Douglas Ross’s speech to the Scottish Conservative Virtual Conference 2020

20 Nov 2020

Rebuild our communities

Hope. Such a small simple word that brings so much optimism about our future.

There is hope after a series of positive announcements on vaccines that we’re turning a corner in our fight against Covid-19.

After eight long months and the sacrifices made by everyone, there are better times ahead.

Better times when we focus on delivery rather than division.

The nationalists tell us they stand up for Scotland. They make that claim with very little evidence to back it up.

After 13 year of the SNP in power at Holyrood they’ve produced slogans not policy. Divided communities rather than empowered people. Their focus is not on delivery, it’s on distraction from what they’ve done to our country.

People across Scotland are looking at the state of our country and they hope things can be different.

We hope our schools don’t slide down international league tables for the next 13 years, as they have done under the SNP’s leadership.

We hope we close the attainment gap between pupils from richer and poorer backgrounds, because despite their grand promises, it hasn’t shifted under the SNP.

We hope for basic things, like the new Edinburgh Sick Kids hospital being able to admit patients.

We hope to have a First Minister who doesn’t lie to the Scottish Parliament.

We hope we don’t see any more needless deaths in our care homes, like we saw when Covid patients were sent there from hospital.

This doesn’t scratch the surface of how Scotland has been let down by the SNP.

I want to stand up for Scots and be a voice for our concerns. It’s not negative to say things can be better, it’s simply saying there is hope that it doesn’t always have to be like this.

As a politician I want to persuade every Scot in the country to vote for me. But I tell you what, I’d hate it if my supporters agreed with me purely because of where I stand on the constitution.

Because my Scotland is not like Nicola Sturgeon’s and the SNP’s.

It’s not one where I want all Scots to think one way. Where legitimate criticism of the government is met with a defence of policy instead of personal attacks on your patriotism.

I will never doubt someone’s commitment to Scotland because they have a criticism. Because that criticism is the starting point to making it better.

And at this, the starting point of my leadership of this great party I want to say what a huge privilege and honour it is to be leading the party that I joined in 2006.

When I was first elected as a councillor in 2007, I never thought that 13 years later I would be speaking to you as MP for my home area of Moray and as Leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Outlining a positive vision for our country that can take us all forward, together.

And what a positive start to our conference with the resounding win in the Clackmannanshire East by-election.

A fantastic effort from Denis Coyne and his team with the Scottish Conservatives winning more than half the vote; up 10% from the last council election.

And this election saw the Labour vote collapse, and the Lib Dems fall even further back while the Scottish Conservatives increased our share and beat the SNP.

When people unite behind the Scottish Conservatives, we have shown that we can win.

And with all of your help I know that we can take our party to new heights in next year’s Scottish Parliament Election.

Because 13 years is a long time in life and an ever longer time in politics.

While the challenges that we face today may have changed, far too many things in politics have stayed the same.

The same SNP Government that came into power on the day that I was first elected as a councillor remains in power today.

Despite having total control over many of the public services that we use and the taxes that we pay every day our services are suffering.

Their excuse, whatever the issue, has always been that we need to wait for independence before we can build a better Scotland.

And even during this pandemic they have reverted to form in their pursuit of it.

Politicians at the top of the SNP have said that a referendum could happen as early as next year.

After everything we have gone through and are still going through,

the lives lost and the families mourning,

the sacrifices that we have all had to make,

from being unable to meet our family and friends, having to cancel holidays and celebrations,

to people losing their businesses or jobs through no fault of their own,

they want Scottish politics to go back to the same old, worn out arguments, that we have been having for the last 13 years.

To forget how we all pulled together in a time of crisis and focused on the things that really matter.

Surely, if ever there was a time to draw a line in our politics and to rethink our priorities it is now.

Now is the time for an alternative to all this. A vision that I want to set out today.

As I said, 13 years ago I was first elected as a councillor.

It was a great place to make a start in politics, serving the community that I grew up in.

I remember helping an elderly couple get a new council house so the husband could get out of hospital after both his legs had been amputated.

Their family home had been a council house with steep steps down to the door and there was no way he could get out of hospital to return there. They were both in their seventies and the daily visits to see her husband were taking an obvious toll on the wife.

I worked hard with council officials to find the couple a suitable home. They invited me round and were so happy with their new home, but happier still to be together again.

Things like that are rarely splashed on the front cover of newspapers, but really make a difference to people’s lives.

