Dani Garavelli: One less role model for women in politics

Ruth Davidson rises to the occasion of her farewell speech last Thursday. Picture: 'Neil Hanna/Getty
Ruth Davidson rises to the occasion of her farewell speech last Thursday. Picture: 'Neil Hanna/Getty
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Regular readers of my column will know I have never had much time for Ruth Davidson. I didn’t buy into the “different type of Tory” shtick. All I saw was a woman who was photo opportunity-heavy and policy-lite, and who passed up every chance she had to be an ally to her sisters.

I didn’t trust what she said and I hated the way (rather than the fact) she fought the SNP on key policies such as the Named Person clause. Still, there was no schadenfreude – and certainly no smugness to be derived from her tearful resignation as Scottish Conservative leader last week.

Coming 24 hours after Boris Johnson stuck two fingers up at democracy, there was only a sense that we were losing one of the few Tories that had spoken out against him. Everything is relative and, next to the great buffoon, she proved less objectionable. Also, she seemed to have had the stuffing knocked out of her by the conflicting responsibilities of motherhood and public office and by the absence of moral leadership at the top of her party. All the bombast had been drained from her, as it has been drained from many of us by the political events of the past three years; and who would take pleasure from that?

On one level, the motives for her departure are a complicated mix of the personal and the political; but, on another, the explanation is very simple. Isn’t she, like everyone else, reflecting on how little power she has to change the current situation and asking: “What’s the bloody point?”

There is nonetheless a lot to unpack in her short resignation speech and in the conversation it has provoked. Let’s start with her expression of that gnawing anguish permanently in the pit of many working women’s stomachs: that they are failing in every aspect of their lives; that, however hard they try, they will never be good enough. “I fear that having tried to be a good leader over the years, I have proved a poor daughter, sister, partner and friend,” she said, tugging at the heart strings of anyone, male or female, who has ever felt the same.

Perhaps this internalised sense of failure comes from women constantly being judged on their behaviour. Since Davidson made the announcement she has been criticised as “letting down” other working mothers by opting out – as if she wasn’t still holding down a full-time job as an MSP; and as if the point of feminism isn’t to enable and support women to work or not to work, as they see fit.

Given the intensity of the debate it has provoked, Davidson’s resignation speech requires close scrutiny. Was she really suggesting that, in 2019, it is impossible for women to successfully hold down high-flying jobs while raising children? Or was she merely pointing out that it’s still tough and that, because it’s tough, there has to be a worthwhile objective?

Certainly, things have improved for working mothers since I had my babies in the late 90s/early 2000s. Increased maternity rights, including shared parental leave, ought, at least in principle, to make it easier to juggle a career and children. But mostly women are still expected to shoulder the bulk of the emotional responsibility. They impose those expectations on themselves, which is why, I think, it makes little difference that Davidson’s partner is also a woman. Then, just as the children become more self-sufficient there are elderly parents to think about. You have to be committed to thole the stress; of expressing milk, of leaking through your blouse, of shaking a crying toddler from your leg at the nursery door so you can make a meeting on time.

Many women are prepared to miss their baby’s first steps to do a job they find fulfilling. But why would Davidson spend the early years of her son Finn’s life to campaign for the prospective re-election of a government whose goals she no longer shares? What would she tell him in later life? “I wasn’t around much when you were wee because I was pounding the pavements for Boris Johnson”?

My sympathy for Davidson is not unconfined; it would be greater if, for example, she had shown any regard for mothers, particularly single mothers, during her time as leader. Instead she voted for welfare reforms which left many below the poverty line, and failed to speak out against the rape clause which requires women to prove their third child is the product of sexual assault if they want to receive tax credits for them. I hope in time she comes to regret this legacy.

She should, in my opinion, have been more direct in her criticism of Boris Johnson and his prorogation of parliament – an act she certainly opposes. And she ought to recognise how lucky she is to be able to make this choice. There are many other women (and men) who are forced to work several jobs just to get by.

The resurgence of the Scottish Tories caused me nothing but dismay. Without Davidson – their great white hope – at the helm, they are neutered, their chances of making an impact at the next Scottish parliamentary elections severely reduced. Davidson was also the single strongest voice in defence of the Union, so logically the chances of a Yes vote in a future indyref must also be increased.

And yet, I find it hard to celebrate Davidson’s departure. Though never one for female solidarity, she was part of a bright, new political landscape in which women were, at last, to the fore. Like Kezia Dugdale, she has been pushed out by the political manoeuvrings of a man less able than she is and is likely to be replaced by the same. And who knows if Nicola Sturgeon will survive another year. At the last Holyrood election, three of the five main parties were led by women; by 2021, it could be none. No visible female role models at the top of politics will make it less likely women will come forward to stand as MPs, MSPs or councillors.

There is the potential, though, for her resignation to drive change. Last week, it opened up a fresh conversation about work and family life; about how women can be helped to stay in top jobs (if they so wish) and how the cultural shift from “motherhood” to “parenthood”, currently little more than a hope, can become a widespread reality in people’s lives.

On social media, commentators were proffering innovations: a universal basic income for one adult in every household with a child under seven, for example, so the parents would have more professional options. Of course, no family-friendly policy could counter Davidson’s biggest problem: the lumbering hulk of self-regard that is our current Prime Minister. But, if this conversation can be sustained; if it provokes more frank discussion about the choices open to women, the pressures on them and the demands of parenthood and politics, it will have served a purpose.