We need to get the better government we deserve

2 Oct 2016


Today Ruth spoke at the Scottish Conservative fringe event at the national party conference in Birmingham, below is the text of her speech.

“Good afternoon and welcome to Birmingham.

Ladies and gentlemen this is my first speech before a Conservative-only audience for a while.

So I want to start today by thanking everyone in this room, and all those not here today, who helped us in our election campaign earlier this year.

You put in twice the effort – and we got back double the number of MSPs.

It was a magnificent team effort and I am so grateful to you all.

It’s fair to say: the Scottish Conservatives are back.

But we also all know that the real work has only just begun.

We are now the second party in Scotland.

And we must be that strong opposition party which we said we would be in the election campaign.

Now, one thing I have said many times in the last few weeks, is that strong opposition isn’t just about saying where you disagree with the government – though there’s plenty of that to go around.

It’s also about offering an alternative.

I am proud over the last few years of the way we’ve approached those two responsibilities.

We’ve taken the Scottish government to task when necessary: on their centralising agenda, on their shambles over farm payments, and most of all, on their unwanted plan for a second referendum.

But we’ve also sought to seize the political agenda and to spell out a better way of doing things.

It was us who really exposed the scandal of Scotland’s attainment gap– a fact which has been belatedly acknowledged by our opponents.

It was us who highlighted the need for more freedom for our schools and power for parents – something the SNP has been forced to act on.

Now, it is us who are now pressing for a sustainable NHS which can meet the challenges of the coming decades.

I’m biased obviously, but this feels like an improvement on what went before.

Labour’s style of opposition was like a fly in a living room.

An irritating buzzing noise in your ear.

Aimlessly flying around, banging its head against the window pane.

And then getting squashed.

Our plan is a bit different.

Not afraid to stand alone in opposing the consensus that too often exists at Holyrood.

…but also determined to act positively and constructively with an alternative plan.

And what I want to talk about today is how we intend to do that over the coming few years.

With ideas and policies which I believe can be adopted right now by the SNP to get the better government we want.

Not in five years’ time, but now.

And I want to argue this too.

That the barrier to us getting that better government is – too often – the SNP’s divisive threat of yet more constitutional division.

All those things the SNP HAVE to keep doing

…ramping up endless grievance against the UK Government;

…appeasing their membership that the promised land is on its way;

…spending every waking hour working out how to keep their dream alive

…that’s what is keeping us from having the better government and the better Scotland we all want.

Scotland doesn’t need a return to the divisions of the independence referendum.

We need to move forward.

And if the SNP isn’t going to lead the way, then I say it’s up to this party, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, to show the Nationalists how it’s done.

So what would this better way of governing look like?

Well, first up, it’s about making a fresh start with our friends and neighbours elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

And it’s about re-setting the relationship Holyrood has with the UK Government.

Now, don’t get me wrong – there will always be moments when the Scottish and UK Government will disagree. That’s only healthy.

Indeed – you may have noticed, there have been a few times recently where the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and members of the UK Government have had minor difference of opinion…..

But the SNP stock position is dogmatic: reject whatever the UK Government says or does – and then ask questions later.

It’s a position borne of their constitutional agenda. And it too often is leading to a blinkered small-minded approach.

For example, our two government are about to share responsibility for welfare in Scotland, when the new Scotland Act powers come in. Yet the SNP – driven by its political agenda – has said it won’t even listen to anything the UK Government has to say on the matter.

Wouldn’t it be nice if occasionally – just occasionally – the Scottish Government had the confidence to work together in a grown-up fashion with Scotland’s other government, and not constantly seek conflict?

The other obvious example right now is over Brexit.

I accept that many in the SNP are disappointed with the result – so was I.

And the First Minister has every right to make her points forcefully and with vigour.

But the fact is she has got the balance on this wrong.

European nations are telling the SNP plainly and simply that if Scotland wants to get the best deal possible, we need to work with the UK Government.

In turn, the UK Government has made it clear, from day one, that it wants the devolved governments to play their full role.

But, in response, too often, the First Ministers has pulled out Salmond’s Greatest Hits from her CD collection and gone on the all-too-predictable attack.

It’s obvious why: the aim is to stir up more support for independence.

I say to the First Minister – please, we’ve had enough of the megaphone diplomacy.

Instead of picking fights with the UK Government, why not just pick up the phone a bit more often?

Who knows? – you might actually find you agree about some things.

For our Scottish Government, the starting point shouldn’t be how best to engineer a political turf war between London and Edinburgh,

The starting point should be to examine the interests of our key industries, of our Universities, of our rural areas, and to work out how to protect and promote their interests.

And the best way to secure that is through joint cooperation between UK and Scottish Governments.

It would be nice to have a Scottish Government which didn’t seek out the dark UK cloud in every issue – but sought to find a silver lining.