Politics focused on resolving problems and delivering improvements,

to the services that you and your family need and expect to be there.

More often than not it isn’t partisan.

It is rooted in localism and community.

A sense of place and of belonging.

Or at least it should be.

Because what happens when the reverse is the case?

When we don’t give our towns and villages the support that they deserve, and we run down local services?

When Councillors can’t focus on resolving issues and improving their communities, but instead are burdened with choices around what services to cut?

When you walk down the high street and see another “to let” sign in a window.

Just one more familiar shop or business that has closed its doors for the last time.

Or when young people leave to get an education or to make a start on their careers in Edinburgh or London and never come back.

The police out on the beat less and less, the community hospital closing.

After 13 years of the SNP, our communities are struggling.

That is why rebuilding our communities will be at the heart of my party’s agenda as we recover from this pandemic.

We have all had to reassess the things that we need and are important to us.

And one of the things that has become apparent is the renewed importance of community.

Yet our communities have long struggled under an SNP Government that has prioritised uniformity and nationalism over diversity and localism.

That has failed to back local jobs and businesses.

That has failed to deliver public services equally across Scotland.

That has failed to give every part of our country a fair deal.

During the Independence Referendum, the SNP became the party of Yes Scotland and stopped being the party of all Scotland.

Well, we in the Scottish Conservatives will stand up for those communities, villages and towns that have been left behind.

We believe that everyone should have the same opportunities regardless of where you live.

We’ve prioritised education because education is part of Scottish identity. A vital part. It was a cliché, because it was true, that Scots were some of the best educated people in the world. For centuries that was true. Was true. Until this century.

The SNP’s record on education has diluted that Scottish identity. Diminished it. Corroded our heritage. Undermined our history.

And it is not enough for the First Minister to get through the moment and say, every now and then, that education is her number one priority when she does not do anything that might prove it.

So, I pledge to give something that used to be our birth right but is currently denied to us by the SNP.

I will restore to every son and daughter of Scotland the right to a decent education.

We expect our children to be equipped with the skills – the learning – to think for ourselves.

If we give people the access to a proper education, they will surprise us and they will inspire us.

Their creativity will revive our economy and our communities in ways you cannot predict.

But that instinctive, spontaneous Scotland, that made us inventors and healers who changed the world over centuries, is a Scotland I hope for and nationalists fear.

Breadth is not their friend. Narrowness is their goal.

Your local school should be a good school. There should not be a postcode lottery in our education system.

That is why I have outlined plans to recruit 3,000 new teachers, with a particular focus on filling rural vacancies.

The police should be on the beat in our villages and towns as well as in our cities.

Our local businesses should be supported to compete with the largest multi-national corporations.

And people should not have to leave their family and the place where they grew up to get a good job.

So, as we look to rebuild from this crisis, we need to take this opportunity to rebuild our communities from the last 13 years of SNP centralisation

To take a different approach.

To create a Scotland in which every community, every part of our country, is backed to succeed.

This starts with power and funding.

The SNP have been a false friend to devolution.

While pretending to stand up for it at Westminster, they have been reversing it at Holyrood

With a centralisation agenda that has undermined councils across Scotland.

They do not understand that for many communities Edinburgh feels as far away as London.

While they constantly complain to the UK Government about powers and cash.

They have shamelessly grabbed both from local government for years.

From 2007 to 2019, the SNP Government’s budget increased by 16 per cent

But the grant they gave to councils increased by less than half of this, 7 per cent, over the same period.

This matters, because it means money taken away from local services like schools, roads and housing.

The Barnett Formula ensures that the Scottish Government receives a set amount of funding each year based on UK Government spending.

The UK Government does not directly decide what the Scottish Government budget is.

There are clear rules that underpin that financial relationship.

Rules which have meant that the UK Government has given £8.2 billion in additional funding to the Scottish Government to manage the pandemic.

That’s in addition to directly supporting almost 80,000 Scottish businesses and almost a million Scottish jobs through the furlough scheme.

So, if we believe that each level of government should get its share, then that has to include funding for local services.

Why should the SNP be able to raid our council budgets on a whim?

To put this to an end, the Scottish Conservatives will bring forward legislation in the next parliament to enshrine fair funding for councils in law.

Ensuring that local government is entitled to a set proportion of the Scottish Government budget each year.

Rebuilding our communities must start by ensuring that our councils have the necessary resources to properly deliver local services.

