Scottish Tory leader opposes Theresa May’s European human rights withdrawal plan
In an exclusive interview, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson tells PinkNews about why she opposes the UK Home Secretary’s plans to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
Last week, Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed that she would want to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. She said that the UK got very little from the ECHR – but if you look at the history, it gave us many of our earlier LGBT rights victories.
Do you support what Theresa May said?
I take a slightly different view from Theresa May – I think we should recognise that the ECHR was in large part drafted by people from Britain, and it’s British values that are enshrined there.
In terms of a Scottish context, the ECHR is written into the original Scotland Act, so it would be up to the Scottish Parliament to decide whether we changed the basis of that. There’s nothing at a UK-wide level that would be able to change that without Holyrood’s consent.
I think it’s a little bit more complicated than Theresa May is trying to push out there.
The EU as a whole seems to be moving towards seeing LGBT equality as a Europe-wide issue. In the past few years we’ve seen prospective new members pushed to adopt LGBT discrimination protections, and in Italy we’ve seen pressure from Europe leading to action on civil unions.
Do you think it’s a path Europe should take as a whole, or would you put yourself more on the side of David Cameron, believing it’s each individual country’s responsibility to come to its own decision on LGBT rights?
I think it’s quite a complex issue – legislation can lead public opinion, and in some countries that has been the case with gay rights. But there are some areas where the reverse has been true and it’s caused huge issues.
I think the EU has a very important advocacy role, and it also has a role in terms of what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of behaviour and persecution.
I’m proud of my colleague [Scottish Tory MEP] Dr Ian Duncan, who’s the co-chair of ILGA-Europe within the European Parliament that does a lot of work on LGBT rights. They sat down with the President of Tunisia for example, to talk about extending rights there.
But I think in the UK, we’ve also got to remember that while we’ve passed equal marriage in England and Wales, and we’ve passed equal marriage in Scotland, there’s still part of the UK where equal marriage is banned, in Northern Ireland.
I’ve been invited by Amnesty International to give their annual Pride lecture in Belfast this year, to talk about the situation in Northern Ireland, and I’m going to take my Irish partner with me.
We have seen in our own home area, whether it’s by representative democracy as it was in the House of Commons and in Holyrood, or by direct democracy as we saw in the Republic of Ireland through the referendum, that great advances can be made.
I think we’ve come a really long way – but we shouldn’t forget there’s still a part of the UK where our citizens do not share the same rights, just a few miles away.
The stance of the UK government on the Northern Ireland marriage issue has been to leave it alone, saying it’s a devolved issue.
Do you feel the Scottish and UK governments need to take a more active role in encouraging Northern Ireland to catch up?
I would like to see people right across the UK take a more active role – I’m certainly prepared to step up myself.
I think that there are real issues with people seemingly being okay with a part of our country saying that if you live there, you cannot get the same rights!
I have a fundamental problem with what’s going on in Northern Ireland right now.
On a similar point – the SNP manifesto specifically calls for more devolution to Scotland on equality issues.
For example, one of the things they list is giving Scotland the power to set its own Gender Recognition laws for trans people. Do you support more devolution on equality issues, or would you prefer these to remain UK-wide issues?
I think on things like gender equality, there’s quite a strong argument for trying to make that UK-wide. The UK Gender Recognition Act is out of date and needs review – I’m fully supportive of that.
If that’s something that doesn’t happen at UK level then let’s look at it at the Scottish level. It’s something that needs to happen, but I think we can get support at the UK level for this.
It ties into so many other things, including official documentation for travel, and so many other issues that are done at the UK level, that it makes more pragmatic sense for changes to be carried out UK-wide.
Last year when the Saudi King Abdullah died, you said it was a “steaming pile of nonsense” that flags were flown at half mast.
Why did you speak out, and do you feel we need to be firmer with our allies around the world?
I think there is a role for critical friends.
The reason I said what I said about honouring the Saudi King was that he was the head of state of a country that persecutes women, Christians and people who are LGBT – and as a gay Christian woman I didn’t feel that level of deference was appropriate.
While I completely understand the need for strategic allies around the world, I think the role of critical friends is to make sure we use the influence we have to encourage more open societies.
We saw an example of that last year when Barack Obama visited Kenya – he stood in front of the country’s President and the media, and told them the country’s anti-LGBT laws were wrong.
I don’t see any reason why we can’t [do similar] – in terms of some of the work that DFID and some of our embassies are doing around the world, we see a huge amount of work that is being done in countries where LGBT rights are not what they should be, and where people face persecution daily.
I would point to the work the UK government has been doing in Jamaica, for example.
In the past few days we’ve seen a case where the Home Office lost a legal battle over a transgender asylum seeker who wasn’t legally recognised in her home country. Do you think we need more compassion on LGBT rights globally and in asylum issues?
