Ruth’s speech to Scottish Conservative conference

4 May 2019

Good afternoon, conference.

It’s good to be back.

I’ve missed you. I’ve missed parliament. This has been the hardest – and best – six months of my life. And I can tell you one thing.

People who say the sleep like a baby, clearly don’t have one!

But what I am lacking in rest, I make up for in maternal pride. Finn is a joy. He’s such a fast learner and already has his own, cheeky personality. Or at least he did yesterday when I said to him “and this is the button that broadcasts mummy’s rehearsal to the whole press room….”

I honestly can’t thank the NHS doctors and midwives enough for looking after me, Finn and Jen all through the pregnancy, birth and crucial first few weeks. They really were amazing.

But it’s not just the medical personnel I need to thank. The only reason I could confidently take a step back to be with my family was because I knew that Jackson Carlaw was more than able to step up.

Able to hold the SNP to account and to take the fight to their door.

If this was Scottish Labour, six months would earn you a leadership long service medal. Well, we don’t do gongs, Jackson, but please accept my thanks and the thanks of the whole party….

I am, at heart, a political animal, so it has not been easy to be away.

But trading acts and amendments for nappies and night feeds does at least help you to see the world a little differently.

And being out of the bubble and watching events through the eyes of the voters has helped me to understand their concerns and recognise their deep frustrations.

None more so than when it comes to Brexit.

Now, everyone knows I campaigned for remain because believer in the benefits of wider unions.

But I also believe that if we say a decision is so big – so far reaching – that it cannot be taken by politicians alone, that it must be handed back to the people, then we have to listen to the answer they give.

If you believe in democracy, you don’t get to pick and choose which votes are upheld and which cast aside.

Before we are nationalists or unionists, leavers or remainers, we need to be democrats.

17 and a half million people across the UK – including over a million in Scotland – voted to leave the EU. And it is only by respecting that vote that we can hope bring this country back together.

I have said many times that I would happily never fight another constitutional referendum in my lifetime. Because binary choices push people into tribes. And complex questions of national and personal identity, of the structure of nations and the institutions on which they are built; of law, of trade, of terms and of treaties cannot be reduced to a single word – Yes or No, Leave or Remain.

And, having been pushed into tribes, we act amazed when people become tribal and treat compromise as a dirty word.

But compromise we must. Because right now, the Brexit stalemate we see in the political classes serves no-one.

In yesterday’s local elections, we saw angry voters give both the Labour party and our party an almighty kicking. And no wonder – voters expect promises to be kept.

The solution doesn’t lie in the trenches of one extreme or another – of overturning the referendum, or of crashing out with no deal. It lies in those colleagues currently round the table, taking the difficult first steps towards each other.

So I say to the negotiating teams of our party and the labour party, who are currently locked in talks – get Brexit sorted, get a deal over the line and let Britain move on.

Because if we thought yesterday’s results were a wake up call, just wait for the European elections on the 23rd of May.

A vote the public was promised would never take place, to elect people to a parliament they were told we would already have left.

You don’t have to be John Curtice to foresee what could happen.

So let’s back the Prime Minister, let’s deliver what we promised and let’s come back together.

Because there’s another thing that’s clear when you’ve been out of the fray for a while.

The sheer ferocity with which debate is now being conducted.

What should be the healthy exchange of views more often resembles a bout of Ultimate Cage Fighting.  But without the rules.

The public discourse has coarsened in recent years, and we’re the poorer for it as a country.

The fringes get louder and louder while the centre is overrun.

So my message to all sides is this:

It’s fine to disagree, profoundly. 

But calling into question the motives of someone whose sincerely held beliefs just happen to disagree with your does nothing to forward our nation.

We have to find our way back to honest disagreement. To proper political clash. To challenging each other’s ideas. Not spending all our time trying to find ways to dismiss the man so there’s no need to play the ball.

When I left journalism over a decade ago to try to get elected and play my part, it wasn’t because I thought a Conservative party in Scotland was going to ride to victory overnight.

It was because I felt Scotland would benefit from the challenge that we could provide to the old Labour / SNP orthodoxies.

Challenging the rules of the game in Scotland that have played out for so long.

And – even if we didn’t persuade people to back us – at least we’d improve the health of our national debate as a result.

So it wasn’t just about fighting and winning a referendum in 2014. Or getting us back in the game. And – even now – it’s not simply about stopping a second referendum and thinking, job done.

It’s always been about wanting to get Scotland back on track, focussed on what really matters in politics:  how, through the battle of ideas, we improve the lives of our friends, our family, our community.

So my response to Nicola Sturgeon calls this week, Saying No to another referendum, is not simply because I’m a Unionist.

It’s because I want us to deal – front and centre – with the very real issues affecting our county, our economy, our services. Not spend all our time retreading the constitutional arguments of old.

