Ruth Davidson speech, Federation of Small Business

9 Nov 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve made the point many times in speeches over the last few years when talking about small businesses that this is personal for me. Every plate of food put on the table in front of my sister and me growing up was as the result of my dad making stuff and selling it.

Whether that was textiles or small batch whisky.

It was the kind of upbringing that teaches you some important lessons. That business isn’t – as some might see it – a necessary evil:  – Supplying goods to people is what makes society tick. That free trade and commerce – for all the criticism it gets these days in politics and the media – is the best incubator of social justice we’ve yet invented.

And that without small business, none of this would happen.

That’s why I like to remind colleagues and the world at large that there is no such thing as government money – only the money that governments take in taxes from the firms and workers of this country. We all would do well to remember sometimes that the money that pays for a relative to get hospital treatment or a child to go to school has to come from somewhere.

Specifically, you.

It’s why for me – as well as talking about how best we divvy up public spending – politics in Scotland has got to focus more on how we grow the cake. How we build our economy, create wealth, and all benefit as a result.

So, with that in mind, let me quickly run through some of the immediate issues we face – and give you a sense of where I – and my party – stand.

And that starts with the two big “B”s that are front and centre on my check list right now – Brexit and the Budget – now less than 2 weeks away. As ever, the Chancellor is staying tight-lipped until he stands up in the House of Commmons.

But it is clear already this Budget comes at a critical moment for the UK economy. I know that business confidence is extremely fragile right now. You only have to look at FSB surveys to see that. It’s not hard to spot some of the reasons: rising inflation, slow growth, and – as of last week – interest rates back on the uptick.

People are unsure about the future and the danger is that this feeds through into consumer spending, shrinking growth. So the aim for this Budget is to inject some much needed confidence back into firms, large and small, and to get the economy motoring again.

And by investing in growth and using the power of government to give the private sector the helping hand it needs, I believe we can do that.

To take a few examples…

One of my key priorities is housing – and I would support and expect to see efforts in this UK Budget to give house-building a boost…something which could be a real boon for small firms in the supply chain

For Scotland, I’ve been lobbying hard to see more support for our key sectors – like our oil and gas.

We have a great opportunity to ensure we become the new global hub for decommissioning
… to ensure that the huge engineering expertise that has been built up around the North Sea over the last 40 years is maintained.

I am very hopeful that the Budget will show we intend to capitalize on all that built-up knowledge and give a real vote of confidence to the North Sea. And – across the UK – I hope the Chancellor will take a lead on business taxes.

Many of you here have had to face astronomical increases in business rates this year following the last revaluation. I know from having spoken to firms from Banff to the Borders that more needs to be done. I hope the UK Budget will point the right way forward. And, if it does, I will be campaigning for the Scottish Government to follow suit.

As this Scottish Government certainly used to argue, it is vital for Scotland’s prosperity that we retain competitive business taxes here. It’s why the SNP once supported lower Corporation taxes. It’s also why we oppose the Scottish Government’s doubling of the Large Business Supplement which – despite its name – impacts on many smaller businesses as well.

More and more I worry that Scotland is gaining a reputation as one of the most costly places to set up a business in the UK. And with all my political opponents now pressing for increases in income tax as well, I am increasingly concerned for the impact this will have on the health of Scotland’s economy.

It is wrong to continually punish firms simply for having the audacity to set up shop. We want Scotland to stay competitive so that we are seen across Europe as a beacon for investment, and new business.

The prize for getting this right is enormous. By growing the economy just half a per cent above UK levels, the Scottish Government could benefit by up to £1 billion by the end of this next decade.

We need to show that, here, in Scotland, we don’t sanction wealth creators, we support them – in the knowledge that it is only through their success – your success – that the public sector can thrive.

So please be assured me and my team will be pressing your case forcibly on rates and taxes in the Scottish parliament over the coming months.

As we will on other issues of concern to you too – such as the bottle deposit scheme, and in the forthcoming planning bill.

Too often, it seems to me, there are grand ideas being proposed at Holyrood which take little or no heed of the regulatory impact on business – particularly small firms.

I promise: we will.

But I know there’s the other “B” in your minds as well – and that’s Brexit. Now – most of you will know where I stood during the referendum campaign – I was avowedly for Remain. I’ve accepted, however, that 17 million people disagreed with me – and that we will leave. It was you – businesses large and small – that made clear that life didn’t stop on June 23rd last year.

