Scotland First

25 Jan 2013

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson today made a keynote speech in Edinburgh about the party and its relationship with the people of Scotland.

Ruth said:

Good afternoon and happy Burns Day.

The wise words of Burns have echoed through the generations and their sentiments remain as relevant today as when he wrote them over two centuries ago.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It’s a caution of which we should all take heed, perhaps politicians especially so.

The Scottish Conservatives are Scotland’s oldest political party.

Over the hundred years of our history, we have known the highs of great victory and the lows of crushing defeat.

The largest vote ever cast for any party in Scotland’s history was for the Scottish Conservatives – 1.35 million votes, three generations ago in 1951.

Two generations ago, in the 1970s, over a million Scots still voted for us.

As recently as 1992, one in four Scots voted Scottish Conservative.

At the general election three years ago, one in six did so – fewer than half a million Scots.

We have to ask ourselves why?

We know it’s not been for lack of effort.

If effort alone determined the outcome of elections then our recent history would be a very different one.

We could choose to believe the popular myth that Scotland is an irredeemably left-wing country; that there is simply no constituency of support for the values we hold.

But that’s not true.  Every day, you and I meet Scots who share the same values as we do but who choose not to support us at the ballot box.

We could comfort ourselves in the belief that it’s not been our fault; that we have just been misrepresented, misunderstood.

Comforting, but not the case.

I have said before that the time for sack-cloth and ashes is over.  And so it is.

I am a proud Scottish Conservative.  And I am proud of the Scottish Conservatives.

Proud of our past and I believe passionately in our future.

But to continue to duck the hard questions about our lack of electoral success would be to let ourselves down.

Worse, it would be to continue to fail the hundreds of thousands of Scots who have looked to us for leadership, but who have in the past found us wanting.

Many within our party would take the view that we simply failed to properly explain ourselves; that we didn’t express ourselves clearly enough and that if only the Scottish public understood our message then they would reward us with their votes.

There may be some truth to that, and that we failed to properly explain ourselves in the past.

But I’m not going to stand here and claim that the decline in our support over the last two decades is somehow all down to poor marketing.

We need to admit something to ourselves – however hard it may be; that the Scottish public did indeed get our message, that they heard us very clearly.

And in far too many cases they simply didn’t like what they were hearing, or what we were offering.

There are the usual suspects; the poll tax, our opposition to the Scottish Parliament far beyond the point when it was clear that it was the settled will of the Scottish people.

We’ve talked the talk of devolution, but perhaps too often failed to walk the walk.

Too often we appeared to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland.  Often we gave the impression of just not listening.

But we need to admit something else too; that the problem goes much deeper.

For too many people the Scottish Conservatives have been regarded as a brake on the aspirations of Scotland and not a torch-bearer.

Support for the Scottish Conservatives didn’t drop so dramatically because hundreds of thousands of Scots abruptly ceased to share our values.

It happened because Scotland was setting out on a journey without the Scottish Conservative Party on board.

Scotland was gaining self-confidence and wanted a stronger voice.

Scots with Conservative values felt this as strongly as anyone but it was something the Scottish Conservatives as a party struggled to accept.

Uncomfortable though it may be to admit, but too many of our fellow Scots whose values we share simply don’t trust our motives.

When it comes to General elections, they see us as London’s party in Scotland not Scotland’s representatives in London.

When it comes to elections to the Scottish Parliament, they want to vote for a party that will put Scotland first, and too few truly believe that of us.

You and I would dispute the characterisation.  It’s not who we really are.

We are a proudly Scottish party which puts Scotland and the interests of the Scottish people first.

But we need to understand the reasons so many of our countrymen and countrywomen don’t see it the same way as us.

We don’t just need to understand it; we need to prove Scotland is our primary concern and will always be in the future.

Scotland is on a journey.

I do not believe that the end destination should, or will, be independence, but we need to climb on board if we are to help shape a positive future for our country.

It’s time for a renewed Scottish Conservative party to catch up with the new Scotland. And more – to start to lead again.

…Because the Scotland of today – the new Scotland – is a very different country from the Scotland of even twenty years ago.

This is a country with a new sense of confidence, and one rightly demanding political parties which reflect that self-belief.

So what represents the best of a new Scotland?

Well, there’s our creative industries sector which supports over 60,000 jobs and contributes £5 billion to our economy.

Ranked third in Europe’s top 50 games developer locations, Scotland’s computer games and animation industries, based largely in Dundee and Edinburgh, is a world-leader.

Look at our flourishing film and broadcast industries, Glasgow’s Digital Media Quarter based at Atlantic Quay.

Or the box office blockbusters filmed or set in Scotland in just the last year which have raised our international profile; Prometheus, World War Z and, of course, Skyfall.

With that kind of showcase it should be no surprise American news giant CNN has named Scotland as the top travel destination for 2013.

Scotland’s cutting-edge aerospace industries, including manufacture and maintenance, repair and overhaul and technological development, support 8,000 Scottish jobs and are currently worth around £1.6 billion a year to our economy.

And what about the Scotch Whisky industry?

Scotch Whisky accounts for one quarter of all UK food and drink exports, an incredible statistic.

The industry supports 36,000 jobs across Scotland and the rest of the UK, generates £4bn in exports each year and accounted for 55% of the growth in Scotland’s international export markets over the last decade.

Last year, the Scottish Conservatives celebrated its centenary as a modern political party, the same years as the Scotch Whisky Association celebrated its own hundredth anniversary.

I think it’s fair to say that their last decade has been more successful than ours.