For most of my time leading this party, I’ve felt that job would be carried out in opposition, shaping the debate, holding the government to account, putting forward alternatives.

But now, coming back, I see that’s not enough.

We’ve come so far as a party, and we’ve done it in a short time.

But I’m here to tell you today: if we’re going to complete this task – to get Scotland back on track, it’s not enough to try from the opposition benches. We need to be in government.

So I’m back because I want to put Scotland’s constitutional division aside, to allow the country to come back together again.

I want us to become the largest party in 2021 so we can see all the effort and hours and manpower the current nationalist administration puts into indyref2 being put into improving our schools, growing our economy

and supporting our services.

I’m back because I want us to build a better Scotland – right here, right now.

That election is still two years away but today it’s time we fire the starting gun on the campaign.

To ready ourselves for the challenge.

And here’s the choice that people will face.

The SNP saying “we KNOW we’ve had 14 years, but give us another five”

Arguing that they can’t make things better without putting us all through another referendum first.

When independence is top of their list, everything else comes second. Their primary focus will always be on delivering division before it’s on delivering peoples’ priorities.

I have a more positive view of Scotland’s future.

I reject their mantra that says we have to have a break up before we can possibly hope to prosper.

I don’t see Scotland as subjugated, or put upon or held back.

Our message is that we can prosper now. That we can back our businesses, build up our institutions and give future generations the skills to take on all comers.

That right here, right now, Scotland can take on the world. There’s nothing stopping us.

So that’s the choice:

Between an SNP that doesn’t believe we can thrive for years into the future. And my team – which wants to get on with building a better Scotland NOW.

And behind that – there’s a more fundamental difference about the way we see our country.

The SNP chant that they’re about Standing up for Scotland. Great election slogan. I just take issue with the premise.

I don’t believe you’re standing up for Scotland by making the people of Scotland out to be helpless.

I don’t believe you’re standing up for Scotland by flying to America and telling them that your country is being held back.

Nor by opening the curtains on a sunny day and spending your time searching the horizon for a dark cloud. Then blaming it on Westminster.

I don’t believe we’re helpless. Nor that we’re being held back. And enough Nationalist dark clouds.

I think standing up for Scotland is meaningless if you’re not standing up for the quality of life of the people of Scotland, who just want a government that puts their interests first for once.

So as First Minister, I won’t use every engagement with the UK Government as a chance to sow division. I’ll use it as a chance to deliver better government for the people who live here.

And I’ll make a firm guarantee now: If I am elected Scotland’s next First Minister, there will be no more constitutional games and no more referenda.  We’ve had enough to last a lifetime.

No more Scotland being a country that “might” or “should” or “could” do things.

I want to live in a country that “will”, that “shall”, that “can” act, and can act right now.

So we’re not fighting each other – but fighting for each other.

We’ve got to get out of the trenches of the last decade Yes and No, Leave and Remain- and work together to create a better nation for us all.

And we need to start now. 

First and foremost, it’s about having a government that is straining every day for working people so they can live the life they dream of for themselves and their children.

Government that isn’t distracted by the divisions of the past few years. Government that pays attention to the stuff that matters. Government that leads by example.

…straining every sinew to deliver real and lasting economic growth in Scotland.

Because it’s only through growth that we can ensure that the public services we all value are getting the funding they need.

So the NHS that cared for me and my family can be sustained for the next generation too.

And to get that growth, first and foremost, we must capitalise on this period of remarkable technological and social revolution we are living through.

We must embrace the change and sell our expertise to the world.

And second – we must make sure nobody is left behind.

So much of our social tension is caused by the fact people are being left out.

If you’re tech savvy, urbanised, well-educated and upwardly mobile, this rapidly changing world can be exciting, energising, exhilarating.

But if you’re living in a community that doesn’t even have broadband never mind a choice of job, it can be threatening and dislocating.

We can’t leave people behind. Scottish Conservatives must always be about their concerns, their needs.

We’ll start with a proper economic strategy.

I’m delighted that yesterday we published the first report of our Scottish Future Growth Council, led by Andrew Dunlop.

It sets out the problems we face, and the alternative approach we would take.

Bringing together our brilliant private sector companies, and talented public-sector bodies

Removing the obstacles that stop our entrepreneurs from getting started

Untangling the bureaucracy that’s spread like Japanese knotweed under this SNP Government.

In its place, I’d have a very simple approach based on one big priority: growing Scotland’s exports.

With a new Scottish Exporting Institute, new partnerships between the private and public sectors, new investment hubs around our biggest market – the United Kingdom.

A new Economic Growth Fund specifically to support venture capitalists looking to invest in Scotland; and a reformed Scottish Enterprise to make sure every part of Scotland is firing on all cylinders

Just take one of the opportunities here in the North East: energy.