As businesses always do, you’ve simply gotten on with the job. And as we look ahead to the next stage in this process, I’d like to see all Governments– in Brussels, London and Edinburgh – adopt some of that same business-like approach.…stepping up the pace and providing some clearer direction.

The negotiations with the EU27 recommence next month. I’d like to see one thing happen as a matter of urgency … that we get more clarity on an implementation phase.

We can all talk about the merits of a hard or soft Brexit. The truth is that what we really need, in my view, is a smooth Brexit – one that ensures change is gradual and avoids a cliff edge.

I think businesses have a right to begin 2018 with a clear line of sight on the coming period. So I want to see the Government delivering on that. That’s the UK wide picture – but I know that many of you are also looking for clarity on how Brexit will impact here in Scotland. Where powers over things like agriculture and fisheries will lie. Which powers will come to the Scottish Parliament.

I can say that the Scottish Conservatives want to do our bit to get agreement on this a quickly as possible.

We have two basic principles here.

First, we must do nothing that damages the integrity of our own UK internal market. Because creating a two-tier UK with different regulations on trade on either side of the border would only create more disruption,

But secondly, if it’s clear that there will be no disruption, that powers returning from Brussels should go as close to people as they belong. Either at the Scottish Parliament or, in some cases, local authority level.

As with the rest of Brexit, we now need to see the detail. The UK and Scottish Governments are engaged in talks on this matter. I very much hope that we can set aside some of hostility we’ve seen over recent years, and reach a constructive solution.

That’s what my MSPs and MPs have been doing over the last few weeks – and I want them to continue that approach over the next phase too. Sometimes, with Brexit, it does feel as though we are dealing with a six sided Rubik’s Cube.

But I remain optimistic that all the players here – from the EU27 to the UK Government and the Scottish Government – can make progress. Just as I’m optimistic that, once the new landscape becomes clear, you will adapt for the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities that will undoubtedly lie ahead.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll finish in a moment so you can get on and enjoy the rest of your evening. But before I do, I’d like to take the opportunity to say a few words about the events of the last few days both at Holyrood and Westminster – and how best to combat the problems we face.

As with the expenses scandal, a lid has been lifted on a culture of abuse and disrespect in our politics which is simply indefensible.

..a culture that has tolerated not only the casual misuse of power and enabled the intimidation of victims, but has also fostered low-level, consistent misogyny forcing women at all levels to expect and endure the comments, insinuations, behaviours and intimidations which belittle and insult.

All of us in leadership are, as a result, facing big questions about whether our own party structures have done enough to support the women and men on the receiving end of such harassment.

While there is a focus on procedures and practices, I believe what we also need is a change in culture – a modernization of behaviour and professionalization of the workplace which has already taken place elsewhere in our society.

One simple solution is to have more women in politics. That may seem an odd view, given from Number 10 to Bute House, to me speaking to you tonight, that we have so many women currently in leadership positions …

But what now seems clear is that despite these great strides, the experiences and expectations of women in politics are still different to, and worse than, those of men.

More women in politics would accelerate the culture change that has already been started, and would ensure that women at the top stop being an anomaly to be remarked upon, but become something so commonplace that such remarks are redundant.

and this will demonstrate to young women that they do not need to refight old battles, that their abilities and hard work are all that are required in the world of work, and that they have the right not to be judged or badly treated with impunity.

So it’s clear we must do more to recruit, promote and support women in politics to bring that greater balance. As with so many other things, I believe the business community has much to teach us.

Small and large firms alike have taken great strides in recent years to promote gender equality which in turn has helped to enable more women to thrive in the workplace. Confident, articulate, thoughtful and educated women within the business community continue to be role models for young women taking their first steps in working life.

I want to use this dreadful few weeks of politics to deliver real and lasting change so women are no longer seen as the victims of our political system, but the architects of a new politics entirely.

With that, it only remains for me to once again thank you for all the work you do at the FSB.
As the leader of a pro-business, pro-free trade party, I want to be your voice in the Scottish Parliament.

And after five years where all of us in Scottish politics have done little but knock lumps out of each other one election, or referendum or another, I very much hope to use this next phase to focus on real progress.

…Where the voices of job creators, and small firms are heard above the din.

…Where the needs of the Scotland’s economy are prioritized above the latest constitutional spat.