5 Nov 2012
WE OFFER A CHOICE, NOT AN ECHO
If a week is supposed to be a long time in politics, a year can flash by in a blur.
It’s hard to believe 12 months have passed and I can say with complete honesty that I’ve never enjoyed myself so much. Let nobody tell you any different, – This is one of the great jobs in Scottish politics.
During the leadership campaign, the party took a long, hard look at itself, knowing that it had to identify failures if it was going to build success.
A declining membership, an aging base, a public unable to identify what we stand for and in many cases unwilling to listen. An inability to reach out beyond our own, a policy platform not resonating with the ordinary Scot, 19 years of decline and stagnation at the ballot box.
But with 3 and a half years before the next general election and four and a half years before the next Scottish election – I had not just the opportunity, but also the responsibility to do the hard graft of unglamorous reform that the electorate never sees but that helps create, define and deliver the message that propels people to the voting booth.
A recruitment drive, overhauling our management, grassroots and campaign structures. A focus on policy – engaging with individuals and groups outside of the conservatives and using their expertise to help us build the policy platform that will take us forward. A Rural Commission to reach out to all of Scotland – not just the central belt so often the focus at Holyrood.
Attracting fifty thousand people to help us campaign under the Conservative Friends of the Union banner.
Bringing on that next generation of Conservatives who will take our party forward – so it is not just the face of the Scottish Conservatives that’s changing but the actual faces.
The latest phase of the party reform process will be shared with members at our Convention in Dundee on the 25th while the hard work of policy development and candidate identification and support continues.
But this has been a year of massive change not only for the party in Scotland but for Scotland as a whole.
Now the terms of the independence referendum are all but established, the real substance of the debate can begin.
The SNP claim that only independence – the breakup of Britain – will put Scotland in charge of its own destiny.
But the future that matters most is already in our own hands; the future of ourselves, our families and communities.
Scotland will make a decision in 2014 – the biggest political decision we have ever faced – and its effects, if Scotland were to opt for independence, would be profound and irreversible.
But it should not distract us from the real challenges we face.
Today, more than 220,000 of our fellow Scots are looking for work, and nearly one in four young people are struggling to find a job.
More than a fifth of a million Scottish children live in poverty.
Health inequalities between the richest and poorest in Scotland remain stubbornly high.
Nearly half of those released from Scottish prisons reoffend within a year.
These challenges will not be met by independence; by swapping one set of flags and emblems for a different set; exchanging one parliament for another.
There’s a debate to be had about our future constitutional arrangements, but those who believe – as the SNP do – that the resolution to that debate would be a panacea; an answer to the real challenges faced by Scots in their everyday lives, are deluding themselves and doing their country a disservice.
The real power for positive change does not lie in Westminster or Holyrood – far less Brussels – or in the hands of any single politician.
It lies in the hands of the millions of ordinary Scots who simply want to get on with their lives, look after themselves and their families, do their jobs, build their businesses, and improve and contribute to their communities.
They are the Scots who might need a help up to take control of their own lives, but who don’t want a hand out so that they live at the expense of their neighbours.
Even in a time of economic hardship, they still believe that honest hard work can and will reward them and their families.
They want to succeed in life and make sure that the world they leave to their children enjoys a better standard of living than they have known themselves.
And while they want, and indeed are entitled to, the reassurance that support will be there for them if they struggle, they don’t look first to the government to provide solutions to their problems.
I made a speech a few weeks ago – where I talked about the size of government – you may have read about it because it attracted quite a bit of attention.
It was described by some as an ‘all-out attack on the state’, and while it was in fact no such thing, it did pose two legitimate and urgent questions.
What is the appropriate size of the state that governs us, and what is the relationship that should exist between each of us as private individuals and that government?
We Conservatives have a straightforward answer to both those questions.
We don’t work for the government, the government works for us. And a government that is overbearing, that over-regulates our lives, that over-taxes us, and that spends too much in our name, does not work in the best interests of the people, but in its own interest.
That is not to attack the public sector, but simply to recognise its limits.
It is not to run down those who work in our public services, but to state the simple fact that the funding for the services that we all value is not limitless and relies upon a vibrant private sector economy and the tax receipts it yields.
And it’s not just all about money, as our opponents would have you believe. It’s about our character as a country; it’s about who we are and who we want to be.
The more government takes on responsibility, the more it takes away freedom from us all.
The bigger the size of the state, the smaller the role left for the individual citizen, and the poorer society is for it.
It’s time to restore the freedom of individuals to pursue their own lives within the law, with the minimum of interference by government.
It’s time to trust people to make the right choices for themselves, for their families and their communities.
It’s time to halt and reverse the growth of government because we have reached the point where the extent of the state no longer benefits society but threatens to harm it.
You know, there are those who will say that to speak this truth is bad politics.
If so, then so be it.
