Like a phoenix from the ashes of stagnating right-wing politics, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has seen an extraordinary resurgence in the past five years, doubling its seats in parliament and beating out Labor to become the vibrant opposition to the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP).
At its helm through this extraordinary ascendance has been the most unlikely of Tories: a charismatic 38-year-old woman named Ruth Davidson — a former journalist who also served in the military, was brought up in a working class family, and is the U.K.’s first openly gay party leader. Last month, Davidson was named Scotland’s 2016 politician of the year. Being in politics, she admits, is “grinding, hard, lonely and strips you of parts of yourself you want to keep,” but she finds strength to persevere in “moral courage.”
The kernel of what propelled a woman of such seemingly counterintuitive qualities to leadership of the party in 2011, within six months of becoming a professional politician, is contained in a deeply personal story she shared during a crackling interview with Tina Brown at Thursday’s Women in the World London Forum.
“That idea of moral courage, that you need to be a leader in any sphere, not just of politics … is about doing what you know you have to do, no matter what it costs you,” she said, as she traced her fortitude back to early childhood.
“When I was very, very young I got run over by a truck, when I was 5,” Davidson revealed. “I broke both my legs, my pelvis, completely crushed the femoral artery in one leg … I was the only kid at primary school with a [walking] frame. And to go from there to being the first girl in my village to play for the under-14s boys’ football team, to then go on to be fit enough to be in the Territorial Army, to play squash for my county and my university — you know, when people tell me I can’t do stuff, I just have to do it.
“It’s recognizing and owning enough about yourself to know that fear shouldn’t stop you doing things. You can do things despite fear. You can put fear in a little box and go around it and do it anyway because you know it needs doing.”
Davidson, who had been a broadcast journalist for years — and only a member of Scotland’s Tory Party for three — when she ran for the leadership, was galvanized by seeing the 2011 landslide victory of the SNP on a platform promising a referendum on independence, and her conviction that Scotland should vote to stay in the U.K. (Her “No” side won the ensuing 2014 referendum on independence, with 55.3 percent voting against independence and 44.7 percent voting in favor.)
Things did not go her way in the more recent “Brexit” referendum, which saw Britain vote by a four percent margin to leave the European Union in June, and left Davidson with the dismal responsibility of selling the outcome to her constituency. A staunch advocate of the “Remain” side of the argument, Davidson told Brown she is, nevertheless, a democrat at heart: “I cannot ignore the fact that 17-and-a-half million people in this country voted for something I don’t believe in and that has to be respected. I come from a background where there was a referendum in Scotland that I fought passionately for and that the people who lost by a massive margin … are trying to re-run almost immediately. And I’m saying, ‘You can’t just rerun a vote until you get a result you like.’ So there is conflict in me, absolute conflict. What we have to do now is mitigate the bad points, and if there are any opportunities out there, take hold of them.”
What must be handled with great diplomacy, she said, are the feelings of E.U. members who value the union as an insurance against the terrible armed conflicts that devastated Europe in the 20th century. “My worry is that we let the emotion pollute this and I don’t think we in Britain understand how hurt people in other countries in the European Union feel, that we caused a breakup,” she said. “Particularly countries that had war on their soil, in the way that we didn’t.”
Brown pressed Davidson on what she makes of Brexit champion Boris Johnson, whom she “crushed and thrashed in the debates” leading up to the referendum, and who now, in his new role as Britain’s foreign minister, is “saying things like ‘You won’t sell as much prosecco,’ to the Italian finance minister.”
“Do you cringe?” Brown asked directly.
“Well, I’m certainly doing my bit for the prosecco market, and buying as much as I possibly can,” was the witty M.P.’s politic response.
Indeed, Davidson is not in any way myopically nationalistic, describing herself also as a “Yankophile,” who studied American history and watches every U.S. Election and State of the Union address on television. Having taken watching the Brexit vote tally so hard, she opted this year not to stay up for the presidential election results. “There is incumbency on every single person in the world, to hope and pray to whatever god we all believe in, that President Trump is very different from candidate Trump,” she said of the outcome.
She did encourage women in America who were disappointed by Hillary Clinton’s defeat to take heart, however, pointing out how many women had just broken the glass ceiling. “You have a double amputee who’s just been elected to the Senate, a former soldier. You’ve got a Somali-born American woman getting elected in a state which doesn’t have a huge ethnic profile, you’ve got the first openly lesbian woman being elected governor of a state. These are amazing breakthroughs, one after the other after the other.
“I think that we are in a moment, and will look back to this moment, and see that this is the point where women across the world woke up to the fact that it’s not going to get progressively better just because we want it to.
“This will be the moment that women of my generation and younger wake up and go ‘Right, I’m going to go out and take this for myself — and I’m going to do it on my terms.’”
Watch the entire interview between Tina Brown and Ruth Davidson from the 1:20:00 mark: