21 May 2018
Please find below the text of the speech by Ruth Davidson, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the Onward launch this evening:
“The very fact of Onward’s founding is one cause for optimism tonight.
But in reflecting on your mission – to re-boot the centre-right, to better understand the coming generation of voters and citizens, and to delve deep into the great questions facing us as a country – surveying the landscape you are about to enter, I can’t help but feel cheerful.
And no, it’s not just because it’s the second time today Michael and I are sharing a stage.
It’s because I think there are genuine reasons to be hopeful of the horizons ahead of us.
For a start, we hear a lot about a generation that’s been turned off the Conservatives, full stop.
But I think this misreads the resilience of our values.
Of course we have to feel the frustration of a young person trying to get on the housing ladder.
We have to understand the insecurity of someone bouncing between shifts and jobs in the short-term gig economy.
We have to realise the tensions of folk who feel there’s different rules for different people – whether it’s banking or benefits, tax avoidance or train fares.
We have to recognise the country for what it is – ill-at-ease with itself.
But think about these aspirations: a house, a career, a family, a fair crack of the whip and the sort of decent education which lets your kids do better than you.
These are age-old goals. They are liberal conservative goals – small l, small c.
Our task is not to reinvent what we think constitutes the British way of life.
And it’s definitely not to come up with some abstract top-down vision and start telling people what they should want – a sort of Caracas-upon-Avon.
Our task is to work on how we deliver these things in a modern setting. To put our brightest brains to unlocking each of these puzzles – and test how those aspirations are best realised in today’s society.
If – and only if – we are trusted to deliver things, then we win a hearing.
And I think we easily misunderstand something about the generation under 45.
We usually start from a foundation of sensible, prudent economics. And we should defend our record as custodians of the public purse loudly and clearly. Competence is a given.
But that’s only half the battle.
Culture and identity matter just as much, and our motives count for double.
There is nothing inevitable in how young people vote. They are not beyond us. This generation has a mindset – an entrepreneurialism, an instinctive taste for freedom and a life built on meaning – that we can surely tap into.
But only if we can make that link – between what it means to be young, and how young people define themselves – and the best energies of our party.
Too often, conservatives end up – well, a bit dour. Authoritarian. Just a tad joyless. A party that sounds like its only pitch is like those hectoring signs you see on the tube – Please Stand on the Right.
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt in Scotland, it’s that when you fight for what you believe, people listen – but it’s when you do it with a smile that people really get behind you.
And trust me – back when I became leader, if you weren’t a blind optimist, then the Scottish Conservatives really weren’t for you.
My first by-election was in Glasgow North-East, back in 2009.
It was beyond unwinnable. But it was the most fantastic fun.
Amongst the other candidates was John Smeaton, who famously kicked a terrorist in the balls.
Now that’s what I call a manifesto.
Also standing was Tommy Sheridan, Scotland’s most famous socialist perjurer.
I’m sorry to say, I didn’t quite overturn the 59% Labour vote. But we campaigned with a smile and conviction, and I leapfrogged – all the way into third place.
And then in 2011, across the whole of Glasgow, we held that place. I got elected as an MSP.
In 2016, across Scotland, we got to our best-ever vote. In Glasgow, we doubled our vote share, again, and got a second Conservative MSP, for the first time.
In 2017, we got councillors across the city – going from one to eight – from Scotland’s poorest wards to its poshest suburbs – and then in the general election last year, we finally broke the taboo and got our best Westminster election result since 1983, 13 MPs and yes, one on the outskirts of the great city of Glasgow.
Now, you don’t need to tell me Glasgow’s special.
But it does represent the breadth of what we need to achieve.
We have to speak equally to the pensioner, worried about keeping the meter running on a fixed income – just as much as we speak to the working parents counting the cost of childcare – every bit as much as we do the just-graduated 21-year old graphic designer looking for a flat-share.
We have it in us to speak to the entire nation – and we must.
The choice isn’t whether we pick a side between young and old, urban or rural – millennial entrepreneur or baby-boomer factory worker.
Or, if you will – it’s not a choice between serrano or gammon.
The question is how we forge an open-feeling, forward-looking conservatism that speaks equally to all.
I believe Onward represents exactly what we need. An instinctive sunniness. A sense of being comfortable with the modern world. And a willingness to listen.
I look at Tom Tugendhat and John Lamont and I see the future of our party.
I look at the team Will Tanner and Neil O’Brien have assembled, under Danny Finkelstein’s watchful eye and what excites me is that it’s got the brains to do detail – and by god do we need the hard work of policy development. But it also recognises that our tone – and our motives – will be just as important to our long-term future.
And we know that is more necessary that ever.
We don’t have to look far abroad to see basic norms of democracy are under question.
Across the world, there are reasons for a brighter hope – Malaysia, Slovakia – but it sometimes feels they only serve to show the darkness of the night.
Our party has always had a taste for reinventing itself to win. But looking around contemporary politics, at home and abroad, we need to upgrade our alert status.
We have to refresh ourselves.
We have a moral duty to do so.
We are up against the politics of anger. And we have to provide a compelling alternative – one that sticks.
And we won’t be short of big rapids to navigate.
The years ahead of us will see profound changes.
In technology, rapidly changing tools like AI and further automation.
In governance, the new wave of devolution across the UK.
In education, an economy that requires ever-faster adaptation.
These are huge challenges. And in each case, it’s not at all obvious whether conventional wisdom is right.
Take automation. The common story is that technology will first undermine us, and then overtake us. The robots will take first, someone else’s job. Then our jobs. And then our wives.
But just as possible – if we get it right – is that just as with every last wave of economic change, the predictions of mass unemployment turn out to be false, and more jobs are created than destroyed.
Or governance. We know that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the world.
That’s starting to change. The new mayors in the great northern cities. Scotland with brand-new tax, welfare and borrowing powers. London, 20 years after the mayoralty, thinking and acting as a city-state.
This is a profound change. It’s a welcome one for real localists. But it’s very early days. It’s asymmetric and how this works in practice – and how real power is deployed in a devolved context – that will take decades to test.
Or immigration. We must deal with peoples’ fair concerns about its impact on communities around the world. But, at the same time, we must ask whether targets set out when the country was running at over 8% unemployment, still hold when there’s a skills shortage.
Or finally, education. The assumption has long been that education is a process that begins around age 5, and ends at some point between 18 to 21.
But now, we see more clearly that the early years are more important. And with a roving, nimble economy – education will increasingly be not a single process at the start of life, but a constant feature of adaptation to the modern, global economy.
If we spent as much energy and spilt as much ink on technical education and how we re-train adult-age workers – as we do on grammar schools and statues at Oxbridge – then in every sense, we would be a richer country.
So if other political moments react to these challenges by appeals to redundant ideologies, we have to react with a tempered excitement, a realism – and with wisdom.
We can meet these emerging trends with the spirit that only conservatives can – with a profound grip on our heritage and our proudest traditions, but a dead-eyed realism and willingness to confront hard truths.
We know our party instinctively grasps what is at stake, and what we can lose.
Our task is to make sure that we are clear-eyed about what we can gain.
And I have no doubt that with the collection of minds Onward is bringing to the task, we are witnessing the start of something important.
Every now and then an organisation comes along that you can see will spark something new.
There’s no other way to put this.
Than to say –
We’ve got a bright future.
We’ve got reasons to be cheerful.
The only way is obvious – it’s onward.”