Picture: Julie Howden.
RISING STAR: A can-do attitude characterises Tory hopeful Ruth Davidson, whoworks closely with party leader Annabel Goldie.
A SUPPORT group for gay politicians and Westminster staff is being launched in Parliament today.
The Parli Out initiative was established with the help of the gay rights charity Stonewall. Conservative MP Nigel Evans, who declared his homosexuality at the weekend, will become its vice-president.
Mr Evans, a deputy speaker in the Commons, said he hoped his decision to publicly declare his sexual orientation would help others.
He said a Labour MP had threatened to “ out” him. The MP for Ribble Valley would not name the MP but said he wanted to help end such “ nastiness”.
It comes as Ruth Davidson, below right, the Scottish Conservative hopeful who last week narrowly failed in her bid to stand for Glasgow Kelvin in May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, tells The Herald that being gay is no hurdle to success in politics north of the Border.
In a frank exclusive interview published today, Ms Davidson, 32, the only openly gay Scottish Tory candidate, speaks of her love for partner Saskia Halcrow and the support she has from party leader Annabel Goldie, for whom she works as a personal assistant.
Ms Davidson, a former BBC Scotland news presenter who joined the Conservative Party two years ago, insists her sexuality was not the reason she was voted second on the Glasgow regional list after Malcolm MacAskill – effectively giving her only a remote chance of being elected as an MSP in May. She also stood in the fiercely contested Glasgow North-East by-election last year.
“ I’ve never encountered any impediment within the party for being gay,” she says. “ There’s a misconception that the Scottish Tories are anti-gay. It’s a stick we get beaten with and it’s unfair.
“ A lot of the people surrounding John Major, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague are gay, so it exists at the very highest levels. In fact, the Tories have more gay MPs than Labour or the LibDems put together.”
On the snowiest day of the year so far Edinburgh is at a virtual standstill, but Ruth Davidson valiantly comes to pick me up. She arrives in Gertrude, her 10year-old purple Ford Fiesta, tut-tutting in disbelief at the news that visitors to the city are stranded at Waverley Station because taxis cannot get up or down the un-gritted ramp. On the car radio, news comes in that schools have closed due to adverse weather conditions and at Leith Walk we’re stopped by Lothian & Borders Police to be informed they’re closing the road to all traffic. Ms Davidson simply takes the long way home, easily navigating ice-covered side streets, and soon we’re at her flat drinking coffee.
The can-do attitude of the energetic Scottish Tory hopeful contrasts sharply with the apparently passive behaviour of those all around her. “ The fact that local authorities are in charge of everything really annoys me, because they’re not necessarily the best people to deliver public services,” she says. “ Breaking the closed shop mindset of councils and ensuring the third sector gets a fair crack of the whip as budget cuts come into force is something we’re looking forward to influencing.”
Fighting talk suits the former Territorial Army volunteer who is the only female Conservative candidate in Glasgow, the only candidate to be openly gay in Scotland – and the only one to have had her life saved twice by the NHS.
Ms Davidson stood in the fiercely contested Glasgow North-East by-election last November, and will be fighting next year’s Scottish elections both as a constituency candidate for Glasgow Kelvin and as number two on the Glasgow list for the Scottish Conservatives.
Meanwhile, she is living in a rented flat in Edinburgh for the duration of her temporary job of acting head of the leader’s office, where she will be in post until next March. She lives in the capital with her partner of three years, Saskia Halcrow, a change analyst at RBS.
“ Saskia loves spreadsheets and is the organised one out of the two of us, taking responsibility for bills and admin in the house,” says Ms Davidson. “ That makes her sound like more of a Tory than I am, but she votes for the Green Party and she’s a vegetarian.”
Ms Davidson used to be a Sunday school teacher and still attends church everyweek, though her partner – her first serious same sex relationship – is “ determinedly atheistic”. They have a large circle of mutual friends and enjoy listening to musicals such as Guys and Dolls.
So it’s fair to say Ms Davidson might appeal to the traditional church-going Tory voter and the younger, more progressive young Conservative alike. Or, conversely, be anathema to both.
She has been described as a breath of fresh air in a moribund party that has been run by older people for too long. Political commentators say that for the Scottish Conservatives to have a chance in the Scottish Parliamentary elections next May they should have brought in fresh blood like Ms Davidson to the party. It has been noted that the 32-year-old – who has a degree in English literature from St Andrews University and whose father, a successful businessman who was brought up in Castlemilk and left school at 15 – represents how David Cameron wants to change the party. Last week she came second on the Glasgow list, giving her only the slightest outside chance of being elected as an MSP in May.
