23 Aug 2016
Ruth Davidson spoke in Edinburgh to urge the SNP government to “get back to the day job”.
After a summer in which the SNP has sought to revive its campaign for independence following the EU vote, the Scottish Conservative leader will say the Scottish Government needs to focus 100 per cent on using existing and new powers to boost the country’s prospects.
“Good morning everybody and thank you very much indeed for coming out this morning.
We meet today in the second half of a summer which feels like it has spanned several geological periods, never mind a few months.
It began back in the mists of time with the Scottish Parliament elections in early May – and the doubling of Scottish Conservative representation at Holyrood.
It feels good to say that – so let’s repeat it: TWICE the number of Conservative MSPs at Holyrood.
We then had the EU referendum in late June and the election of a new Prime Minister taking over from David Cameron in July.
Indeed, the only thing that feels familiar – particularly for us in the party in Scotland – is having a woman at the helm.
It has been a remarkable, dizzying period.
But, in truth, it has only really been an acceleration of what has been a much longer period of upheaval and instability for us all.
A period which began with the global financial crash – now nearly a decade ago – but which is still being felt in every pay packet in the country.
A period which has seen the foundations of the United Kingdom tested to the limit, with the three year long independence campaign which ended in 2014.
Indeed, here in Scotland, since 2010, it’s been a period in which we have slogged our way through no fewer than six nationwide elections and a grand total of three referenda.
The political arena has rarely been busier; our attention span before we hit the next tumultuous election rarely shorter.
It has all made for great copy and plenty of photo-ops – guilty as charged.
But it has also been an unsettling period which has made long-term thinking harder to do.
And standing here – as we prepare to start a new parliamentary year – I believe Scotland now faces a choice.
Either we can add to the turbulence and the instability – by piling fresh doubt over our future on top of that which already exists.
Or we can now work to try and put this period of instability behind us so we can all focus on building a stronger and more stable country.
It is an opportunity that is in our grasp. And I want to talk today about how vital it is that we choose to take it.
To focus on all that has been neglected these last few years – a long-term vision for our country’s economic security.
And to properly grip the real and urgent challenges we face, as much here in Scotland as anywhere else in the developed world.
And in so doing, I want today to challenge the Scottish Government.
…because we now need a new type of Government in Scotland.
One which no longer sees every issue through the prism of independence and the constitution.
But one 100% committed to the job in hand.
Now, I am afraid this summer has not exactly filled me with optimism in that regard.
Because, in the last few weeks, in the wake of the EU referendum result, the signs of the Scottish Government ‘getting’ this have been thin on the ground.
As everyone knows, I did not favour the decision to leave the European Union on June 23rd.
But now that the vote has been taken, the focus must be on ensuring the best future for us all.
I believe Britain can rise to that challenge.
But I find myself frustrated by the SNP’s cynicism.
Frustrated at the way Nicola Sturgeon has taken my vote – my vote to Remain – and used it to try and further her own political ends.
Announcing within hours of the referendum result that she’d instructed legislation to be drafted for a second referendum on independence.
And twisting the disappointment felt by many over the EU result into support for separation.
Well I, for one, did not vote for Remain to see my vote co-opted into a fresh SNP independence drive.
I did not vote Remain to see the SNP using my vote to nurture yet more grievance.
I did not vote Remain to allow Nicola Sturgeon to take Scotland backwards.
And nor did thousands of Scots either.
So I say on their behalf – it’s time to make a more positive step; and to turn our full attention and energies to where they should always belong – looking to the future.
…By facing up to the trials to come and preparing to overcome them.
…By resolving to turn the reality of our new global relationships to our best advantage.
…and by working together across the UK to ensure we get the best deal possible for all of us.
I believe that’s what the people of Scotland want and expect of us all.
Now, the SNP don’t want us to put aside the arguments of the past and move on – and it’s obvious why.
Because it suits their own political purposes to double down on division.
But they owe it to Scotland to end the cynical posturing and instead knuckle down to the serious work at hand.
And to give at least some focus onto what we expect a normal Scottish Government to do – which is to exercise its actual responsibilities.
THE DAY JOB
Now – I can quite understand why the SNP would rather not talk about that.
After all, a constitutional war with Westminster is a far easier story to tell than trying to defend their indefensible named person scheme, or the record number of Scottish students denied a university place, or their failure to recruit enough GPs.
But people did not vote for a Government so it could spend its day dreaming up green ink letters to send to Whitehall.
Nor to work up ways to reheat an independence referendum whose result it promised to respect.
Nor to suddenly declare a political Union in Brussels as sacrosanct, in order to trash a union here, that Scotland helped to build, and voted to support less than two years ago.
People voted in May for a Scottish Government that would do the job – and face up to the challenges ahead.
Those challenges are now obvious, they are pressing, and they require immediate attention.
To begin with, there are the worrying signals on the state of the Scottish economy.
