Scottish Conservative leaders aren’t obvious pioneers of same-sex equality.
Ruth Davidson, however, isn’t your average Scottish Conservative leader.
The 36-year-old MSP for Glasgow has broken new ground with a party election broadcast featuring her partner Jen.
The broadcast, released on Wednesday evening shows Ms Davidson and her partner out walking and spending time with the Tory leader’s parents.
It comes ahead of the general election in May, where the Tories are hoping to retain their one Scottish seat and maybe even pick up a second.
The message is one that the Tories have pushed before – give us another look over; we’ve changed – but the difference this time is that Ms Davidson doesn’t just talk about change, she looks like change.
The party’s new ad is aimed at voters who might be receptive to this message but have either stopped listening, or have never listened to the Scottish Conservatives. The understated film – all warm colours and soft lighting – intercuts images of Ms Davidson with her partner and her parents with a personal statement on her background, her beliefs, and the values that guide her.
What she believes are fairly standard Conservative totems such as personal responsibility, hard work, and prizing people over the state. The ad recalls Sir John Major’s 1992 election broadcast, which saw him return to his family roots in Brixton.
So far, so Tory.
Then something quietly extraordinary happens. We see her out walking, talking, and laughing with a woman. I recognised her as 33-year-old Jen Wilson, Ms Davidson’s partner whom I met backstage at an STV referendum debate in Edinburgh. Ms Wilson doesn’t speak during the film – most politicians’ spouses understandably want to keep their public appearances to a minimum – but her presence says a great deal. Here is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives standing with the woman she loves for all the world to see and it’s not a big deal.
There are no fireworks, no handstands, no defiant stares and heads held high in proud and righteous statement. It’s just two people who love each other and it’s perfectly natural, remarkably unremarkable.
It’s difficult to express how powerful this symbol is for young – and older! – LGBT people. If you grew up closeted, as most people over the age of 20 or, at a push 25, did; if you had to hide your copy of Attitude or Diva under the bed; if “poof” and “dyke” and worse were common currency in the classroom; if you felt different and therefore wrong and longed to be “normal” then hated yourself even more for it; if you cringed when watching TV with your parents and a gay person or character or issue popped up; if you made your first furtive pilgrimage to the Polo Lounge or Bennets (of blessed memory), nerves seized in terror that SOMEONE MIGHT SEE YOU; if you never dreamed that you would live to see ignorance give way to tolerance then to acceptance and finally same-sex marriage (with near-colonisation of reality television, soap operas, and teen drama along the way) – this will mean something to you.
You need not be a Conservative or even particularly like Ms Davidson to feel satisfaction and a perhaps ineffable sense of accomplishment in what she has done with this video. Her journey may be personal but we all walked it with her. When the broadcast’s clever coda – “be part of the Conservative family” – appears on screen and you immediately understand its double meaning, you can’t help but smile at how far we’ve come on that journey.
We all stand in our own places and for our own values. For Ms Davidson, she finds herself leader of a party which she is remaking for a new generation for whom gay rights is no longer a politics-and-placards struggle but a subject for glossy Hollywood movies with big-name stars. We’ve heard a lot in the wake of the referendum about our freshly politicised country and some of it’s even been true. But the Scotland that is coming up is not just more political, it’s more relaxed, more confident, more outward-looking and unmoored from the old certainties of class and religion.
Ms Davidson is a reluctant icon for LGBT equality. She is a Conservative after all; identity politics is not her metier. She has not banged a drum but helped set the mood music with timely interventions on same-sex marriage, homophobic bullying, and the UK Government’s absurd display of affection for the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (a moon-eyed romance that was a bit, well, gay). But she is a person, not a symbol, and deserves to be judged as such. It’s time to lay to rest the familiar journalistic cliche “openly gay Tory leader Ruth Davidson”. It still matters but it no longer defines her. Frankly, it’s more remarkable that she’s openly Tory in Scotland than it is that she’s openly gay.
How the public will judge Ms Davidson and her party in May and in next year’s Holyrood elections remains to be seen. Since her election to the Scottish Parliament in 2011, and her underdog victory in the leadership ballot later that year, Ms Davidson has breathed new life into a party too long set in its ways.
The Tories have a bounce in their step, if not yet in the polls, and are working their way towards a centre-right narrative of opportunity, choice and compassion. It’s a vision that could appeal to aspirational Scotland if the SNP finds itself dragged to the left by its new social democratic leader and the influx of ex-Labour voters following the referendum. Much of this new energy comes from the leader herself, her personal dynamism winning praise from opponents and commentators alike during the referendum. She was unapologetic in her defence of the Union and confident that there was a gap in the political marketplace for a socially conscious conservatism.
The polls do not portend a spectacular comeback but there are reasons to be hopeful about a number of rural seats held by the Liberal Democrats, such as Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. These hopes may end up being washed away in the predicted yellow flood of SNP gains but retaining the sole Tory seat in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale would be acceptable; taking a second seat, a decent result. The party is still toxic in large parts of Scotland, even in well-to-do communities which were once Tory bastions, and while its policy shop has improved immeasurably in recent years – a collection of essays on education reform showed real insight and vision – there is still a long way to go to find a Conservative message that will appeal to Middle Scotland.
During her party election broadcast, Ms Davidson confesses: “One of the things I like most about being leader of the Scottish Conservatives is challenging people, changing their mind, proving that we’re on their side.”
She has certainly challenged us. Now she has to continue working to change minds and convince Scots that her party really is on their side.