“ It was always going to be a tough ask for someone who’s been a member of the party for barely two years,” she says now. “ But I’ll still be working behind the scenes to try to get the party more modern and electable. My time will come.”
Does she think being gay was the reason she wasn’t selected for Glasgow Kelvin? “ I’ve never encountered any impediment within the party for being gay,” she says. “ There’s a misconception that the Scottish Tories are anti-gay. It’s a stick we get beaten with and it’s unfair. In fact, the Tories have more gay MPs than Labour and the LibDems put together.
“ In Scotland the party has its own LGBT Tory Scotland Group, and the Pink Fringe engages at every conference. Being gay is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean I’m specifically going out there to be the first openly gay Scottish Tory candidate. I’m not denying my sexuality; I love Saskia and would never seek to write her out of my life.
“ To be honest, people of my generation just don’t care who you’re going home with. It’s a far bigger taboo to be homophobic than it is to be homosexual.
” There’s a lot I want to achieve in politics that is nothing to do with being gay.”
A journalist who was with BBC Scotland until she entered politics two years ago “ in order to get properly involved”, Ms Davidson works closely with party leader Annabel Goldie, whom she fondly refers to as Bella. Speechwriting and seeing policy enacted are her favourite parts of the job.
Does she think she has been a modernising influence on her leader? “ Bella is very engaged with a wide range of people. She asked Saskia over to Parly for lunch one day as she really wanted to meet her. The pair of them spent the entire time ganging up on me and sorting out my addiction to Diet Coke,” she recalls.“ We [ she and Ms Goldie] do get on very well. Last summer we travelled across the country garnering support. Wewere folded into my Fiesta like a Beryl Cook painting, zooming over to Lossiemouth or Machrahanish, behaving like two auld wifies exclaiming how pretty the countryside is, squabbling over the car radio and her taking with good grace my complaints that as a passenger she’s like Hyacinth Bucket. Though she says I drive like Jenson Button.”
Apart from shaking up local authorities, protecting the NHS – where her sister is a doctor – is also a priority. “ I have no doubt about the professionalism of the medical staff but there are issues with procurement and other working practices,” she says. “ In the last five years, the number of administrators employed by the NHS in Scotland has been four times greater than the number of doctors recruited, and twice that of nurses.”
She has more first-hand experience of the NHS than most. As a five-year-old she was knocked down by a truck which left her with multiple fractures and a significant arterial bleed that required specialist reconstructive vascular surgery. She’s been left with bolt marks and scars on her right leg, “ which is why I don’t wear short skirts”. Itwas touch and go for a while and her parents were told she had a 50/ 50 chance of survival. She was looked after in three hospitals.
The accident didn’t stop her from joining the TA later on, with a view to becoming an army officer. But while doing a mixed infantry training exercise for the entrance exam for Sandhurst, she came a cropper. “ There had been a seasonal snowfall and wewere out on the assault course for the ‘ physical courage’ part of the exam. You had to run up a ramp and jump through a window headfirst, going as fast as you could. I didn’t realise that because of the snow they hadn’t broken up the sandpit on the other side. I over rotated and landed on the top of my spine. I compacted a vertebrae, cracked and took a chip out of another. There wasn’t a medic around so they got a psychiatrist to come and look at me.
He said: “ Are you sure it’s sore, Number 33, or are you just anticipating pain?” I actually started doubting myself at that point. I thought,‘ Maybe I’m just being a total girl here.’ I soon found out I wasn’t being a girl about it. I was in such pain it was unbelievable.”
She was in hospital lying completely flat for four days. “ I didn’t know I’d broken my back until I tried to walk to the loo, and immediately passed out, falling down and cracking my head on the stone floor in the process. But at least I knew I could stand up and walk. I was very lucky by a fraction of a fraction of an inch.”
Incredibly, she was back at work with the BBC within two weeks of her injury. “ I was supposed to be signed off work for three months but I got fed up watching Jeremy Kyle every day. So I got my GP to say I was OK to work as long as I didn’t drive. I remember standing on my feet for 10 hours at the Stockline Factory disaster and really feeling it getting sore again. I do still get pain occasionally.”
She has been forced to give up army training, but has already applied to the Auxiliary RAF. “ I’m not the sort of person who lets something as small as a back injury get in the way,” she smiles ruefully.
Given that her accident could have changed her life completely, did it lead her to challenge her belief in God?
“ I did have some stern chats with Him while in hospital,” she says. “ But I’ve broken almost all the bones in my body at some point overmy life, and I’m still walking. In fact, it hasn’t stopped me doing anything, so I think that I’mvery lucky and that I have lots to be thankful for.”
Whether luck will stay with her when it comes to frontline politics, only time will tell.