The fall in unemployment last week was welcome – but figures last month revealed that there was no growth at all in Scotland in the first quarter of this year.
And before the keyboard warriors in the SNP get to work, let’s spell it out that this was well before the EU vote.
Meanwhile, leading economists are warning that the prospects for growth in Scotland are now back to levels not seen since 2008.
Big construction projects, like the new Forth Crossing, are now coming to an end.
And, with the oil and gas sector in such tough times, our underlying fragility is being exposed.
We need a government which can show how best we approach these tough times.
Instead, we don’t get a list of solutions – we get a tirade of complaints.
Ask a Scottish Government Minister about welfare and they can recite grievances about UK Government policy backwards.
Ask them for when they want to take on new powers on disability benefits or indeed what they have planned for when they are devolved, and we have no idea.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. The one thing we do now know is that the SNP no longer want the word ‘benefit’ to be used at all.
So there you have it. Where we need clarity on future policy delivery, the SNP instead offer an exercise in semantics.
And the price of this failure in government is now clear to see.
We have boasts about Higher Education – only for Audit Scotland to conclude earlier this summer that it has become “more difficult” for Scottish students to get a place at University than when the SNP came to power.
We have pats on the back about the crime rate – only for anonymous police officers to declare they aren’t chasing drug dealers because it’ll cost too much in overtime.
And we have the grotesque sight of senior SNP Ministers attacking deeply held concerns over their named persons plan – and then failing to apologise once when it turns out those plans are unlawful and the concerns justified.
It goes on:
Missed targets on detecting cancer, with people in the poorest parts of Scotland likely to be diagnosed far later than those in richer areas.
A bungled payments system for farmers, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds, which has deprived our rural communities of vital funds.
And the total failure to get to grips with an education system which has overseen ever lower standards of literacy and numeracy – again, with our poorest communities suffering the most.
Are all of these things the sole fault of the Scottish Government? Of course not.
Should we be looking across society – and not just to government – for answers as to how we improve things and get our country moving again? Of course we should.
But – should we expect our Scottish Government to make the actual issues for which they have responsibility their clear priority – Yes. Absolutely.
It is time for solutions, not excuses.
The SNP are not novices. They have held office as the government of Scotland for nine long years and we are entitled to expect better of them.
We are entitled to expect a bit of vision.
…Some real leadership to take our country forward. So today, I want to focus on the economy and set out some ideas for action.
Something that amounts to more than simply re-announcing a tranche of spending that we already knew was coming.
Instead, something to give us a competitive edge for the Scottish economy – to give us a chance as we fight against the head winds coming our way.
I believe strongly in Scotland’s ability to successfully do business with the rest of the world.
But we must never rest on our laurels. In a fast-moving world we need to swiftly adapt to changing political and economic landscapes.
The UK Government’s new Department for International Trade is already seeking out opportunities for new trade deals and new markets for British businesses.
Scottish businesses will benefit from these, but surely there’s a need for the Scottish Government to take a far more proactive approach?
There are further steps we could and should be taking right now to support Scottish exports.
So – number one.
Just as the new UK Department for International Trade is reaching out across the world to identify new markets and strike new trade deals, the Scottish Government should be extending the on-the-ground presence of its own trade promotion agency, Scottish Development International.
Take the case of Scotch whisky exports.
The Scotch Whisky Association have identified Latin America as a big and growing market.
One in six of all bottles shipped overseas are bound for Latin America and whisky now represents one third of all Scottish exports to the region.
But there is currently only one SDI office in the entire South American continent, and none at all in Central America.
It is time to re-evaluate the support provided by the Scottish Government for our exporters, and a big expansion of our trade promotion network must be a cornerstone of that review.
So if we are to effectively compete against the rest of the world, what about more action to support production at home?
We’ve made good progress here in Scotland in getting people back to work – a further 17,000 more men and women in employment over the last quarter.
But productivity is lower than the rest of the UK.
And this matters enormously, because productivity is the most important driver of long-term economic growth.
So we need to continue to get more people into secure, well-paid jobs – but we need at the same time to begin to tackle Scotland’s productivity gap. That’s the key to the higher growth and better living standards we all want to achieve.
So – number two.
Any studies on productivity highlight the need for good digital infrastructure.
And I’m not surprised. Let me share a story that caught my attention.
Last year, O2 partnered up with St Helens Council in Merseyside to give local small businesses ‘digital makeovers’, including access to tablets, laptops and a mobile printer.
A report on the pilot was published earlier this year and its conclusions are striking.
It estimated that measures within the pilot could inject an additional £46 million pounds into local economy by 2020, representing additional growth of 10%.
And that growth would be driven through increased job creation, enhanced workforce productivity and supply chain multiplier effects.
Imagine bringing those benefits to towns, local authority areas and – crucially – employment blackspots across Scotland.
