It’s the wink, I think, that makes her a star.
That impish twitch of the eye that tells you this isn’t just any Conservative politician. This is Ruth Davidson. Yes, she is serious and can be sombre when called for but she is not precious.
This is someone who watches trashy TV, has a sense of humour bluer than her rosette and sings along very badly to cheesy pop music. (Her rendition of Pink’s ‘Get The Party Started’ should be an Indyref 2 trigger.)
Davidson is a normal person who has somehow infiltrated the upper echelons of political life. Some of her detractors struggle to reconcile her doughty defence of the Union with her good humour and reassure themselves it is all an act. She is just another one-dimensional Tory and, soon enough, Scotland will see her for what she really is.
Scotland is finally getting to see Davidson for what she really is and what it is seeing is a brave woman breaking one of the last remaining taboos. The Scottish Tory leader has spoken publicly for the first time about life with depression and her history of self-harm, alcohol misuse and suicidal thoughts.
When she was 17, a boy Davidson knew took his own life and the event seemed to traumatise her. She began cutting herself and drinking to numb the pain. It felt, she recalls, as though there was ‘a smothering black blanket over my head, cutting out the sky. It was heavy, constricting, suffocating. It took away hope and energy and life’. The following year she was diagnosed with clinical depression.
She has the condition under control and hasn’t suffered a major episode since 2006 but it still looms in the back of her mind. It took Davidson a long time to convince herself to talk about it, though she needn’t have worried – friends and foes alike have spent the past 24 hours commending her bravery.
For those who dream of her coming to the rescue of her party and her country, the admiration is tinged with disappointment. Davidson has said she will never seek the top job: ‘You have to want it and I don’t want to be Prime Minister… I value my relationship and my mental health too much for it. I will not be a candidate.’
Scots are very familiar with categorical denials of higher ambition. When John Swinney departed the SNP leadership in 2004, some urged Alex Salmond to return. He dismissed it out of hand, paraphrasing the American Civil War general William Sherman: ‘If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.’ One month later, he filed his application to stand.
Could Davidson do a similar volte-face one day, perhaps when her forthcoming child is a little older? Her supporters will hope so. They see her as the answer to almost everything that ails the Tory brand: Brexit, poor leadership and elitism. Alas, for liberal Tories, her words sound fairly categorical and so she now joins the ranks of the what-ifs and the almost-weres of Tory legend.
In time, she may come to be assigned that most dubious of compliments: ‘One of the best prime ministers we never had.’ The Labour Right built up entire mythologies around Hugh Gaitskell and Denis Healey, consoling themselves that if only either man had become Prime Minister, things would be very different.
Such thinking has always served to excuse good men and women from taking it upon themselves to do the right thing. If the Tories want to succeed at Brexit and bury Corbynism, they will have to stop looking northwards and start looking inwards.
In an age of saviour-seeking, Davidson has told her devotees to save themselves. The decision she has taken is one few others would. How often does a politician who could command a safe seat at Westminster tomorrow and a plum Cabinet role shortly thereafter say: ‘No thanks, family first’?
It’s exhausting being Boudica to half the country and bogeyman to the other half, more so when you have to move your family across the country for the pleasure and even then hardly see them. There are things in this world other than politics and almost all of them are more important.
Nor is this merely an individual choice. Davidson believes that, for all her qualities, she is not compatible with the post of PM. She has no less ambition than the rest of them but the best interests of the country trump her personal advancement.
It is an act of patriotism. By the manner in which Ruth Davidson has ruled herself out, she has confirmed herself as a fitting candidate for the office.
Of course, some of her opponents will now question – privately, if they have any sense – whether she is right for the job of First Minister. If being PM would put too much pressure on her and her family, surely a term in Bute House would do the same.
Being First Minister is not without its stresses and strains but it is of a different order from running the world’s fifth largest economy and one of the five member states of the UN Security Council.
If her party can win government at the next Holyrood election – still a huge if – Davidson would find the first ministership challenging but she would be at home surrounded by her friends and loved ones. She would also relish every living minute of it. I believe she would be a natural.
It takes courage to open up about something the way Ruth Davidson has done. You fear judgment, rejection and ridicule. Will your colleagues rally round you? What will your opponents say? Those fears may seem ill-placed, even inconceivable, but to someone with depression they are all too real.
We have spent a long time avoiding mental ill-health, and no wonder: it’s hardly an easy matter to talk about. But hiding it from view hasn’t made it go away; if anything, it’s made it worse. The shadows is a place for shameful things and shame is the turnkey of depression.
Davidson has not been alone in speaking about mental health in recent days. Last Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon was interrogated in a children’s version of First Minister’s Questions. During the session, a girl named Ella – 13 if she was a day – took the First Minister to task over her Government’s child mental health services. Ella reminded Sturgeon that she had previously raised the issue on a visit to her office.
Ella said: ‘If you are as passionate about mental health that you say you are, why did you and your party abstain against the vote to provide a mental health counsellor in every school after I gave you such an in-depth, personal account?’
The Scottish Government only latterly announced it would go ahead with the counsellor programme. The First Minister looked sheepish as she tried to reconcile her warm words with her political tactics. Ella is one brave young woman and her questioning showed a superior grasp of these issues than many adult politicians. There are thousands of Ellas out there and they have to know that things can and will get better.
Some may now pronounce Ruth Davidson a ‘symbol’ of overcoming mental ill-health. But who wants to be a symbol and who really looks up to one? What makes her story relatable to so many is that she is not an icon but an ordinary woman. She is a partner, a mother-to-be, a daughter, a boss, a colleague, a friend.
She is proof of life outside the shadows.
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