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Ruth Davidson, 35-year-old leader of the Scottish Conservative party, pulled off a spectacular U-turn this month.
Less than three years after becoming party leader, with a promise to draw a “line in the sand” against further devolution, she endorsed a proposal for more powers to be transferred from London that include full control over income tax bands and rates.
The policy shift has far-reaching implications for the UK’s constitutional future since it means all three of the country’s main pro-union parties now promise substantial devolution if Scotland rejects independence in September’s referendum.
Ms Davidson, a former BBC journalist with a taste for kick-boxing, makes no apology for the rethink despite the longstanding hostility among many Tories to shifting powers to Edinburgh.
The Scottish Tory leader says she encountered no more overt opposition than a few grumbles from ageing party grandees. “It’s been clear over the past three years . . . that there’s an appetite for more powers and more responsibilities,” says Ms Davidson, sporting a lapel badge with the “No Thanks” slogan of the Better Together cross-party campaign against independence.
Ignoring the widespread desire among many Scots for greater powers would only foster instability and threaten the union, she says. And conservative principles require that the Scottish parliament’s already substantial powers be matched with greater responsibility for raising the money it spends.
Ms Davidson’s résumé and enthusiasms set her apart from Conservative stereotypes. Openly gay, with a working class heritage and educated at a state school in Fife, she worked as a BBC reporter and presenter, served three years in the Territorial Armyand is a fan of the Scottish second division football team Dunfermline Athletic.
An enthusiastic advocate of small government, she says more devolution will make it easier for the Conservatives to make tax cuts part of their appeal in Scotland – a likely electoral boon for a party mocked for having fewer MPs representing Scotland at Westminster than Edinburgh has pandas.
The comparison, resulting as it does from the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, is not entirely fair. The Tories won their only Westminster seat in Scotland with 413,000 votes in 2010, while the third-placed Liberal Democrats took 11 seats with only 50,000 more votes.
But even in the more representative Holyrood parliament, the 2011 triumph of the Scottish National party left the Conservatives with just 15 seats out of 129. Ms Davidson has recognised that, with many Scots still smarting over the Tories’ 1980s imposition of the poll tax and the party’s long opposition to home rule, rebuilding support will not be easy.
Three years ago, few outside the party saw the untried Ms Davidson as a likely saviour of Tory fortunes. But political observers say she has grown as leader.
The Scotland on Sunday newspaper recently dubbed her Holyrood’s “most effective adversary” for Alex Salmond, the nationalist first minister. “Ruth Davidson has slowly but surely established herself as a figure of real substance in Scottish politics,” the paper said.
Ms Davidson is keen to cast herself as a fighter for Scotland’s interests, taking on party colleagues in London resistant to devolution and “nipping at [chancellor] George Osborne’s ankles” for the scrapping, or devolution, of air passenger duty.
She is also upbeat about the “energising” effect of the independence referendum both on Scottish politics and her own party, whose official name – the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party – embodies commitment to the idea of the UK.
“We really believe in this stuff,” Ms Davidson says. “Our people’s tails are up for this.”
The Scottish party may already be benefiting. It slightly increased its vote in last month’s European election on a difficult night for Conservatives elsewhere in the UK. And Ms Davidson says organisational changes have made it better at campaigning and fundraising.
But some in the party still wonder whether widespread Scottish hostility can be overcome. Back in 2011, Ms Davidson’s main rival for the leadership, Murdo Fraser, said the brand was so tainted that the Scottish Conservatives should be scrapped and replaced with a new, renamed party.
But Ms Davidson makes clear she has no plans for another U-turn to embrace such radical change – citing carmaker Volkswagen’s success in reviving the Czech company Skoda.
“Skoda was a toxic brand – but look at it now,” she says. “You change the car, not the name. And we have been changing.”
Hard to ‘come out . . . as a Conservative’
Few political leaders in the UK could pull off a joke combining issues of sexual orientation with a rueful reflection on their party’s own unpopularity. But Ruth Davidson managed the feat in her spring conference speech to Scottish Tories.
The UK’s first openly gay party leader won warm laughter when she said personal experience had shown her that sometimes it was hard to “come out . . . as a Conservative”.
Ms Davidson says the moment reflects a more confident and inclusive party increasingly in tune with wider Scottish attitudes. Her orientation was not even an issue during her successful campaign for the party leadership in 2011.
“I don’t think people realise how far the Conservative party has come,” she says.
Ms Davidson acknowledges that her decision to be a leading voice in favour of same-sex marriage, approved by the Scottish parliament in a free vote in February, was something of a challenge to a party still deeply split on the issue. More than half the Conservative members of the Scottish parliament voted against the bill.
But Ms Davidson says she is in no doubt that legalisation allowing same-sex marriage, due to take effect this year, reflects true Tory values.
“It’s a hugely Conservative advance – the freedom to marry,” she says. “[It’s] the clearing away of the last legal barrier that says gay people are different from other people.”
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