Interview: Ruth Davidson

By Robert McGregor

There's no hiding Ruth Davidson's unashamed loyalty to British unionism. Even the teacup the Scottish Conservative leader gives me has a Union Jack on it.

"The Scottish conservatives are proud of our British institutions and our Britishness," she says. "We know some on the left are uncomfortable with that."

Unlike Scottish Labour, who welcome Yes voters, Davidson has said if any Tory members voice support for Scottish independence, there should be an "amicable parting of ways".

Her positive ratings in the opinion polls give her a lot to smile about. But Davidson has a mission. She is determined to displace Labour as the main opposition party. Since the inception of the Scottish parliament, the Tories have consistently come third. If she wants to be the first Tory to be the leader of the opposition, she'll need to convince a generation of Scots who've never voted blue in their life. She understands this. "Remember you have two votes," she says. "You don't need to be a Tory to vote Tory."

I ask her opinion of the Thatcher legacy in Scotland.  You can tell she's slightly irritated by the question. A nation losing its world industries and a third of manufacturing in such a short dramatic period smashed Scottish Toryism as a leading political force. "She is a historical figure in which you have to assess her on merits and demerits," Davidson says carefully. "The UK became a much more dynamic economy in her period but do I agree with everything she did? Of course I don't. I am more of a John Major Conservative. In fact, during the referendum he came up and campaigned for the Scottish Conservatives as a personal favour to me."

Davidson is refreshingly free of manufactured answers. She opposed Scottish Labour's proposal for a tax rise, unlike the SNP who recoiled from their anti-austerity rhetoric and claimed a tax rebate for low earners was administratively impractical. Instead, Davidson gave a characteristic libertarian argument:

"We must trust workers to spend their own money. I don't want to tax them with the belief the government will spend it better than them. People make decisions about their own lives better than the government making decisions about their lives.

"We are looking at new bands. There's too much of a gap for workers in the middle. They go from paying 20% to 40% tax. That's a massive jump. Why don't we have another rate for the middle, a 30% rate or something like that. It's something we are looking at. As far as I'm aware the Treasury is not discussing it down south so it would be something we would do wholly from the Scottish Tories."

This sounds like a vote winning policy. But Davidson shouldn’t have trouble attracting middle earners, especially those who have a soft spot for British unionism. It's the working class she will struggle with. Can she really be said to represent them?

"I come from that," she says. "There used to be a really strong blue collar Tory vote in Glasgow. Both my parents were brought up in housing schemes in Glasgow. They were Teddy Taylor Tories. But to your question – absolutely. I get really angry about the snobbishness of being brought up in Scotland. The SNP think it's okay to deprive Scotland of 152,000 college places. It's not okay. And we need to value vocational education, just as much as academic education."

She reiterates that Scottish Tories are happy to disagree with Westminster Tories if it's in Scotland's best interests. She gives the example of the UK government proposing a right for tenants to buy their housing association home. "This wouldn't work in Scotland and the Scottish Tories do not support it," she says.

Just how tested is that relationship with Westminster? Will the Tories follow Scottish Labour and bring up at least one Cabinet minister per week to help the campaign? It's not a strategy she'll be adopting – government ministers will come up to Scotland as part of their UK role, but not to knock on doors or deliver leaflets for the Scottish Conservatives.

"Yes I'll have the prime minister up a few times but that's it," she says. She smiles. "I can handle it."

It wouldn't surprise me if Davidson told them to stay put. Tory ministers like Iain Duncan Smith or Jeremy Hunt would lose her votes in some parts of Scotland. David Cameron himself acknowledged the toxicity of his party in Scotland when he said that Scots shouldn’t vote Yes just to give the "effing Tories" a kick.

I asked her whether David Cameron was a help or a hindrance to her campaign. "The PM is a help," she replies. "He's professional, competent and won't embarrass us on the stage abroad."

What about his decision to raise English votes for English laws the morning after the referendum. Was that really wise? "Yes, from a Scottish perspective he could have timed it better," Davidson admits. But the SNP would have attacked him either way, she adds quickly. "The SNP are clearly trying to cause divisions – getting involved in foxhunting and Sunday trading in England, only to noise up the English because it works in the SNP's self-interest."

There's no doubt the SNP could be branded hypocritical on English votes for English laws. Historically they didn't vote on issues which applied only to England but all of a sudden they're intending to vote against fox hunting in England. At the same time, they abstained on a Labour amendment to a housing bill which would have ensured homes were fit for habitation. The selective intervention implies the SNP cares more about English foxes than the habitable conditions of English tenants. Or perhaps Ruth Davidson is correct – their sole desire is to "noise up" the English. 

The inability of the SNP and Labour to work together, whatever the reason why, is a major part of the left battleground in Westminster. But in Scotland, Davidson rejects the idea that Labour lost in May because they weren't left-wing enough.

"If you look at Ed Miliband versus Nicola Sturgeon, I would say Ed Miliband is more left wing and you still lost," she says. "The big problem with Scottish Labour is they have had six leaders in nine years. Voters need time to trust a leader."

There are plenty of areas of SNP inconsistency. We talk briefly about the weird dissonance between the SNP's long-standing demand that decision about Scotland are made in Scotland and their support for the EU.

"Everything the SNP does is to serve the long-term goal of independence," she says. "They believe it's less scary for Scottish voters if Scotland is part of the EU. That's why they changed their rule for Nato membership. It is to take the fear factor away from leaving the UK. It's nothing to do with their support for EU policy, but everything to do with their cause for independence."

But perhaps like the SNP, Ruth Davidson is also playing a tactical game in the EU referendum. She is not campaigning for either side (although she was asked). She gave a borderline indifferent answer to questions on the matter, saying that, on balance, the UK should stay in. But the truth is, if Scottish Tories vote to leave it will increase the chance of a second referendum on Scotland leaving the UK.  As Sturgeon said, if the Scottish electorate vote to stay in and the rest of the UK votes to leave, it could trigger another referendum. Alex Salmond said the pressure "would be irresistible". These matters will be heavy on her mind as we enter the referendum period.

But for now, all eyes are on the May elections. If Davidson performs with her usual flair and erudition in First Minister Questions during the televised debates, she may well clinch second place. The Scottish Conservatives have been threatening a revival since 1997. In the 2016 election, everything is aligned in their favour. Both Labour and Lib Dems are badly wounded by the thumping they got in May. Davidson is the most charismatic leader the Tories have ever had in Holyrood. If they don't win second place this time, it’s hard to imagine it ever happening.

Robert McGregor is a Scottish Labour activist and freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter.

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