Speeding up the rollout of superfast broadband therefore has to be the highest priority – for both governments.
It was the Scottish Conservatives that first proposed a Universal Service Obligation for broadband and I am glad that the UK Government is now taking this forward.
But it will require significant capital investment too, and so far we’ve heard nothing from the First Minister on this.
We need to move fast to take full advantage of growth in the digital economy, but I fear the SNP’s attention is too often elsewhere.
And digital isn’t the only example of this need to more firmly grasp the opportunities presented by new technologies.
Let’s look at renewables.
I’ve criticised windfarms when they damage precious countryside, and when their subsidies push up bills for families and businesses.
But that should not be confused with a lack of belief in Scotland’s potential to be a dynamo of energy production –from many different sources.
Looking to the future, offshore wind, wave and tidal, renewable heat and energy storage must all have a part to play in powering Scotland forward.
And I want to see further action taken to push on with that renewable revolution.
So – number three.
There is already a huge amount of renewable research and development work being done across both the public and private sectors.
But there is also a need to better coordinate these efforts.
Scottish Renewables – the representative body of our renewable energy industry – has suggested there is a need for a ‘focal point for this activity to ensure that it is appropriately ‘fostered and guided.”
They are calling for the creation of a Sustainable Energy Innovation Centre, to provide that strategic focus and ensure that Scotland remains in the vanguard of renewable energy innovation.
It would draw together businesses, government, universities and communities.
It would help support workforce development and education, progress and prove new technologies, incubate businesses and bridge the gap between renewables R&D and the marketplace.
It’s an opportunity we mustn’t miss.
So today, I’m committing the Scottish Conservatives to supporting the creation of a Sustainable Energy Innovation Centre.
Offshore wind, ocean energy, renewable heat and energy storage will all be vital in securing future jobs and a new energy system for Scotland.
Let’s make sure we’re primed and ready to secure the maximum benefit from these new technologies.
Basically, I want to see a bit more ambition from the Scottish Government.
The kind of ambition that will help Scottish businesses as they break into new markets, drive up productivity and get ahead of the curve when it comes to harnessing new technologies
The kind of ambition that will see Scotland capture and keep a competitive edge.
That doesn’t mark Scotland down as the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom, when income tax powers come in next week.
That gives businesses a break by bearing down on the rates they pay.
That shows we are open for business for good.
And that understands that ambition and success can only be built on firm foundations – as a strong nation within the United Kingdom.
Something which will only be highlighted this week.
Tomorrow, the Scottish Government will publish its annual income and expenditure figures – having decided to bring them out in the summer to avoid pre-election or parliamentary scrutiny.
With the oil price so low, they are likely to show the continuing financial challenges that Scotland is facing.
And why we are better off as part of a wider Union which – during the bad times – means we can withstand shocks like a fall in the oil price without a sudden crash in revenue.
Even one of Nicola Sturgeon’s own MPs has now admitted that there would be five years of cuts if we were to become independent right now.
And it’s not as if these are the musings of some obscure backbencher that can be dismissed as irrelevant. They are the considered view of Nicola Sturgeon’s representative on the House of Commons Treasury Committee.
I give him full marks for honesty, but probably only a one out of ten for his future career prospects within the SNP.
No doubt tomorrow we will get the usual bluster from the SNP in response to all this.
But the best response would simply be this.
End the uncertainty, put a referendum on independence to one side, and let us all focus on the issues that matter.
Nothing would better show that this SNP Government is prepared to put Scotland’s priorities ahead of its own internal politicking.
Nothing would better demonstrate that this really is a grown up government not simply narrow nationalists.
Enough of the tricksy arguments that no-one has the right to prevent a second referendum.
Enough playing to the SNP gallery and appeasing the party rank and file. Scotland shouldn’t be put aside for a few thousand diehards who do not represent mainstream opinion.
I say to Nicola Sturgeon: We had the vote on independence two years ago. You promised to respect the result. Even your own figures show independence doesn’t add up. Now show some leadership and let us all get on with our lives.
For far too long, Scotland has been on pause while this Scottish Government plots its next political campaign.
And for far too long over this last tumultuous decade, we have all spent time focussing on the short-term vote, not Scotland’s long-term potential.
Even some of the SNP’s own supporters are against the idea of a rush to another referendum – indeed we saw a group of pro-independence business figures tell the FT as much only yesterday.
So let the start of this new parliamentary year be the moment we put an end to it. Let the Programme for government contain no talk of referendum.
We have many challenges to face.
But Scotland can face them down, if we have the resolve to do so.
We need to work together to get the best deal in Europe. There are new tax and welfare powers at Holyrood to deal with. We have a health and education service here in Scotland which needs urgent attention.
We need a Government in charge, not a permanent campaign for independence.
Scotland has had enough of referenda for one lifetime.
It’s time we had a government that got back to the day job.
It’s time we all got back to the job in hand.