I’d sooner be accused of bad politics than sit silently and collude in the practice of bad government.
Scotland’s future does not lie in more government, more regulation, more taxation and more political interference in our lives; it lies in less of these.
And above all, the future lies in the people of Scotland whose creativity, energy, industriousness and generosity of spirit will, if freed from the burdens of over-government, be the foundations of a fairer and more prosperous society for all.
That’s why the Scottish Conservatives will offer a clear choice to the people of Scotland, and not just an echo of the left-wing consensus that has dominated the devolution years.
We are a party of choice, responsibility, enterprise, low taxation and strong but limited government, and we stand solidly with those Scots who also believe in these values.
We are a party that champions individual choice because people and not governments make the decisions that are best for themselves, their families and communities.
And nowhere is the need for more choice greater than in our educational system.
The value of a good education is embedded deep in Scotland’s national character; the ideal of the ‘lad o’ pairts’, the young Scot who is able to rise from lowly origins thanks to open access to an excellent educational system.
It was and is a noble ideal, but sadly it is no longer an ideal we must seek to maintain, but one to which we must aspire.
There is an educational divide in Scotland today.
It’s not a divide between able pupils and less able pupils, or between the state and independent sectors, but between those from better off neighbourhoods and those from poorer backgrounds.
And the truth nobody will speak is that our system of comprehensive education, as it currently exists in Scotland, risks entrenching that divide.
Our schooling suffers stagnation under a government driven by narrow nationalism and ideology.
The lack of choice available to parents over the school their children attend cements Scotland’s educational Berlin Wall.
It is our mission – our duty – to tear down that wall.
To break down the barriers that stand between tens of thousands of Scotland’s young people and the fulfilment of their dreams.
To end the cycle of low expectations that lock too many of our fellow citizens into lives which never achieve their full potential…
To spread the precious benefits of a first class education to all of Scotland’s young people, no matter their background.
That’s the Conservative way; an education system that lives up to the Scottish ideal and that closes the attainment gap. …Parents as full partners in their kids’ education, and leaving no child under-served.
It means policies to increase the diversity of schools available to Scottish pupils, and reforms to give to the poorest parent the right enjoyed by the wealthiest – to choose the school that is best for their children.
The Scottish Conservatives are a party of responsibility. We believe that people must take responsibility for the decisions they make and bear the consequences if they break the law. Freedom cannot exist without responsibility and respect for the rule of law.
The reasons why people drift into lives of crime are many, complicated, and interconnected.
Unstable living conditions, economic disadvantage, peer pressure, poor parental supervision. Deep rooted problems with no easy solutions.
But I wonder if we too often approach this from the wrong perspective. Politicians and policymakers spend a lot of time asking themselves what makes families and communities dysfunctional.
I think we should look more at what makes for successful and stable families and communities.
Things like personal independence, loving and supportive parents, parents taking an interest in their kids’ friends and activities, school attendance and good social skills.
That’s why helping get people off welfare and into work, and supporting the family are so important.
For too many young Scots, the first illegal act they commit, however minor, puts them on the motorway of crime that leads all the way to a prison cell.
We must get them off that motorway, and divert them onto the exit roads of education, employment, a stable family life, and a stake in their community.
A good education, a secure job, a stable and loving family and the hope and prospect of a better life are the most effective crime prevention measures possible.
But as Conservatives we also know that, no matter an individual’s circumstances, everyone has the capacity to make individual choices.
…To choose to commit crime, or to choose not to.
Understanding the social circumstances that draw people into a life of crime must never be to excuse crime, or to relieve those responsible for crime of the consequences of their actions.
…And that means a justice system in which people can have confidence.
Most ordinary Scots believe that the SNP government’s policy on crime is simply too soft, and that offenders have more rights than victims.
It says everything about the SNP’s wrong-headed priorities that they have made time to scrap short-term custodial sentences, but refused to find time to end the continuing scandal of automatic early release from prison.
The result? More and more criminals are carrying out offenses but are only being given community sentences to punish them, and more than a third of those are breached.
Weak sentencing, half-time prison terms and community sentences that are little more than a slap on the wrist…
These are not the people’s priorities, and they are not the priorities of the Scottish Conservatives.
It’s time for an end for automatic early release from prison and for honesty in sentencing.
It’s time for community sentences to be rigorously enforced, for them to include a meaningful work element, and for firm penalties – including custodial sentences – to be imposed if they are breached.
It’s time for an end to the over-reliance on maintenance drugs like methadone, which trap addicts into a life of dependency.
And it’s time for a radical change in prison policy, to help close the revolving door of re-offending; teaching offenders the skills and self-disciplines needed to get and hold down a job, to provide for their families and contribute positively to their communities.
Straightforward, no-nonsense, Conservative policies that reflect the concerns of mainstream Scotland. Policies to cut crime and antisocial behaviour, make our communities safer and improve the quality of life of ordinary Scots.