The truth is: we are one country; we have one shared future together.

Come on, First Minister: let’s see a Scottish Government that would find it within itself to talk that relationship UP once in a while.

Secondly, a better Scottish Government would be one that listens, not lectures.

Now this, again, has become something of a problem for the SNP.

This is the party which, last month, started what it described as a “listening exercise” on independence.

And then, 2 weeks later, wheeled out Alex Salmond to declare that – no matter your views – a referendum would be going ahead regardless.

But now we see the same failure to listen and learn appearing in the SNP’s domestic agenda too.

Take one of the most controversial issues of the summer: named persons.

I recall the howls of protest as SNP MSPs tried to shout down one of our MSPs, Adam Tomkins, earlier this year when he tried to point out the flaws in the plan.

Now – I’m not saying Adam isn’t big enough or ugly enough to take it….

But the SNP might have been better listening not yelling.

Yet even now – even after the Supreme Court has ruled their plans unlawful – STILL, the SNP proposes to keep this plan going.

And still it lectures us that it – alone – knows best.

Well, it doesn’t. And a better Scottish Government would listen and learn – and think again.

If we were in Government, we would take a different approach to supporting children and families.

Not by going behind parents’ backs and handing responsibility for their wellbeing over to the State.

But by getting to grips with the issues that cause families to fall apart in the first place and which deprive children of the love and the sense of wellbeing they deserve.

And it would begin by giving families a hand for once.

I think it needs to be said: a stable family is the best incubator of social justice, of a strong society, of a happier country that’s even been invented.

It’s mums and dads quietly doing the right thing – giving their children a proper start, supporting them through life – who make any successful country tick.

And yet what support do we give them? Not nearly enough – especially if you’re poor.

So we’d do more to support families.

First, we’d target help to where it’s most needed with a new Crisis Family Fund.

This would support more projects across Scotland that provide the kind of intensive support for parents whose drug addiction, or indebtedness, or mental health problems would otherwise see them tipping into chaos.

I’ve seen the work these projects can do: and they can turn lives around.

Second, we’d like to support a new network of family hubs to provide relationship and employment support for families across Scotland.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has proposed such a network – where families of all kinds could get advice on employment, on relationships, on parenting, and, where necessary, on separation to help them cope.

Again, they should be targeted in poorer areas where the pressures of tight finances place heavier burdens on parents and children than those in wealthier areas.

Thirdly, we’d give young families the realistic prospect, once again, of being able to own their own home.

Figures last week found that the number of young families living in privately rented homes has almost tripled since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

That’s 350,000 households paying rent to private landlords.

We know that owning your own home, laying down roots, is the best way to ensure families stick together and thrive together.

So we need to focus on creating the conditions for the most ambitious house-building programme in a generation.

This will require a simplified planning and regulatory regime,

More support for innovative delivery models, small developers and self-build

And, crucially, the need to redouble our efforts to bring empty properties back into use and improve the energy efficiency of existing homes.

Finally, we would scrap the named person plan and start again.

Let me be clear: we have never had a problem with single point of contact advising and supporting a child or a parent, when, or if, they want it.

Nor have we ever had a problem with that same person helping a child or a parent access the service they need.

But what we would scrap – right now – are the provisions which give that person the power to monitor a child’s wellbeing.

And we would scrap – right now – the power to share that information with a whole range of public bodies, all behind the backs of parents.

A single point of contact – fine. Let’s make it easier for parents and children to get access to the services they need.

But a state-appointed guardian with powers to go behind parents’ backs? – no.

And a listening government would understand the problem, and ditch this absurd, unlawful plan, once and for all.

So, we want a positive Government. We want a listening Government. And, thirdly, I want to see a government that’s in it for the long-term, not for short-term politics.

This – again – has been a failing of this SNP Government.

Indeed it’s a close run thing which has the more short-term outlook: the SNP or the England football manager.

I think of all the Scottish Government energy put into the referendum campaign in 2014; all the white papers, the national conversations and the endless speeches.

And you think of all the necessary reforms put off because of it.

And now I fear the same will happen again, as long-term goals are put off with the SNP back on referendum watch.

It’s not as if we’ve lacked big ideas in Scotland.

In 2011, the Christie Commission proposed a proper re-think over the way we do Government.

It examined the tough choices we will inevitable face in an era when public finances are stretched.

And it proposed greater empowerment for communities, for providers to work together, not duplicate efforts and for local and central government to work with long-term shared goals in mind.

Most of all, it called for a shift in emphasis: tackling the causes not the consequences of society’s ills.

All of that could have been achieved by a government with its eye on the ball.

But I’m afraid 5 years on since Christie, the SNP simply hasn’t gripped the agenda nearly enough. There has always been a referendum to try and win or an interest group to buy off.