Yes, we want to see the North Sea oil and gas sector producing for as long as possible.

But – you know and I know – that a child born today may not have a job in oil and gas by the time they retire.

We must therefore develop Scotland’s massive expertise in energy generation to deliver the jobs for them and their grandchildren.

That’s why, with the support from the Chancellor, we’re already working on a new strategy to develop the north-east as a global hub for decommissioning.

So that, for decades to come, we can export the engineering expertise we have developed in this country to work on basins and cap wells across the world.

But we need to do so much more on top of this.

Oil will go – and, because of the massive challenge of climate change, our reliance on fossil fuels must go too.

The great thing is that Scotland has what it takes to be at the forefront of the new clean energy revolution of the future too.

We’ve already established expertise in our renewables industry, but we can adapt those skills for the future.

Take just one example – look at new technologies like hydrogen energy.

Countries like Australia are already investing millions in developing hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas.

It’s zero-emissions, you can make it from water using renewable electricity, you can store it, and then export it to neighbouring countries.

Well why not us too? All you need is:

A renewables industry to help make it. Tick.

Engineering expertise on tap. Tick.

Water. This is Scotland, right? Water we’ve got.

Our Growth Council recommends we get all over this new technology – and if I were First Minister, we’d be doing so now.

Whereas with this SNP, it’s all so depressing.

The answer to everything is to either ban it or tax it.

For heaven’s sake, they even want a car park tax.

So, they tax you at home, tax you at your job, and tax you on the drive between the two.

I say: Scotland formed the workshop of the world once before;

Let’s encourage investment, not push it away.

We’ve got the companies and the talent to provide the growth that will pay for great, high quality public services

So let’s back them, let’s back ourselves for global growth.

But that’s just one half of the job.

The other half is to make sure that when we build for the future, people aren’t left behind.

I’m a Conservative not just because I believe in open markets, in the power of free enterprise.

It’s also because I want to see opportunity for all – so people can join in, no matter their background, or where they grow up.

That if you put in the hard graft, you can build a better life for you and your family.

And I see it as government’s job to help.

And that’s not pie in the sky, it’s personal for me.

I went to school in Buckhaven in the 90s, following a recession. Lots of parents out of work. Lots of pupils on free school meals. Issues with drugs. With deprivation. And an all too real fight against the poverty of low expectations.

And if you want to know where my politics comes from, it comes from there. Because our school didn’t have the best exam results. We weren’t sitting at the top of the league table.

But our teachers tried so hard to make sure that any talent could be explored. So if there was a sport for which there wasn’t a team or a musician that couldn’t afford an instrument, you could find a member of staff that would go that extra mile to help, to sort you out, to set up a club or do extra coaching.

It was a big school. When our year group started in first year, there were nearly 300 of us, by the time the 6th year school photo came around only 89 were left. I’d guess 60 or maybe 70 went to uni straight from school.

For the rest, some left to try to find a job in order to help out at home, some went to college. Some just drifted away.

I was lucky enough to be the first generation of my family to go to uni. And when I was there, Tony Blair told the country that it would become a national goal for half of all young people to do the same.

Now, I don’t doubt he made that pledge with the best of intentions. But declaring that 50% of young people going to university constitutes a national success, risks telling the other 50% that they’ve somehow already failed.

All too often, they’ve been marginalised or forgotten.

It needs to end.

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth and my politics isn’t the politics of those who’ve already made it. It’s the politics of giving everyone the chance to make it.

It’s the politics that values vocational education every bit as much as an academic one. Which believes that good skills training isn’t something for other people’s children, it’s an essential part of success for all of Scotland’s future.

Here’s what I’d like to do. Change the current school leaving age of 16. And instead, replace it with a new leaving age – a new skills participation age – of 18.

So it’s the law that everybody up until the age of 18 has to either go to college or university, or if they want to start work, it’s through a structured apprenticeship or a traineeship.

And I’d ask schools to make it clear: that there’s no hierarchy here. No sign in the corridors saying smart kids one way, poor kids another.

Instead, let’s make clear to pupils that they have a series of options: yes, there’s University if you want, but there’s another path towards a great job if you choose it too.

One that, frankly, will mean you could be earning decent money and building a career long before your graduate friends have got their degree photographs up on the living room wall.

It’s going to require a big change in the way we deliver senior education in this country. We will ask every school to provide new foundation apprenticeships.

And we’ll need to encourage entrepreneurs like Jim McColl to set up more Junior Colleges, like the one he pioneered in Glasgow.

Most of all, it will need a sea change in culture and in how, as a society, we value vocational education.

Because for too many, it remains the case that vocational education is somehow a poor relation of the academic route – that it’s something lesser.

Nonsense. Tell that to the brilliant youngsters I met not so long ago in my constituency, who have taken on apprenticeships at KPMG, and are already flying up the ladder. They don’t see themselves as second class – they know they’re getting a real head start.

