Ruth Davidson considers herself British. She also considers herself Scottish. She does not, however, consider these two identities mutually exclusive.
Indeed, throughout her political career as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, she has constantly emphasised that “people can have the best of both worlds”, as she recently put it at a talk for the St Andrews Conservative Society.
Whilst her party does not currently hold a majority in the Scottish Parliament, she remains ambitious and optimistic for its future, since “the pro-Union arguments are just stronger”. Her positivity is reflected even upon meeting us: arriving in the plush surroundings of the Scorecard Bar, fresh from a day’s discussion with David Cameron, she introduces herself casually and amiably to the various gathered enthusiasts of politics.
She begins by giving her “pitch” for the Scottish Conservatives, setting out that they are the most “pro-Union” of all the Unionist parties: “we have the highest percentage of ‘no’ [to independence] voters of over 90%”.
It is for good reason, apparently: Scotland benefits from, amongst other things, G7 membership, NATO, and the “largest consular and embassy network in the world”, according to Davidson.
It is not just for reasons of diplomacy or security that she supports the Union: culturally, she claims that Scots were “perfectly unembarrassed” to wave Union Jacks at the recent Olympics, and her own openness, even pride, in calling herself both British and Scottish is repeatedly emphasised throughout her talk.
It is precisely this division between the two countries, however, that the SNP has made its “raison d’etre for the last 70 years”, and yet, as she points out, they still have not achieved it.
Her frustration with this opposition party is palpable, and it does not appear to be limited to simple differences in political ideology. The very credibility of the SNP as a convincing and legitimate political force irks her, and she cites numerous occasions of the “frustrating tactics” of the SNP, often insinuating that they waste valuable debating time in the Scottish Parliament simply to pursue their own political interests.
She uses an example of lengthy debate over the Iraq War, which was effectively pointless since “the war had been finished for 10 years already”, as well as the fact that “it was not within the competency of the Parliament” – it was simply to gain political leverage over the Labour Party.
She also points to the even less constructive arguing tactics of some of the members of the SNP: “Elected parliamentarians writing on Twitter ‘I want to smash that c*** Cameron in the face’ doesn’t contribute to public discourse.”
This mirrors her recent anger, reported in the Telegraph, at some of the comments made by Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP and First Minister, who called a BBC executive a “Nazi official”. The latter she portrays as a “self-styled presidential figure” who has achieved a “very well-drilled” balance between the centre-right and centre-left differences within its own ranks: she says that there are “significant questions”, however, as to the future of this tightly-strung machine if they do achieve independence. She adopts a hypothetical address (with a Glaswegian candour) to the assembled Parliament – “If you’re going to build a new nation state, you’ve got to tell us how it’s going to work, lads!”
Amongst these asides about her opposition, however, she remains focused on the fundamental message of her talk – her reply to the SNP’s “protest movement”. Whilst, of course, she does not support full independence, it is interesting that she does value increased responsibility of the Scottish Parliament for the money which it receives from Westminster, for example: “The Scottish Parliament has discretionary spend over around 70% of the money which it receives from the British Parliament, yet is responsible for raising only around 10% of it… This gap is higher than the Australian states!” She advocates the “conservative principle” of the authority which is in charge of spending being held accountable for how it spends it: “If you find a Scottish Parliament stamp on your income tax bill [as opposed to HMRC] you damn well pick up the phone and ask what it is doing with your money.” ‘Fairness’ and ‘common endeavour’ are what drives her ideals, which she feels can only be accomplished by increased accountability of the Scottish Parliament, over issues such as the allocation of health funding: “I’d rather that my sick grandmother can rely on having a nurse to look after her than being able to claim free paracetamol for my headache.”
Her main campaign against independence, styled ‘Better Together’, has crossed party boundaries to include the Scottish Lib Dems and even Scottish Labour politicians – “I’ve spent far more time locked in small rooms with leaders of the opposition than I ever would have imagined.” Yet this regular physical confinement of the campaign’s proponents belies its wide reach and influence across Scotland. She states that they have received over £150,000 in donations “without really rattling the tin”, whilst she has received support for Conservatives Friends of the Union numbering over 60,000 members. It is a movement which has garnered a wide demographic, from “business groups and charities to those who wouldn’t otherwise take an interest in politics”. Nevertheless, she stoically admits that she is not complacent – “It’s going to be a tough fight.”
The future of the Scottish Conservatives lies in the hands of this woman, and she exhibits a calmness which belies her tenacity. She herself has great faith in her counterpart in Westminster, David Cameron, who she regards as exceptionally “astute”, in comparison with his Labour opposition: “I think David has got the measure of Ed Miliband.” Whilst she understands the “incredible constraints” that George Osborne has to deal with in order to cut taxes in a Coalition government – “Should we have cut further and faster? Probably” – combined with a subtle jibe aside at their “Liberal [Democrat] friends” who were responsible for the “disgraceful fuss” over boundary changes, she exudes confidence in the current British government. For the Tories, the next General Election is “eminently winnable”, according to Davidson.
As for her own party, their victory seems to necessitate some delicate coordination with other parties, combined with assurance in the strength of their arguments (and perhaps some mismanagement on the SNP’s part), but as she emphatically states, “I believe in Britain”, and there seems little that could deter her unflinching Unionist vision.