And as a result, in place on long-term reform, we’ve had half-hearted efforts at integration, short-term salami slicing, and a plan to centralise everything that moves.

We need a better way. And we intend to press the SNP to take it.

So today we’re offering our own contribution by publishing a new paper – five years on from Christie – which analyses the lack of progress that’s been made.

And it picks out five specific areas – addiction, prison reoffending, family breakdown, mental health and adoption – and suggests fresh ways to proceed.

We’re not saying we have all the answers: indeed, we think it is communities themselves who will provide them in many cases.

But we are saying that this should be the focus of our new debate in Scotland.

Yes, there is much thinking to do, in how we use the new powers over welfare and benefits that are coming to Holyrood. But that shouldn’t blind us to the many changes – big and small – that we can make right now.

Our message to the SNP is this.

You won’t solve drug addiction with a flag.

You won’t tackle our mental health crisis with a new constitution.

And if you’re in need of care, or you’re in a family facing crisis, you don’t take kindly to being told your national identity “transcends” your life chances.

In short: we don’t need a referendum in 2016 or 2017 or 2018.

We need a long-term plan that really tackles the causes of our social ills that lasts for good: for 2020, for 2030, for 2040.

And we urge the SNP start focussing on it – now.

So – a government that co-operates within the UK.

A Government that listens not lectures.

And a government that works for the long-term.

And lastly, ladies and gentlemen, I want a government in Scotland that goes about its job with some positive intent, with some verve for the job in hand.

That doesn’t look like it’s running out of steam.

We have just had a programme for government which, I fear, nobody can now remember terribly much about.

The SNP talks endlessly about needing new levers in order to do its job – yet the truth is that it has powers aplenty, but it looks like it no longer has the imagination to act.

You might say that, in Scotland, Nicola has levers but won’t pull them, while Kezia has buttons, but can’t press them.

Where’s the positive energy?

If I was First Minister right now, post-Brexit, I’d be leading a Scottish Government campaign across the UK to show that Scotland is open for business.

I’d be in London and in European capitals telling investors and businesses that no matter what happens as we leave the EU, Scotland is going to continue to be one of the best places in Europe to live, one of the best places to do business, and the best place to raise a family.

And that we intend to emerge from Brexit stronger and more prosperous.

London is doing this – why aren’t we?

And I’d be out hunting for business.

Speak to our leading entrepreneurs and businesses and they’ll tell you: we have so much going for us.

Office space in Edinburgh or Glasgow is a fraction of the cost of central London. And because of the base we have: an educated workforce, decent transport links, a great quality of life – we should be positioning ourselves as a great capital of UK commerce.

Now we need a Scottish Government in charge to step up the pace. That sends a clear message: we’re going places.

A Government that sets competitive tax rates, which don’t charge you more for living in Scotland than you’d pay elsewhere.

A Government that commits to pushing more power to cities, so our urban centres are given a real chance to be the pistons which drive our economy.

And a Government that ensures we have the skills we need to compete – and which is determined to ensure everyone benefits from that growth.

And before I finish, here are two further ideas.

We know there are pockets of poverty in Scotland which are missing out on economic growth. Indeed we saw them listed as such in statistics earlier this summer.

We also know that Scotland is not short of businesses, charities and community groups with ideas that could help turn these places around.

What we need, is a Scottish Government that enables them to do just that.

I’d like to see the Government designate some of the struggling parts of Scotland as “Turnaround Zones” – with special tax breaks, faster planning, streamlined regulation and dedicated support for those who decide to set up there.

And secondly, we also know the Scottish Government will soon have funds from the new Apprenticeship Levy.

Now I know that the policy was not introduced without controversy, but I’d like the Scottish Government to use the opportunities that this now presents.

Let’s use the funding to support skills development flexibly, in close cooperation with businesses and other UK governments.

And let’s do our best to correct the disparity that exists in apprenticeship starts – be it female participation or that of care-experienced children.

Edison said that “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Well don’t get me wrong; Brexit means there’s a lot of work to do. But there is opportunity there too, and we need to seize it.

I want the Scottish Government to succeed in doing so – because I want Scotland to succeed too, right now.

But it will only succeed if it fundamentally changes its approach to government.

A government which – over nearly ten years – has gone from having a fresh approach after the Labour years, to adopting far too many of Labour’s old mistakes.

It’s time for a reset. Where we prioritise the long-term, where we have a government that listens again. Where – for once – we have a Scottish government that backs cooperation – not endless confrontation – with our neighbours.

It will only succeed if it puts the arguments of the past behind us and focusses on the opportunities for the future.

Only then can we get on with the job of building better government in Scotland.

That’s why we say No to a second divisive referendum – so we can all get the better government we deserve.


You can read our discussion paper on social justice in Scotland here.