But I see a parallel.

And a lesson.

Scotch Whisky is enjoying what has been described as it’s ‘second golden age’.

It has achieved this new success by challenging assumptions and appealing to new markets.

And so must we.

The new Scotland is not a Scotland of ‘no, we can’t’; it’s a Scotland of ‘yes, we can’.

The Scottish Conservatives must no longer be a party of ‘no, you can’t’; but unequivocally the party of ‘We can and will.’

And while the confidence of the new Scotland predates our Scottish Parliament, there is no doubt that it is inextricably bound up with the development of that parliament.

Ask a Conservative how much power should be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood.

Everyone, friend and foe alike, thinks they knows what the answer will be.

As little as possible.

That’s a forgivable assumption.

As the support for the establishment of a Scottish parliament grew, Scottish Conservative leaders and representatives almost always argued against more powers for Scotland.

We need to understand why.

To an extent they were products of their environment.

They were born in an era I have described, when Scottish Tories frequently outpolled the other parties.

When unionism wasn’t so much a political position as an almost unquestioned assumption.

Many of them cut their political teeth campaigning for a ‘no’ vote in the 1979 referendum.

And were at the forefront of opposition to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the late nineties.

For them, support for a unitary state was a matter of principle.

I was less than six months old when the original referendum took place and I was a still a teenager at the time of the 1997 vote.

My entire political life has been lived in the devolution era.

Like many instinctive Conservatives, I too voted no in 1997.

But like some I actually voted no/yes, because I believed that if the parliament were to be established it should have responsibilities for the contribution of Scotland’s people.

That is why I support the Scotland Act which will, in 2016, see the greatest transfer of fiscal power to Scotland in 300 years.

My opposition to the founding of the Scottish Parliament was never a matter of ideology but borne of a concern that devolution would be a step on the road towards the break-up of Britain and ultimately lead to an uncertain future as a peripheral nation.

My concern for the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom apart remains as strong as ever. And it is abundantly clear the majority of people in Scotland also share that concern.

But viewing devolution only through the prism of the threat of separation has been too one-dimensional.

It is equally clear the majority also want to see the Scottish Parliament assume more responsibility and that will not disappear after the referendum.

Nor will the undeniable tensions within the United Kingdom go away.

However unjustified, there is resentment in the South caused by an unfair perception of Scotland as over-subsidised. And the West Lothian question of the voting rights of Scottish MPs on England-only legislation has never been answered satisfactorily.

These problems need solutions.

One of the benefits of knowing when the independence referendum will take place is that we, as a nation, are no longer embroiled in an open-ended disagreement about our future.

The terms of the debate have been set and in the autumn of next year, we’ll settle our constitutional future in the proper way – a democratic vote of the Scottish people.

The final decision will be straightforward and I’m increasingly confident that it will be that we’re better off together.

But this is a real opportunity for those of us with a heartfelt belief that Scotland is stronger as part of Great Britain to use this time creatively to explore where we want the balance between London and Edinburgh to rest, constitutionally, fiscally and administratively.

One thing which inspired me to take a fresh look at how Scotland could work is studying America.

The United States system of government is far from perfect but it is dynamic, diverse and, above all, democratic.

Individual states have powers that are different and in many cases go beyond those of Holyrood. And who would deny the likes of California, New York and Texas have global impact?

But take for example North Carolina. It’s a good place to start because many Carolinians are of Scottish origin.

In some areas the Governor of North Carolina has more scope than the First Minister of Scotland.

In others the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh has further reach than the Scottish Parliament.

And in many ways, the North Carolina Supreme Court has greater powers than the Court of Session.

In other words, an individual state with a population less than double ours can manage its own affairs in a way that we, a historic nation with a wealth of talent and experience, currently does not.

Yet Carolinians don’t want to secede from the United States. Neither do any of the eleven states of the former Confederacy.

And Gettysburg was a lot more recent than Bannockburn.

There will always be debates about where the precise line should be between states’ rights and federal authority but Carolinans are unambiguous.

They’re proud to be Americans. As are Californians, New Yorkers and Texans.

This suggests that, once the debate has been won, the threat of separation has receded and Scotland’s place in the Union is secure, we can take a serious and considered look at a new spread of responsibilities within the UK.

And don’t think the ability and achievement of American civic leaders is lost on Scots.

New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani received a standing ovation in Glasgow in 2010 when he described how he turned crime-ridden, crumbling New York into a safe, successful and competitive city where people wanted to visit, live and work once again.

And, no, he didn’t start by putting up taxes.

Devolution does not stop at the Scottish Parliament. We must also look at passing powers from Holyrood to Scotland’s cities and towns.

If power is best wielded by those who most closely feel its effects then the process of devolution should not begin and end at the Scottish Parliament.

Indeed is the Scottish Parliament not ripe for reform? More powers are coming through the Scotland Act and there are clear signs already that it will struggle to cope.  With more powers must come reform of its functions.

And to ensure the Conservative voice is heard in the process we need to embrace reform with a true sense of belief in a positive future for its institutions.

At the referendum next year, Scotland will vote, but it will not be – must not be – a vote pitting ‘change’ against ‘no change’.

There is an appetite for change and by recognising that we can play our part in bringing Scotland back together after what will unquestionably be a campaign of the highest emotions.

Change is coming and the Scottish Conservatives will be enthusiastic advocates for that change; the positive change that Scotland needs.

The people of Scotland demand nothing less of us.

To rise to the challenges of our time.

To embrace the new Scotland and advance its aspirations.

To put Scotland first.