The Great Right Hope of Scotland
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she seems like a woman who can handle a tough spot.
By Fiona Zublin
Rewind nearly a year, before the pound sterling dropped 17 percent, before David Cameron resigned as prime minister — back to the days preceding the Brexit vote. Boris Johnson, Britain’s Donald Trump, stood onstage at Wembley Stadium, debating whether or not Britain should leave the European Union. He was receiving a pummeling by Remainer Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives once dismissed by the British press as a “kickboxing lesbian.” She was all anyone talked about the next day.
Of course, her rhetorical win didn’t manifest politically — Britain voted to leave, and her Scotland — which decisively voted to stay — was thrown into chaos. As British leaders dithered in the days after the vote, with Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson actually hiding in his house, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visited Brussels to cement Scotland’s ties to the EU. In the face of Brexit, Sturgeon’s already called for a second Scottish independence referendum to reverse the 2014 decision to stay in the United Kingdom. But with a new general election on the horizon, Davidson — who’s dialed back her insistence on a so-called soft Brexit as conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out staying in the single market — still wants the Tories to be the party of union. Just not the European Union.
This is the paradox of being a Conservative in Scotland: Conservatives opposed Scottish secession, implying that Scots ought to acquiesce to larger British politics. But now, Scottish Conservatives and Liberals alike have loudly disagreed with the U.K. majority. “This is a real nightmare scenario for Scottish Conservatives who campaigned against Brexit, especially for her,” says University of Edinburgh politics lecturer Alan Convery. But Davidson, who’s brought the Conservative Party out of obscurity in her own region, is still, in some ways, trying to make a stand — not on whether there will be a Brexit, but on what kind.
Davidson, just 38, was born in Edinburgh, to an upwardly mobile working-class family, a rarity among British politicians. She studied literature, briefly serving as a BBC journalist and then in the Territorial Army for three years. When she quit officer training after breaking her back, she turned to politics, joining the Conservative Party in 2009. She failed twice — miserably — to win a seat in liberal Glasgow, but nonetheless won her colleagues’ vote to lead the party in 2011.
Before Davidson took over, Tories held only 15 out of 129 seats in Scotland’s Parliament, trailing both the pro-independence Scottish National Party and the leftish Labour. But after the independence referendum, Davidson positioned herself as the choice for the 45 percent of Scots who voted No. “Coming into the 2016 elections, she ran an incredibly disciplined campaign,” Convery says. It worked: In 2016, the Scottish Tories became the second-largest party, more than doubling their representation by winning 31 seats. She is known to be personable, active on Twitter, vocal about rugby. (She’d pass the beer test with flying colors.) Though she hasn’t taken the Tories in any striking new policy direction, choosing to focus on their entrenched unionist policies instead, hers is now a triumphant story. “The Conservative Party likes to back winners,” Convery says, “and she seems like a winner.”
Davidson, who’s engaged to an Irish woman, pronounced, “For those [immigrants] who have already decided to build a life, open a business, make a contribution, I say: This is your home and you are welcome here.”
Davidson came out as a lesbian long before she entered politics. While tabloids initially riffed on stereotypes when covering her sexuality, her public presence has helped change Scotland for other gay politicians. When Scottish Labour’s leader Kezia Dugdale came out this year, it was no bombshell, says Tim Hopkins of the Equality Network. Equal marriage became U.K. law in 2014; the single Scottish Tory member of the U.K. Parliament came out not long after the election, and Scotland’s only Conservative member of the European Parliament is also openly gay. Hopkins recalls an inspiring speech Davidson gave during the legislative fight for equal marriage. “I think her leadership may have helped,” he says — but he notes that more than half of her party colleagues didn’t support her position.
Now Davidson’s facing a fight she may not win — she doesn’t stand in solidarity with the cultural wave the Brexit vote represents, a rejection of the cosmopolitan image in which the EU was created. At October’s Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister Theresa May told her audience, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” But as EU citizens in the U.K. await the future of their residencies and politicians call for companies to list all foreign workers they employ, Davidson has been vocal about inclusiveness. Just hours after May made her announcement, Davidson, who’s engaged to an Irish woman, pronounced, “For those [immigrants] who have already decided to build a life, open a business, make a contribution, I say: This is your home and you are welcome here.”
In Scotland, though, Covery ventures that an immigrant-friendly stance from the Conservatives could work out; EU nationals living in Scotland voted in the 2014 independence referendum (though not on Brexit), and Scots are open to the notion of an acquired civic identity: Dwell here and you’re Scottish, he says.
And yet bending to the U.K. majority is baked into Scottish Conservatism. “A vote for the Tories in Scotland is in every practical sense a vote for U.K. Conservative immigration policies, which makes it a really bad vote for immigrants,” says Stuart Campbell, a pro-independence blogger. Looking ahead, the dynamics of a Brexit are far from clear: May will likely grow her majority in this election, but as she tackles the increasingly impossible-seeming task of a hard Brexit that doesn’t leave the British economy and way of life in pieces, British Conservatives may be open to a new voice — perhaps from a maverick Scottish Conservative.
This story has been updated since it was first published on Nov. 23, 2016.