Saturday, 5 November 2011

A lesbian is elected leader of Scottish Tories - is it really a big deal?

Ruth Davidson is the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives. The first openly gay Tory leader, 32, emerged victorious over Murdo Fraser - whose grand vision to reinvigorate his party's fortunes was to disband it.

I have noticed that there has been much made of Ruth's sexuality in the media, not all of it accurate - such as the announcement that she is the "first gay leader of a UK political party". I can only imagine what Patrick Harvie makes of that. The Daily Mail is also keen to highlight her sexuality as super-significant, leading with the headline "Tories elect lesbian kick-boxer as new Scottish leader". As a passionate advocate for both LGBT rights and a more inclusive political system, I welcome the fact that the Tories have had the courage to elect Ms Davidson; only ten years ago this would be unthinkable. It demonstrates that the Conservative Party's attitudes towards LGBT issues have progressed a little since 1999. Whether this will coincide with a more proactive approach towards LGBT equality remains to be seen, but I am cautiously optimistic her election could coincide with a shift in outlook among the Scottish Tories. It will be rather hard for Tories to express the kinds of anti-LGBT prejudice they've historically been associated with when their future is dependent on the leadership of an openly gay young woman.

I am, however, disappointed that many have found nothing more interesting to say about Ruth Davidson than the fact she is a lesbian. Why the fixation with this aspect of her life? While the Tories' refusal to pay much attention this this fact perhaps says a great deal about that party's changing perspectives (although I suspect it might have more to do with a rejection of Fraser by the more conservative elements of the party), the media obsession with this small detail is suggestive of an inability to share such an inclusive attitude. Why do people have to be definied by their sexuality? And surely in a genuinely tolerant, open society such things become irrelevant? No-one really should care that Ruth Davidson is a lesbian - shame on sections of the media that think it's the only interesting thing about her.

What really matters? Ruth Davidson's sexual preferences or her ideas for Scotland's future? Hmmmmm..

Actually, I'm more surprised that the Tories elected as their leader a proud Glaswegian!

Scotsman journalist David Maddox announced on twitter that Ruth's election made the Tories "the progressive party of history" - also pointing to the election of Disraeli as the UK's first ethnic minority leader in 1868 and that of Thatcher as first woman leader in 1975. That really is an absurd thing to suggest. True, in Scotland they've elected two women is succession, one of them openly gay. But does that in itself make a party progressive? What I can say is that Mr Maddox's emphasis on labelling people according to their sexual preferences hardly stands up to my definition of "progressive". His historical argument is also flawed; Disraeli and Thatcher were hardly great champions for ethnic minority or women's rights.

What can be deduced from this result is that the Scottish Conservatives seem more adept at electing women and minority leaders than other parties. I can only surmise why this might be the case. Perhaps the fact that they don't use patronising all-women shortlists or promote "positive" discrimination allows more women of real leadership calibre to emerge? Ruth succeeded without any such "help", and despite only having been an MSP since May.

Ruth Davidson is an interesting individual - for many reasons aside from her sexuality. She's the first leader of any Scottish party to be a product of the media era, and has previously worked for the BBC. Will this mean the Conservatives become more media-savvy; can her evident presentation skills compensate for her relative political inexperience? She's also, in seven very brief months, been embroiled in a number of controversies - even before being elected. Her determination to ride out the storm and her stiff resolve in difficult situations bodes well for her futrure - and is far more worthy of media attention than interest in her sexual orientation.

There are tough challenges ahead for Ruth Davidson. Her campaign centred on revitalising the party (in stark contrast to Fraser's determination to wind the Scottish Conservatives up and found a new centre-right party) but, now elected leader, she has to both communicate a radical vision for how to actually do this, while taking on those within her party who genuinely felt that Murdo Fraser had the right ideas for the party's future when he argued that "we don't need a new captain, but a new ship". She will also have to detoxify the Tory brand in Scotland - the fact that she is a young, gay woman brings a sense of the party having woken up to the modern era, but it will take more than that to remove the memory of Thatcher's legacy from the minds of Scottish voters. Plus there's the challenge of the SNP's rise and current standing with the public and the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, during which she will (predictably) be going head-to-head with Alex Salmond, arguing for the status quo.

The real challenge, however, is how to build on Annabel Goldie's considerable achievements as Conservative leader. For all the Scottish Tories' lack of appeal, Goldie successfully presented herself as a skilful and forthright debater as well as an amiable, likeable and down-to-earth person. Goldie was the acceptable face of a party that is still judged for its negative legacy of the 1980s and 90s. Whether Ruth Davidson can foster a similarly positive public image remains to be seen.


Allan Heron said...

What was more of a surprise to me was that her sexuality was seemingly never an issue in the campaign. She always appeared as a front-runner against Murdo Fraser from the outset.

Somewhat bizarrely, as the genuinely conservative candidate Jackson Carlaw always appeared just too ordinary to be worthy of any space in the media.

Politically, Davidson seems fairly conventionally Tory - not too far from just being another Cameron moderniser. Against that background, her sexuality (and possibly her age) are all that's left for a press that's never greatly issue based to hang onto.

What will be interesting going forward is to see how the supporters of Davidson and Fraser can be reconciled. That was two significantly different approaches both of which got substantial backing with the ultimately defeated candidate being the one with the largest first preference support. Ironically, it's a challenge not dissimilar to that being faced by the Scottish Liberal Democrats

Andrew said...

Paul McBride quits Tories, saying "They have replaced one nice woman with one not so very nice woman"