, depending on your personal metric for cultural relevance, Davidson has appeared everywhere from the BBC’s Celebrity Great British Bake-off (she won) to a four-page spread in Vogue. With all of this, many commentators have asked Davidson if she plans to migrate south and rejuvenate Westminster’s Conservatives. In prepping for my Q&A event with Davidson I realised asking this would be a waste of time; she always respectfully answers that her place is in Scotland.
In fact, before meeting Davidson, I had listened and watched every interview with her I could find. This began as just standard research but soon turned into a bit of an obsession; Ruth Davidson is incredibly entertaining. While Davidson entirely earns her label as ‘The Fighter’, I would also comfortably call her ‘The Joker’. (She later thanked me for my ‘forensic’ research, somewhat amused.) Davidson once smirked in an interview that she ‘knew she was a conservative before she knew she was gay’. She clearly does well balancing her humour with her politics and is also openly a Christian, an ex-Territorial Army soldier, a unionist, a Remainer, and a ‘centrist’ conservative. On Scottish Independence, a personal favourite line that Davidson gave was that, ‘Nicola Sturgeon can cross a road and say that that’s another reason to reopen the constitutional question.’
I often find that the funniest person in the room is the least sincere, but every rule has an exception. Davidson arrived to the event on time, was accompanied by a single person entourage, knew all of our names, and immediately asked if I was the one in charge. When conceding that I was just hosting and pointed to the two who had organised the event she quickly countered with, ‘well you’re the woman holding the microphone and asking the questions, so I think that makes you in charge.’ It was like a loving smack in the face.
While we waited in the back room for our ‘cue’, we chatted about her time at the University of Edinburgh, something she worked 3 jobs to get through, and we laughed when she said she ‘couldn’t remember much of it’. Once in front of the audience, Davidson’s charm was electric. In fact, when the team told her she would be answering questions from a podium and not in the sofa-style Q&A she may have expected, she mocked if this was anything to do with her (modest) height. In fact, if Davidson didn’t make fun of herself as much as she does of others, her confidence could be wrongly confused for cockiness.
During the Q&A, Davidson thoroughly answered questions on Brexit, LGBTQ+ History Month, progressing on from the Westminster sex scandals, and 100 years of female suffrage. She took a realist view that despite 100 years of suffrage, there is much more to be done and sympathised that it’s women at the lowest level of employment that seriously need greater protection from sexual abuse.
When discussing the Conservative party’s shift to the right – a seeming contradiction of her own centrist views – Davidson made concerted efforts to defend this change. However when I asked if the Conservatives’ partnership with the anti-same sex marriage DUP party was a personal disappointment, she remained less tight lipped. Davidson conceded this was of course a ‘huge’ disappointment that she was not in the room for, and was thankful that this was at least not a formal coalition. Overall Davidson’s unscripted answers were punctuated with one-liners and carried an unchanging zeal. The audience adored her and I didn’t blame them. Lest we forget that Davidson is a seasoned campaigner and therefore smooth with crowds yet her answers really did feel personal.
Ultimately Davidson knows that the brand of ‘Team Ruth’ will not be enough to make her party the majority in 2021, an ambition she has openly stated, and that the biggest fight is yet to come. Ruth Davidson as First Minister would certainly be a first class act. Jokes aside, I was convinced by Davidson’s genuine care for her country. She discusses her job with great humility and it almost seems the humour is catharsis for what must be, at times, a role with overwhelming responsibility. The ‘macho’ politics that is tagged to Davidson by the media disregards the very compassionate side of her that I was exposed to.
While we posed for photos at the end of the event I leaned in and smirked, ’I would make an awful politician, I hate having my photo taken.’ Davidson teased me through her fixed grin saying, ‘you get honestly used to it!’ without moving her mouth. She even insisted to meet my mum (whom she quickly called ‘Mama Zo’) before she had to go to her next event. From start to finish Davidson felt like someone you wanted to be best friends with; iconic but ultimately human.