I’m not aware of that case, but more generally I think the Home Office guidelines are clear about ensuring people aren’t returned to areas where they face persecution.
There are many countries around the world can put you at greater risk, and that should always be taken into account.
You’ve been quite vocal about opposing a second independence referendum, but in a few months’ time we may be looking at a situation where Scotland has voted to stay in the EU, but England and Wales have voted to take us out.
As a supporter of the EU, why don’t you feel that’s a scenario where a second independence referendum comes into play?
First of all, I don’t believe there will be one part of the UK that votes out with Scotland voting to stay in – I think the UK as a whole is going to vote to stay in.
Even getting past that hypothetical, we spent two years discussing Scottish independence before the referendum here, and in that two years I didn’t have a single hustings, town hall meeting, Q&A session, TV debate, where that wasn’t raised as a possibility.
It was factored into the decision that people made. People made that decision by a clear margin – over 2 million people voted to stay part of the United Kingdom.
There was a bilateral agreement between the Scottish government and the UK government to say that they would respect that decision, and reopening it 18-20 months after the fact is not respecting it in my view.
During the referendum campaign, Better Together argued that if Scotland did become independent, one of the negatives would be that it might not be easy to get EU membership.
Don’t you see it as a broken promise if people voted to stay because of the EU, but now face leaving the EU anyway?
What we said was that if Scotland became independent it would join the back of the queue to join the EU.
That didn’t come from us – that came from the Enlargement Commissioner of the EU, who was asked what the situation would be because the SNP had said Scotland could continue to negotiate from the inside.
They claimed they had legal advice to that effect, but when they were challenged they went to court to try and hide it, and then they had to admit that legal advice had never existed.
We had in black-and-white from the Enlargement Commissioner of the EU that if Scotland had voted independent, it would join the back of the queue behind all of these other countries.
It was a statement of fact, it wasn’t a statement of preference.
What I don’t understand is the SNP’s argument that staying part of a political union to which Scotland exports 16 percent of its goods and services is so important, that in order to stay you would leave a union to which Scotland exports 64 percent of its goods and services.
They’ve never made it clear to me how that works.
Last year you took the choice to feature your partner Jen in an election broadcast. Obviously Scotland is now packed to the rafters with openly gay politicians, but at the time it was quite an unprecedented step! Why did you make that decision?
The theme we decided to do was about joining the Conservative family, and the choice was we hire some actors and pretend they were my family, or we just have my family on it.
It was not just cheaper, but more natural to use my mum and dad and my partner, which is what we did.
In terms of why, it was ‘here I am, this is who I am, this is what conservatism means for me’ – we showed it without varnish, as it is.
The reaction was almost wholly positive – I didn’t have any negative reactions at all.
Jen had a nice man in the sandwich shop round the corner from her work pointing at her and saying she was famous, so she was very pleased by that.
Speaking of Jen – we hear quite a lot of people are now asking about your sparkly pants…
Hahaha! Yes – thanks PinkNews, well done!
We’ve seen from data recently that while reports of hate crime are up, actions taken by the police are down. How would you tackle hate crime issues in the next Parliament?
First of all, one of the things we should be careful about when we talk about the reporting of hate crime is that while reporting is up, it doesn’t mean the number of crimes is up – one of the answers could be that people just feel more able to report it, and that should be encouraged.
People should always feel able to come forward and be able to talk about it, know that it will be taken seriously by the authorities.
In terms of what the police do in Scotland, they have worked hard in recent years to be much better at handling LGBT hate crime.
If there are issues with the investigation of hate crimes at the moment, then we as politicians need to keep on them, to make sure that happens.
People right across Scotland need to know that they are safe, that they have absolute protection under the law, and that they will always be taken seriously when they come forward.
I would always encourage anyone who has ever experienced any form of hate crime to absolutely report it.
One of the things mentioned in your manifesto is tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools. What would you do?
We need to make sure we have a toolkit for teachers, so they feel equipped to talk about and challenge homophobic and transphobic bullying in our schools. We know that the issue of homophobic bullying is not a small one.
The numbers of LGBTI young people who report that they have been subject to homophobic bullying, issues of mental ill-health among LGBTI young people because of that, self-harm because of that – it’s shocking.
Schools should be safe places for children to go, they shouldn’t dread going in every morning because they worry that they’re going to be made to feel like they have something to feel shameful about, because of who they are.
No young person should dread going to school because of the treatment they’re going to receive there.
I think teachers have a responsibility to be able to make sure their schools are safe places, and as politicians we have a responsibility to make sure our teachers are equipped to do so.
