It takes a lot, in this age of rampant trolling, for an ambitious politician to reveal a potential chink in the armour. Nobody wants to give their enemies something to work with.
And that’s all the more true when it has to do with mental health. Increasingly, some MPs do feel able to talk about episodes of depression, anxiety or, more simply, crises in their personal lives. But it’s still not easy and that’s what makes parts of the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s new book, in which she describes what happened to her at university, so striking.
Yes She Can: Why Women Own The Future is primarily a book about other women who have reached the top, including Theresa May. But it includes Davidson’s own experience, as a working-class kid from a comprehensive, of coming up against the seemingly bulletproof confidence of public-school kids fresh from their gap yahs and suddenly finding herself “lost” and struggling. “If I’d known then that knowledge was not the same as intelligence, and confidence no substitute for ability, I might not have struggled so much,” she writes. “But another event crashed into my world.” A boy from her home village died by suicide; they hadn’t been close but like Davidson, who was seriously injured when she was run over by a lorry aged five, he had survived a childhood car crash and his death seems to have triggered something. She went, she says, into a “total tailspin” as a result: “I really struggled with the idea that I deserved to live – having nearly lost my life – when others with much less damaging injuries were gone.”
It's hard to put a label on exactly what she's describing, given the extract published at the weekend by The Sunday Times doesn't go into much detail. But, by bracketing this episode alongside two dramatic physical injuries – the road accident and a broken back sustained in Territorial Army training – as formative experiences in her life, Davidson hasn't just made a point about gaining strength through adversity. She’s drawn a clear parallel between mental and physical health, and that’s refreshing to see.
The conventional idea of a politician in general, and perhaps a Tory politician in particular, has for so long been someone untroubled by anything so human as self-doubt
It’s not the first time Davidson has hinted at a difficult coming of age. In a recent interview with Vogue, she talked of struggling in her twenties with being gay and also Christian, and how that took its toll on her wellbeing, adding that “there were times when to cover up the fact I wasn’t very well I would be, you know, the funniest person in the room”.
It’s an unbelievably ordinary story in one sense, since millions of people will have experienced something like it. And as the stigma of saying so thankfully begins to lift, more and more of us are opening up about anything, from formal diagnoses of mental-health conditions to something harder to define; life experiences that pushed us close to the edge, or times we’ve just needed a bit of help. But it’s still the sort of story that, a decade ago, an ambitious politician might have kept quiet, just in case it was twisted and used against them. The conventional idea of a politician in general, and perhaps a Tory politician in particular, has for so long been someone untroubled by anything so human as self-doubt.
But Davidson’s appeal is precisely that she’s not one of the born-to-rule brigade. Nobody doubts her determination and drive, but she was 30 before she even joined the Conservative party and, while some now see her as a future successor to May, compared with rivals she seems genuinely in two minds about wanting the top job. Currently pregnant with her first child, she openly admits to being unsure how that will affect her career, either. Her strength comes from a disarming ability to acknowledge what were once seen as weaknesses – and doing so only seems to make her more popular, she’s helped change the conversation about what leadership means. Whatever you think of her politics, that’s to her credit.
But it’s also a cheering reminder that public opinion can shift faster than we sometimes think. Roll on the day when everyone can be open about difficult periods in their life – mental, physical or anywhere in between – and not be professionally judged for it.