Scottish Conservatives want to see people keep more of the money they earn and not have it eaten up by excessive government spending. We believe in prioritising the family budget over the government budget.
That is why we are committed to reducing personal taxation when the power to do so comes to the Scottish Parliament in 2016 and I want us to look further to see if 1p in the pound is all we can afford
Too often the debate over the appropriate level of taxation has been reduced simply to a problem of government financing. How much of the public’s earnings to which the government lays claim in order to fund the policies it wants to pursue.
The debate proceeds from an assumption that the government has an unconditional claim to our earnings and all that matters is the extent to which it chooses to exercise its claim.
It’s high time this was challenged; for government spending to be curbed, and for the principle to be re-established that the claim of an individual to the fruits of their labour is greater than that of the government and its tax collection machinery.
The real economic growth we all want to see, and the future prosperity in which we want all Scots to share, will not come from the government marshalling or monopolising our nation’s economic power. It will only come from liberating that power from the constraints of state control and political direction.
Reducing the cost of government and cutting the burden of tax is the pathway to that future growth and prosperity, but instead we are seeing an increase in the tax burden businesses are expected to bear.
The SNP’s tactic is to blame Westminster for its failures and claim it has no power to do anything. But with a budget of over £30 billion and control of enterprise, education, infrastructure, planning and taxation it huge power to make a massive difference to enterprise in Scotland.
And their lack of action is showing, with unemployment levels in Scotland now higher than the UK’s and GDP falling further behind the UK’s.
The CBI recently called on the Scottish Government to improve the background conditions for business. The response? A re-heat of the previous year’s budget which did nothing to boost the economy and jobs.
In fact, their budget did the opposite – spending on housing slashed by nearly £100m; the college budget cut by £74m at a time when total house building in Scotland has slumped to its lowest level since 1947; and more than 81,000 young people are now looking for a job in Scotland.
They made no reduction to their £95 million raid on retail from last year, and have plans to introduce a third unwanted tax on plastic bag use in Scotland.
Their crippling new tax on empty properties has just been voted through, even though Scottish commercial property deals recently slumped to their lowest level for over six years.
The Scottish Government, according to Liz Cameron of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, displays “at best a total lack of understanding of the pressures facing businesses in Scotland today.”
Well, we will make sure we are in the best position to speak up on behalf of Scottish business and our business commission will launch early in the New Year with the express intention of producing a set of policies to give Scotland a competitive edge.
Meanwhile, our Rural Commission has been gathering submissions since its launch three months ago and should be in a position to report this spring, again with the aim of producing a set of policies which will help all our rural communities enjoy a stable and sustainable future.
Energy production is very much part of that sustainability and we have heard much in recent weeks about the onward march of wind farms both onshore and offshore.
Wind energy does have a part to play in Scotland’s energy mix and we have set up an energy working party to look at the entire issue and I am delighted to say we will be in a position to publish its findings by the end of the month.
Communities across Scotland are crying out for some sense of balance amidst the SNP government’s headlong rush to carpet the countryside with wind turbines.
Only last week, the First Minister suggested that only if we accelerate the process will what he calls ‘an ambitious target’ of 50 per cent be met by 2015.
Yet we know from the Scottish Parliament’s own figures if all the schemes which are currently operational, under construction or have consent come on stream then renewable sources will be able to provide 63 per cent of Scotland’s electricity.
That’s right, all the permitted schemes will hit 63 per cent, probably before the end of 2015. A 50 per cent target isn’t ambitious at all, it looks very like a deliberate under-estimation.
Even if the brakes are applied, he will still overshoot his target.
What is more, if all the schemes currently in planning went into operation, the figure will reach 120 per cent. And the irony is, as was pointed out at the weekend, it’s all being subsidised by UK energy consumers.
So we are being led to believe that nothing can halt the march of the turbines when, as besieged communities up and down the country will testify, an urgent re-examination is needed, not acceleration.
With the SNP government’s refusal to listen to local concerns, is this Mr Salmond’s version of scorched earth? He might not be able to break up Britain but he’s devastating the landscape as he retreats.
This cannot be right and some sense of reason and balance is badly needed. That is what our new energy policies will deliver.
We hear a lot of talk these days about freedom, most of it in the negative about this great United Kingdom the Nationalists seek to break up.
Well I want to talk about freedom too.
Freedom for Scottish communities to decide for themselves what’s right for them and not have ideologically-driven decisions forced upon them.
Freedom for Scottish parents to choose the best school for their children.
Freedom for Scottish businesses to grow without their ability to expand hobbled by a tax-hungry Holyrood.
Freedom for people to reap the rewards of their effort and industry
Freedom for people to make their own choices while accepting that those choices come with responsibility.
Freedom to speak your mind without intimidation.
These are the kind of freedoms in which Conservatives believe and they are more relevant now than they have ever been.