The reality is that there is value both in the theory of advanced mathematics as well as the practice of mechanical engineering. Of creative writing and of food technology. Of modern history and hospitality management.

They all offer pathways for young people to take their individual skills and use them to succeed in life. And, in so doing, increase the success of whole country.

That’s where our future lies; not as a low-wage, low-skill economy – but as a country constantly striving to give our young people the knowledge and skills to get a good job.  A rewarding, well-paid job.  A job to support themselves and their family.

It can be done.  It must be done. And a Government led by me would deliver it.

But it doesn’t end there.

Because here’s the other new reality of the modern age. It’s not just that we need a focussed economic strategy to take advantage of a changing world. Not just that we need skilled young people to help deliver it. We also need to help people adapt during their working lives.

The time when you got a job at 18 and stayed there till you were 65 with a secure pension has gone.

We can lament its passing, we can soak ourselves in nostalgia about a happier, simpler time, but that won’t pay the bills.

And when change is happening so fast, one of the key roles for all governments over the coming decades will be give people retraining and upskilling so they can stay in decent well paid jobs right through to retirement.

So working men and women aren’t cast on the scrapheap at the age of 45, and told their skills are no longer useful for a changing world.

But are coached in new skills, helped instead new jobs, and new work. The job for life is gone, but if the new norm is several career changes then retraining and upskilling needs to be the new norm too.

So – if I had the chance as First Minister, a future Scottish Government led by me would provide a new Lifelong Skills Guarantee to everybody, no matter their age, no matter their background.

Very simply, it would mean that government, helped by businesses, would guarantee that anyone who wants to retrain or upskill during their career will get the chance to do so.

With everybody who wants one, given a personal learning account that would encourage each of us to set aside cash for skills of the future, bringing funding together in one place, with government support geared especially for low-paid and low skilled workers.

Again, it’ll take some work to do this. We’ll need more skills academies, like the excellent Code Clan, and second chance centres for adults who maybe don’t have any qualifications at all. Plus new lifelong apprenticeships aimed specifically at workers aged over 25.

But it can be done.

Scotland can be a society that always gives people another crack of the whip. That never gives up on them or leaves them behind.

That’s led by a government that understands working people want to work – the clue is in the name – not pick up a welfare cheque.

What we need is nothing short of a blue collar revolution.

And a government led by me would deliver on it.

And with that solid basis, we can get Scotland on the right track. 

Delivering the homes that people need – with our plans for a network of new towns.

Raising standards in the education system – turning around the mess that is the Curriculum for Excellence.

Bringing an end to the SNP’s soft-touch justice system – so that victims and their families know THEY are being put first, not the criminal.

Tackling Scotland’s drugs crisis by supporting people’s recovery, not managing their addiction. 

Helping new parents who want to get back to work – with flexible childcare provision when they need it.

Cutting carbon emissions by making every home a warm home.

Ending the SNP’s secrecy culture by building the most open government since devolution.

And, most of all, bringing down the curtain on 14 years of SNP grudge and grievance.

Opening a new chapter for our country.

If we don’t make this change, what faces us, conference?

Nicola Sturgeon isn’t going to stop banging on about independence.

She’s believed in it since she was a teenager and I’m pretty sure she isn’t going to change her mind now.

And for as long as she does so, I’ll continue defending the decision we made as a country to stay in the United Kingdom.

So if the SNP is re-elected in two years’ time, this is just going to go on and on.

Nicola Sturgeon coming up with a new plan each year to try and flog independence as something different; her annual promise to the faithful that another referendum is just over the next hill; Every summer launching a new national conversation and every winter saying with one more heave the unicorn will be unchained once more.

And us on the other side, standing firm, unmoved by the belligerent tones getting ever more shrill.

I believe, as a country, we can do better.

I believe, as a country, we deserve better.

So let’s resolve today to raise our game.  And lift our eyes to a brighter horizon.

I will never give up on fighting for Scotland’s place within our United Kingdom.

But neither will I give up on fighting for a better future for ALL of Scotland’s people, whether they agree with me or not.

I’m in this for the young person who’s looking to get their first break into the workplace, but needs a helping hand to get there.

I’m in this for the single mum who’s struggling to balance their family and their job – she needs our help too.

I’m in this for the victims of crime, who feel they don’t have a proper voice in our justice system.

And I’m in this because I can’t stand by and watch the potential of another generation go unfulfilled just because they are born on the wrong side of town. 

These are the people who should demand our attention.

Some will cast their votes for us, some won’t.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that we do our best for them.

….Make them our priority

…Make their lives better

…Their futures brighter

That’s the government I want in Scotland.

That’s the leadership I offer.

That’s how we bring Scotland back.