Kirsty Gunn: Ruth breaks out of the political straitjacket with a little help from her suit

Ruth Davidson's popularity transcendes traditional party loyalties. Picture: PA
Ruth Davidson's popularity transcendes traditional party loyalties. Picture: PA
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I’ve been talking to loads of women about politics and, irrespective of their political persuasion, they all love Ruth Davidson. Gay women, straight women. Old women, young women. My daughters, teenagers both, said “Yeah, mum. Totally.” The older one talked about how “Ruth” seems to be “doing politics” in a different sort of way. “It’s like she doesn’t care about the suit” she said. “She’s not... trying... in that politician sort of way, to be a politician.”

My mother-in-law in Edinburgh also thinks Ruth is “just great!”. The next door neighbour in London from Perthshire who is also in her mid-eighties thinks Ruth “is really quite special”. And friends down the road from us in Sutherland, who voted SNP in the last election and Lib Dem this time around, think Ruth “has what it takes”. Then there’s my sister, and her friends over in Caithness, who, though they’ve all been celebrating the Lib Dem victory up there, too, love the look of Ruth because, unlike the Lib Dems, the Tories have a different attitude towards wind turbines and wind turbines are threatening to wreck Caithness just as they are down our way in Rogart under the SNP. “She seems lovely, Ruth,” Merran said, as though they’d just had tea together last week. “Shall we try and get her up here around our way for a chat?” I suggested. There’s been vigorous head-nodding all round.

For, going back to that comment of Millie, my eldest daughter, who wasn’t being flippant at all when she referred to it, there is something about the way Ruth Davidson doesn’t conform to the suit. “She wears that suit like she doesn’t care!” said my friend Clare, who makes documentaries and is always thinking about how people present themselves to the world . “She looks terrible in it and that’s the whole point” agreed her partner Alison, parse-ing the semiotics of the jacket and skirt from a feminist perspective. “She’s doing a cool gay thing by dis-owning the suit, you see” she explained. As Millie said, it’s about being a different sort of politician.

For my part, I think Ruth Davidson is terrific at Q&A. I love the way she doesn’t seem to care too much about the vagaries of the so-called serious media, that she doesn’t play ball with the soundbite-style questions of many interviewers and seems to laugh in the face of so many of those kinds of banal, politically-loaded questions that are set on taking up more and more air time on TV and radio, making of political enquiry an extension of the entertainment industry is how it can seem. She just talks to the issue in hand in her own way, without dogged defensiveness or the rhetorical phrasing and filibustering that kills off any idea of a discussion. Often she really does laugh out loud when the question is just too ridiculous to take seriously, or, as her latest remarks about supporting Britain’s budget for foreign aid show, she will come across as simply being sensible and humane, in a wonderful spirit of why-on-earth-wouldn’t we?

It’s the kind of approach I can see working against a whole lot of issues that are standing between fair governance and social needs and communities – from tax evasion by the super rich to the iniquities of so-called Scottish land reform. That laugh could well be the breath of fresh air we need to blow down all the stacks of legal paper that have been piled around the interests of private financial development and expansion to protect and hide what’s really going on. I can see that laugh being a laugh of derision, actually, that we could have ever let Scotland be sold down the plughole to the highest bidder, that we could lose sight, in endless discussions about independence and nationalism, of the qualities of life that we really value. It’s a problem that is hurting London, selling itself off as it is, piece by piece, and it’s hurting rural Scotland especially, that the places we care about are being overwritten by the desires of the few to build up great swathes of real estate as investment, for investment’s sake or for private industries, without involvement in the communities that surround their purchases because the super rich and international businesses are global, not local. These are the issues we need to be addressing when we consider our political lives, says the financial writer John Lanchester, and they’re irrelevant to party political allegiances. Writing of the rogue, unregulated amount of building going on in central London that is making it an impossible city for young people to afford to live in, he talks about the “thinned diminished texture of democratic choice”. That’s the reason for the “charged nature” of the Brexit and Scottish independence referendums, he suggests. It was more of a voice against the predations of unchecked capitalism, proof that so many feel so unimportant in the face of big business and private interests, than a positive choice in itself.

It’s true what the young people say. We do need to “do” politics differently. Jeremy Corbyn represents that too, of course, but his hard Brexiteering stance seems the very opposite of Davidson’s call for an interconnected world, in which we all look after each other. His reaching out to the young vote by way of bypassing the traditional media channels is smart, and connects him in other ways to his constituency. And who couldn’t love his party manifesto, pulled out of the hat at the last minute, just before the election, with its plans to renationalise the railways and royal mail and cut university fees for English students? But in print and on the telly, and in person, too, he comes across as rather grand, straitened by a kind of independence. I met him at a party at the Fruitmarket Gallery last summer and he was rigid with hauteur even there, in that jolly place. He barely had a word to say to any of the Mexican artists and writers whose work was being celebrated and while the lovely Fiona Bradley was giving her speech he just ignored her and walked across the room to get himself another glass of wine. Now, if it was Ruth at that party . . . Well, I’d like to think she’d be clapping Fiona like mad at the end of her speech and then offering her a glass of wine, and everybody else for that matter. Because doing politics differently means being a part of the rest of us.

That’s the test for Ruth Davidson now. Proving that she’s not the politician being whisked off in a black car after the required five-minute photocall, but the one who stays on to chat so she can hear what people are up to, what they’re worried about, what their priorities are. We’ll be watching out, those of us who’ve been checking out Ruth. To see if she really does do things differently, make a difference, bring about some change.