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Ruth Davidson: the next Prime Minister?

Ruth Davidson speaks out on combating antisemitism, learning from Israel and her admiration for Theresa May — despite being touted as her replacement

    Next stop Number Ten? Ruth Davidson on teh campaign trail in in South Queensferry, Scotland, earlier this year
    Next stop Number Ten? Ruth Davidson on teh campaign trail in in South Queensferry, Scotland, earlier this year (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

    Scotland’s political leaders are “united” in their efforts to combat antisemitism in the country, according to Ruth Davidson.

    The leader of the Scottish Conservatives said the collective approach represented “a different picture north of the border” and highlighted rival Nicola Sturgeon’s work to condemn “disgusting” Jew-hate as proof all parties were taking the problem seriously.

    Ms Davidson said, by contrast, the Labour Party’s problems nationally had been “laid at Jeremy Corbyn’s door” in a way that issues with individual politicians in Scotland had not reflected badly on party leaders.

    In her first major interview on Jewish issues, Ms Davidson explained how her own faith background has affected her relationship with the community and outlined ways she believes Israel can act as a guiding light for Scotland following devolution.

    Her words of praise for fellow Scottish politicians who have condemned antisemitism come after a series of incidents involving Scottish National Party representatives.

    One SNP MP was forced to apologise for posting an antisemitic tweet, while another party figure at Holyrood admitted that an image she highlighted on social media of piglets suckling a giant sow emblazoned with the word “Rothschild” was “repellent”.

    But Ms Davidson said: “To be fair to my colleagues from other parties, particularly the Labour Party, they have always had strong links to the community, as have we.

    “There have been some issues with some individual members, but I wouldn’t, for example, say that necessarily transfers to the leadership of the party as you might suggest some issues within the UK Labour Party have been laid at Jeremy Corbyn’s door. Nicola Sturgeon, for example, has regularly met the Jewish community and has always spoken supportively of it, particularly when we had a spate of issues — some really disgusting stuff, daubings on a temple, and when a rabbi was given a Nazi salute outside a place of worship — we were united as political leaders in condemnation of that. In that respect it’s a different picture north of the border.”

    Ahead of speaking at the Board of Deputies’ annual dinner in London on Monday, Ms Davidson admitted she had witnessed “disquieting” times for Scottish Jews. She accepted there have been a “number of people who feel intimidated and who feel there have been antisemitic crimes committed”.

    A “terrible state of affairs” had led some in the Jewish community to consider leaving Scotland, she said, before citing a series of positive initiatives, including the opening this summer of the pioneering campus shared in Glasgow by the Calderwood Lodge Primary School with a local Catholic school, and other interfaith projects.

    “Antisemitism has to be treated seriously and the community has had a lot of support from the police. They’ve also had support from other organisations. I visit quite regularly the various Jewish groups in Scotland and they have talked about the work they have been doing with the Muslim community in Glasgow. They have been helping each other and that’s one of the good news stories.”

    Two dozen of the Tory MSPs elected to Holyrood last year travelled to Israel at the end of 2016. Ms Davidson said her colleagues gained a better understanding of the challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians.

    At the age of 38, she has an “intellectual curiosity” about the conflict which comes from “growing up seeing tension in the Middle East and finding it quite a difficult and multifaceted issue to understand”.

    Yet Ms Davidson was not part of last year’s Conservative Friends of Israel delegation, and in fact has never been to the country. She is the only member of her immediate family yet to make the trip — her parents celebrated a special wedding anniversary in the Holy Land, and her sister partied in Eilat during her days as a medical student.

    Not having experienced Israel herself does not stop Ms Davidson outlining her belief that Scotland can take a number of lessons from the country often referred to as the “start-up nation”.

    She explained: “In terms of technology, and some of the sectors which have high-grade, high-wage jobs — absolutely we should learn from all around the world and Israel is one of the places where we can look to the future.”

    Having served in the Territorial Army, she also praised the IDF’s efforts to integrate women into the armed forces, and, after coming out in her mid 20s, said she admired Israel’s approach to LGBT issues.

    The Edinburgh-born, Fife-raised MSP added: “I genuinely think there are definite issues regarding settlements and settlement building — the Prime Minister was right to speak about that — but I also think it’s true to say Israel is an ally of the UK.”

    It is Ms Davidson’s hope that cultural aspects of celebrations marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration this year bring “a greater understanding” of Israel “to a wider public in the UK, rather than the sort of binary heat rather than light that we sometimes see in online debates”.

    Does her own faith and upbringing in the Church of Scotland lead her to approach the Jewish community any differently? 

    “I think it can be that people of faith are less nervous, or less wary, of other faiths,” she admitted. “So many of the faiths have interlocking and overlapping people in their texts in the Old Testament. I think you do have an appreciation and it does mean you possibly are more simpatico with other people of faith. I’ve always been keen to find out more — about the Jewish faith, Islamic faith, or going to my local gurdwara – I’ve always found it hugely rewarding and enriching.”

    The tumultuous events in British politics during the past few years have left Ms Davidson looking like the rarest of politicians — successful and popular. The JC understands her invitation to speak at the Board dinner was prompted not only by the Scottish Tories’ impressive election results at Holyrood last year and at Westminster in June, but partly by how poorly others had performed, leaving a trail of discredited political leaders. 

    She was, it was widely acknowledged, the only party chief other than Mr Corbyn to see their stock rise as a result of the national poll.

    Despite being regularly spoken of as a future leader of the Conservatives nationally, Ms Davidson will not be the one to stick the knife into Theresa May — at the moment anyway. She is glad Mrs May intends to stay in Number 10 until 2021.

    “The Prime Minister is absolutely the right person to lead us through the Brexit process and beyond,” she said. 

    “She’s been a strong friend and supporter of the Jewish community. She has a genuine commitment and service, and the more people see of her in the coming months and years, the more they will come to appreciate the efforts she puts in, the seriousness with which she takes the position, the work that she does, the diligence with which she does it, and the time she takes. 

    “She never rushes to judgment, and these are hugely admirable qualities.”

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