The SNP has pledged to make sure sex and relationship education is always LGBT-inclusive. Do you feel more needs to be done?
I think it’s an important part of the curriculum – as far as I’m aware in Scotland, sex education is in every school, and every local authority. I don’t think that will change.
Speaking of bullying… Scottish UKIP leader David Coburn has publicly said some very nasty things about you.
Yes, he has, hasn’t he! That’s not unusual for David, he’s said some very publicly nasty things about almost everybody. He thinks he’s funny.
A number of UKIP activists have written to the party leadership calling for him to be removed – do you think he is fit to be a leader?
To be honest, I think David Coburn is barely fit to be sent to the shops and bring the correct change home.
The problem for them is, he is the only elected UKIP anything in Scotland – they don’t even have any UKIP councillors. I’m not entirely sure that they’ve got any option, in terms of a Scottish leader.
I don’t think David Coburn is a fine example of role modelling that people need to have. I think he lets himself down often and frequently.
The SNP and Scottish Labour have both pledged to act on PrEP (HIV-prevention drugs) in Scotland, where plans have been stuck in the mud in England. Would you support that?
We have our own drug consortium in Scotland, our health service has been wholly separate since 1999 – so decisions on that will always be made entirely in Scotland.
So do you support PrEP being available to men who have sex with men?
The Church of Scotland, which you are a member of, has moved towards allowing married gay ministers. Do you think Scotland will soon see same-sex church weddings in its national church?
I think that’s an issue that the Church will take in its own time.
It’s come a really long way in a short time already, and we already have practising ministers in Scotland who are openly gay.
In terms of the decision for sacraments to be administered, that’s one for the General Assembly – but I believe I’ll see it in my lifetime, absolutely. I certainly hope so.
The Church has come a long way very fast. It still has a long way to go but it’s absolutely going in the right direction. I’m very hopeful I’ll be able to see gay church weddings in my lifetime.
Again it’s an issue where Scotland is ahead of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – why do you feel Scotland is so consistently ahead on LGBT rights issues at the moment?
Generally, we’ve come a very long way in a short time. It used to be that we were behind the rest of the UK. I’m 37 and when I was born, people could still be prosecuted for being in a loving gay relationship. It was illegal. That didn’t get off the books until 1980 in Scotland, a long time after [England and Wales].
And those same people who were prosecuted when I was born can now get married, which is a massive change, and I think it’s change for the better.
I think as a country Scotland is much more relaxed than the country I grew up in, and much more live-and-let-live.
I think, notwithstanding the issues about homophobic bullying and hate crime we’ve talked about, there’s real will to make sure people in Scotland have the same rights as everybody else regardless of background – no matter race, sexuality, disability or gender. There’s a sense that everyone should get the same crack of the whip.
While Scotland is accelerating forward, now it seems the United States is seeing almost the reverse: in some states we’re seeing laws to ban transgender people going to the bathroom. Then you’ve got Ted Cruz – who we can’t even find words to describe – and Donald Trump, who are suddenly doing very well…
I think former Speaker John Boehner already used words to renounce him! [Boehner recently described Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh” and a “miserable son of a bitch”.]
I think what’s happening in the US is pretty scary right now.
I didn’t think for a second that Donald Trump would get the nomination for the Republican Party, I’m amazed that he’s down to the final two. I think it’s quite shocking actually – but I have to have faith that he will never become President of the United States, because I think that would send wholly the wrong signal – not just within his own country, but to other countries around the world.
There have been many countries that have tried to lead on LGBT rights and civil rights, and America sometimes has led and sometimes been behind, but generally near the front of the queue. I think this puts it back a very, very long way.
People from a few different parties have said they wish you were one of theirs – and equally your name comes up sometimes as a future UK leader.
What would you say to those who want you in their party, or those who’d like to see you as Prime Minister not First Minister?
I think they are two very different propositions – for people who want me to join their party, I would extend the invitation to them to come and join the Scottish Conservatives.
I think that in the four and a half years I’ve been leader, I’ve worked hard to make sure people know what we stand for and what we do. More and more people are coming to join us, and more are welcome to come as well.
In terms of being the UK party leader or a future Prime Minister, I’m going to pass on that one if that’s alright – I’ve been very privileged to see behind the door at Number 10 and it looks like a pretty lonely job.
I’ve got a pretty big job in Scotland so I’m going to stick with that for now.
For now or forever?
..I’m going to stick with it!
Why do you think PinkNews readers should vote to you?
There’s a very specific job I’m asking to do at this election.
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If you vote to me, I will hold the SNP government to account, I will be the strong opposition that our country needs, I will say No to a second referendum on independence, and I’ll make the SNP focus on issues that matter to you.
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Elections to the Scottish Parliament take place on May 5.