Ruth Davidson: 'I went into politics out of frustration and arrogance'

At MT's Inspiring Women conference, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson talks about her career from journalism to politics, her biggest regret and why she's sleeping better at night.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 26 Jan 2020

On becoming a leader:

Before I got elected, I worked as a journalist for 10 years. Although I was part of a team, I was a lone wolf in terms of what I was doing and I didn’t have a single direct report. On my first day in Scottish Parliament, Annabel Goldie resigned and I ended up in the leadership contest. Within six months, I was leading the party. We’d been underperforming for 20 years and I had to turn us around and bring in new ideas, new blood, new funds and new campaign tools. It was a baptism of fire and I had to make all my mistakes in public. I wanted to change 100 things in five minutes. I’d done some army officer leadership training when I was in the reserved forces but let me tell you, being able to instruct people who have to obey what you say is very different from leading a political party! I’ve learned about resilience, tenacity, vision, building teams and taking them on a journey with you. 

People have been saying incredibly nice things about me in the past couple of years. We had a good election in 2016 when we became the main opposition in Holyrood, pushing the Labour party into third place for the first time in more than 60 years. And we had a good election last June when we went from one MP to 13. But I’m only cashing in cheques now that I wrote six years ago.

On writing her first book:

Last year, I agreed to write a book and I’ve just handed in the first draft [called Yes She Can]. I feel like a liberated woman. I didn’t want to write anything about myself; I wanted to write about other really interesting women. And so I interviewed 17 or 18 women who have all broken the mould in some way and made it to the top; everyone from the Prime Minister, Martha Lane Fox and Olympian Katherine Grainger to a Syrian doctor who set up six children’s hospitals during the war and India’s first woman commander trainer. This isn’t just about the punch-the-air moments, it’s about the dark times. There’s a sense that people who have made it, been on TV or made lots of money have somehow had it easy, that they eat and drink sunshine. That’s not true. Almost anyone who has made it to the top has had to pick themselves up from a fall – once, twice, many times – and find the strength to keep going.

On confidence:

I’ve not made any bones about the fact that I felt utterly lost at university. I was a wee lassie from Fife who arrived at Edinburgh University from the local comp at the age of 17, and I was surrounded by all these super-confident people who had spent their gap years building orphanages in Tanzania, drove VW Golfs and wore puffer gilets. I confused knowledge with intelligence. I confused confidence with ability. I ended up leaving a year early, moving back in with my folks, getting a job with the local newspaper and working my way up from the bottom. It took me a while to build my confidence. I also struggled with my sexuality. I come from quite a religious family and, in my early 20s, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I might be gay. I’m not sure I want to be.’ I fought against it for a really long time. I got to the point where I decided to give myself a break and realised I had to be kinder to myself. Then I fell in love with someone who I thought would be my forever partner – that didn’t work out but having that kind of acceptance from my family and hers was really self-affirming. You grow so much in your 30s. Come on world, I’m ready for you now!

On going into politics:

I went into politics out of total frustration mixed with a tiny amount of arrogance. I spent most of my career with the BBC, presenting a two-hour news and current affairs radio programme in the afternoons. As a reporter, I wasn’t allowed to be political or agitate for change; I had to be a neutral observer. I could tell people what was going on in Scotland but I couldn’t change anything that was going on in Scotland. That was frustrating for me. I’d interview politicians and think: ‘I can do better.’ I can’t tell you how appalled my mother was that I’d given up a good pension at the BBC to try and get elected as a Tory in Glasgow.

On staying sane:

I stay sane by punching things. Newspapers still describe me as 'the lesbian kick-boxer Ruth Davidson’. Actually I haven’t done kick-boxing for eight or nine years; I do boxing training. I shredded the rotator cuff in my shoulder last October and had to stop going to the gym but I started training again yesterday and I feel like a better person for it.

I’m a terrible sleeper. I worry about what I’ve said during the day, I rehearse conversations I’m going to have the next day, and I lie there beating myself up over something stupid I’ve said or done. Even as a kid, I couldn’t sleep. I used to sit up at night with the duvet wrapped around me, looking out my window and watching the lighthouse across The Forth. Its flashing pattern was three short flashes and one long flash.

That’s how I knew my fiancé Jen was right for me; I've slept better since we’ve been together. She’s also a wonderful, smart, funny, amazing person so it’s not just that. But it was a big thing.

On Donald Trump:

I was astonished at his election.

On Brexit:

I wish the debate I did at Wembley had been 4% better and the result had been different. I honestly thought we’d done enough. That’s a massive regret.

On becoming the next Prime Minster:

No thank you!

MT's Kate Bassett interviewed Ruth Davidson at the Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh, sponsored by Accenture.


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