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Politics

Ruth Davidson: I thought I’d be married in my early twenties with two kids

The 39-year-old leader of the Scottish Conservative Party talks family, sexuality and her ambitions to be First Minister in a Letter To My Younger Self

At 16 I was at school in Buckhaven. Deputy head girl. I really enjoyed school and I got quite involved – I played for the tennis team, I was in a play, I got involved in charity stuff. I loved sport – squash and tennis. I feel immensely proud that I was the first girl to play for the local boys’ under-14s football club. Yes, I was a bit of a joiner. At 16 I’d just done my Highers and I’d been accepted into Edinburgh University. So the world was my oyster. In my spare time – well, we’d already discovered drinking. It’s a good time – you haven’t made any decisions to cloud your horizons yet. You can go anywhere, be anything. So I was a very happy-go-lucky 16-year-old.

I was deputy head girl but I was quite cheeky actually. I’ve always been slightly cheeky. I’m a second child and my big sister was a straight-A student, head girl instead of deputy head, went off to study medicine – academically she was very gifted. But she and my mum used to clash quite a bit. Because I was younger I was also much better at picking a route through things, finding the path of least resistance with my parents. So I didn’t fight very much with them, we’ve got a very close relationship actually. They’re good folk, good people.

I know there’s more to life than just personal ambition

I was diagnosed with depression when I was 18. I was a bit lost at university. If I could go back to my younger self I’d tell her, just because someone is super confident doesn’t mean they’re right, just because they talk loudly doesn’t mean they know all the answers. Confidence is no substitute for knowledge. And knowledge is no substitute for intelligence. At Edinburgh University in the mid-1990s there were quite a lot of students from down south who were quite a lot older than me, lots who had already been on a gap year. So the truth is I was quite intimidated. Did I talk to anyone about it? Like most students I think… I went to the pub. I’m really pleased things like cameraphones didn’t exist when I went to university. I’m not sure I’d be a politician now if they did.

I didn’t come out until my mid-20s. I didn’t think about my sexuality in my teens. I had boyfriends through school and university. I’ve never told my coming out story and I’m not going to. But I think I’m more comfortable in my own skin now than I have been since I was about 16. For most people who come out, and I’ve been out for goodness knows how many years now, the idea of not being out… I’d find very difficult.

If people like me I think it’s because… you try to be upfront and honest. When I was first elected as leader of the party in Scotland I got a lot of emails, mostly from young men, though some women as well, saying, I’m not a Tory but… I’m out at school but not to my parents, or the other way round, I’ve thought of politics but always thought I couldn’t because I was gay. Until that point it hadn’t occurred to me that it mattered to anyone else. I took time to reply to each person individually. Some were really, really personal letters they’d written to me. And I decided then that, though I wasn’t going to give my coming out story, I was never going to say I couldn’t be asked about being gay. Because you bring yourself to work. Work is part of what makes it less unusual. I want it to feel less remarkable for the next generation.

In 1994 the year Ruth Davidson turns 16…
  • Jeff Bozos founds Amazon
  • Labour Party leader John Smith died aged 55
  • George Michael loses his legal battle against his label Sony Records

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I think the 16-year-old Ruth would be surprised she didn’t have a family when she was younger. I’m beyond 39 and about to have my first child. At 16 I was actually asked to give an interview about my hopes and dreams for the future. I said I expected to get married in my early 20s and have two children. Now clearly that’s not happened. I also wanted to be an English teacher then, obviously that’s changed. I’ve got a female partner and not a male one so that’s different. And the other thing is, having grown up with collies, I have a spaniel now. So I’ve gone from having a very intelligent large dog to a much smaller one who’s lovely but daft. These are all things which would surprise my younger self.

Sometimes before big speeches or TV things I can get quite nervous. During the independence referendum I did a big debate at the Hydro in Glasgow, so there were eight-and-a-half thousand people in the audience, plus TV cameras. The Wembley debate was similar, with a viewing audience of several million. If you don’t get scared at that I think there’s something wrong with you. Don’t think just because it’s part of the job it’s not terrifying. But I’ve always believed, since I was 16, that just because something’s scary doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I remember the first shift I did at the BBC as a presenter, doing a two-hour live show – I actually vomited on my way into the studio. I threw up in a wastepaper bin because I was so scared.

In terms of planning what kind of mum I’ll be… I guess there’s so much you don’t know until your child comes. For me, I think I’ll be a bit of a mumma bear, cause I’m a bit of a big softie. But I was raised to believe that children should say please and thank you and show respect to adults, so I think it’ll be a bit of a mix actually. They’ll get plenty of cuddles, but they will get a telling off if they don’t say please and thank you.

I don’t want to go off and work for the vast majority of the week 500 miles away.

I’m ambitious for Scotland, I’m ambitious to be the First Minister of Scotland. I love my job. Leading the party in Scotland has been the greatest privilege of my life, and continues to be. But I know there’s more to life than just personal ambition. I bought my first house last year, here in Edinburgh. I got engaged a couple of years ago. I’m about to have my first child. My family matters to me. It’s really important to me. I don’t want to go off and work for the vast majority of the week 500 miles away. I don’t want to be far away from my loved ones off in London. That’s not of interest to me. For a long time people haven’t believed me when I said that but it’s absolutely true.

If I could go back and re-live any moment in my life I think it would be when I was about 10 or 11 and I was walking my dog on the beautiful beach in my home village. I’ve always loved the seaside, though it’s taken me until now since I left home at 17 to have a house by the sea again. So I think I’d go back to messing about with my best mate and my dog without a care in the world. At 10 years old you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re still wondering what the big school will be like. Everything’s possible, everything’s good.

Yes She Can: Why Women Own The Future by Ruth Davidson is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)

Image: GARY DOAK / Alamy Stock Photo

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