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Posted on Apr 29, 2015

Ruth Davidson Is Having The Most Fun Election Campaign Ever

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives talks to BuzzFeed News about why politics is more entertaining in Scotland, how she's standing up to homophobic abuse, and her fears about the imminent "SNP tsunami".

Mark Runnacles / Getty Images

Bombing down the A7 in the Scottish borders, there's a moment when an already strange election campaign turns in a weird new direction. Ruth Davidson, the cheery leader of the Scottish Conservatives, is plying me with Haribo Tangfastics while giggling.

"Do you mind if I tweet about this?" she asks, as I shovel a fistful of sour cola bottles into my face. The previous day she fed me a Solero in front of the whole of the Scottish press. It doesn't seem wise to protest.

.@JamieRoss7 is now in the back of my car, being forcefed Haribo Tangfastics. *cackles wildly while checking tarpaulin and shovel*

It would be fair to say, then, that Davidson takes an unusual approach to election campaigning. Sugary treats aside, she has recently been photographed at the bingo, driving a tank, playing a set of bagpipes, holding a falcon and an eagle, and staring lovingly into the eyes of a trout – although not all at the same time.

Contrast that with David Cameron, who's trying so hard to avoid looking foolish that his security staff prevented a puppy from getting within a certain radius of him.

"I think that's more to do with my personality than any kind of strategy," says Davidson about her eye for an entertaining photo-op. "I take politics incredibly seriously but I don't necessarily take myself seriously, and I don't think campaigning is something you have to do with a face that's tripping you."

Of course, this is Scottish politics, and things are different here. Each party leader is out on the streets every day, mixing even with people who might disagree with them. In the rest of the UK, far more campaigning takes place behind closed doors.

"I guess we kind of re-found our mojo in old-fashioned politics during the referendum campaign," explains Davidson.

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

"The level of engagement in Scotland is so incredibly high, and all of us are fighting fit for this general election because we've just been doing this level of public engagement for years now."

Scotland expects a bit of theatre and audience participation in its politics, and its leaders are happy to deliver. As a result, Scottish politics is just a bit more fun.

With this open, "old-fashioned" style of politics comes a huge level of engagement – on the campaign trail people come up to Davidson to ask a question, share a joke, or say something along the lines of, "I know you're a Tory, but I like you". But inevitably, there's a heightened chance of abuse as well.

Davidson was recently the subject of expletive-strewn abuse about her sexuality from an SNP member – who was then expelled from the party for homophobia by first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Davidson clearly enjoys campaigning, but admits that a small number of "zoomers and bampots" run the risk of spoiling Scotland's reawakening.

"It's a very small minority of people involved in it," she says. "And one of the things which has been good is that Nicola Sturgeon, myself, and [deputy Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale – without having any sort of arrangement – have all taken the view that, irrespective of party, we will call out stuff we don't like.

"I will call out the homophobic stuff because it does affect folk, and not everyone is as bloody-minded as I am.

"For young kids growing up gay, some of the feelings you can have – of guilt and shame and uncertainty and fear and all of it that we all go through – reading your worst fears about yourself in black and white, being directed at someone else like you, is not acceptable."

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

The way that the female Scottish leaders – Davidson, Sturgeon, and Dugdale – have teamed up to deal deal with homophobic and misogynist abuse has led to many commentators holding them up as a guiding example for women in politics.

They've also joined together on Twitter to mock Theresa May by discussing going shoe-shopping together, and talked about bunking off First Minister's Questions to watch Andy Murray and drink Pimm's. Do they get on as well as they seem to?

"Well, we don't go on holiday together or anything like that," says Davidson. "We're not about to go to Blackpool for the fair fortnight and take part in a knobbly knees competition." (Although she promises I will be invited to cover it if that ever does happen).

"We are professional women doing a professional job, but just because we are in opposition doesn't mean we can't appreciate each other's skills, and there's a mutual respect between all three of us.

"I think Nicola is a very capable, articulate women – I just think she's wrong about almost everything."

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Davidson is an unapologetic unionist. Unlike her Scottish Labour counterpart, Jim Murphy, you won't see her play down her love of Britain in an attempt to win back support from those who voted Yes in September's referendum.

This belief in the union has been suggested as the reason why she has decided to lead her own distinctive election campaign in Scotland rather than follow the UK-wide Conservative campaign, led by strategist Lynton Crosby, which has been criticised for risking the future of the union by portraying the SNP as kingmakers.

"That's such nonsense," says Davidson, before I have a chance to finish the question.

"People keep saying 'this is treading on your toes' but that campaign is only saying what I was saying back in January, when I was warning of Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon being halfway down the aisle."

Davidson says talking up the chances of a Labour/SNP deal is not just a campaign tactic, and appears genuinely concerned that a large number of SNP MPs being sent to Westminster to act as a backstop for a Miliband government may mean the end for the union.

"My worry is that they're going to make every vote in the Commons a fight – that they'll disrupt it and try to push a UK government in places it doesn't necessarily want to go," she says. "That will stoke up resentment in the rest of the UK towards Scotland, which would be something that would help the nationalist cause no end.

"Nicola Sturgeon's not an idiot – she knows that would help their cause."

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Davidson believes that over time, "the echoes of the referendum" will fade, but it's a hard prospect to imagine with the SNP standing on the brink of winning as many as 50 seats in next month's election.

She admits that even the one Conservative seat in Scotland, in Dumfriesshire, is in danger of being lost: "Our guys are standing on top of the house, but there's an SNP tsunami coming and we just don't know how big the wave is going to be.

"If the wave just goes up to the second floor we'll end up with more MPs, if the wave covers the house we'll have nobody. But I am naturally quite a positive person, and I'm just quietly hopeful we could end up surprising people."

A joke repeated to the point of tedium in Scottish politics is that there are "more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs".

Davidson hopes that after the election, that will no longer apply – "unless they start popping out babies".

But it's almost impossible to predict what will happen in this bizarre Scottish election, and who might win or lose their seats. Davidson thinks Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy "might be alright", that shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander "will find it hard", and that Treasury secretary Danny Alexander is "toast".

Ruth Davidson

If these big beasts of Scottish politics do lose their seats, then Davidson will be one the few unionist politicians left with a bright future.

She's been tipped as a rising star of the Conservatives, with Cameron hinting she could even be a future leader of the party. Could she tempted by Westminster?

"You know, when I started this job, people were saying, 'Would you like to go down to the House of Commons?', and I said that would be a demotion, and now, suddenly, I've been promoted to, 'Would you like to be in the Cabinet?'

"Maybe when people start asking me if I want to be the omnipotent poobah of the European Union or the secretary general of the United Nations, I'll think about it."

Until such a position becomes available, she'll carry on in her current role – and carry on enjoying herself while she does it.

"I'll go toe to toe with anybody on policy and values and ideas, and I'll have all the evidence to back it up," she says. "But politics, fundamentally, comes down to people.

"If you can't enjoy being with people, then you shouldn't really be in this job."

Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.

Contact Jamie Ross at jamie.ross@buzzfeed.com.

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