Then there are the separate roles that councils and the Scottish Government should have.

One represents community interests and manages local services, the other national affairs.

Yet time and time again, the SNP have overruled our councils to deliver their pet priorities.

Take planning for example. Last year 4 in 10 council planning decisions that were appealed to SNP ministers were overturned.

That means hundreds of developments going ahead against the wishes of democratically elected local representatives.

That is an SNP power grab.

So to stand up for our councils, we will bring forward a law to stop the appeals process or call-in powers being used to overturn local decisions.

This is not about preventing developments from going ahead,

It is about ensuring the Scottish Government respects the decisions that are taken by local representatives.

There are too many examples across our country where that has not been the case and local objections have been dismissed.

It is only when we get this right by empowering and fairly funding our councils that we can start to rebuild our communities.

Then we need to enshrine local growth at the heart of our agenda, so that every part of our country can succeed.

As we look to rebuild from this pandemic, we need to recognise and tackle the local inequalities in our economy

In many parts of our country, businesses, high streets and town centres were already struggling long before this crisis began.

We need to give our high streets a fighting chance.

That means delivering the right support while the pandemic continues to restrict footfall.

And not dithering, as the SNP have done, over delivering business guidance and grants.

But it also means cutting tax for retailers in the centre of towns as a long-term strategy.

The Scottish Conservatives would give councils the ability to exempt business premises in town centres from paying rates.

To help make them more competitive with digital and out of town retailers.

We would also put incentives in place to re-develop long-term unoccupied business properties into housing.

We would locate new college hubs in the centre of towns.

And we would give communities a first ‘right to buy’ when local businesses are facing closing their doors.

Taken together these measures would be a start towards regenerating our high streets rather than accepting their decline as inevitable.

We also need to target our investment towards creating good jobs in every part of our country.

I want my son to grow up in a Scotland where he has the same opportunities living in Moray as he would if he lived in Edinburgh.

The UK Government and the Scottish Government have together invested over £3 billion into City and Growth Deals across Scotland.

These are funding innovative projects like the Oil and Gas Technology Centre in Aberdeen and the National Energy Research Demonstrator in Cumnock

that will drive skilled regional employment for decades to come.

We need to see that template, of governments and businesses working together to invest in new local employers, adopted in every community across our country.

Which is why we would deliver a programme of Community Investment Deals,

this would build new partnerships between the UK and Scottish governments, councils and business to create good jobs

and roll them out in towns and communities across Scotland.

To complement this, we would also set up new Taskforces to ‘Reskill our Regions’, so that local employers can work with colleges and skills agencies on course content.

Helping to deliver the skills they need in their area to expand.

These Deals would be at the centre of our agenda to drive local growth in every part of our country.

Alongside this programme of investment, good transport links, when we can travel again, are essential for helping communities to thrive.

I have already set out my ambition to deliver major national infrastructure projects

like a six lane M8 and faster rail connections to Inverness and Aberdeen.

But we also need to think locally about the infrastructure our towns and villages need.

Fair funding for our councils will improve our local roads,

yet many of our communities do not have their own train station

The Beeching cuts of the 1960s saw many iconic Scottish railways and stations closed, like the Formartine and Buchan line.

Now fifty years later, we need to assess the long-term damage that decision has done to the communities affected and whether the economic case has changed.

The reopening of the Borders Railway has shown that local rail can again be a success.

So we would review the Beeching lines, with the intention of reopening connections and stations that will support local growth.

We also need to give every part of our country the modern tools that they need to succeed.

Zoom has become the new conference room and even when the restrictions are over it is likely that we will all be working more from home.

Our digital infrastructure is as important as our roads and railways.

But just 13 per cent of Scottish homes and businesses have access to full fibre broadband.

The SNP promised that they would complete their R100 programme of broadband rollout next year,

Yet like so many nationalist promises, they’re going to fail and hope you don’t notice.

In the North and Islands they have not even signed a contract to deliver the programme, let alone laid down a single cable.

Scotland needs to be ahead of the curve on digital infrastructure instead of always falling behind.

We need to be ambitious and prepared for future technology.

So delivering universal full fibre broadband across Scotland by 2027 would be a priority for us.

That means a full fibre broadband connection for every single home and business.

And working with rather than against the UK Government to achieve this aim.

To support this we would require every new home to be built with a full fibre connection.

And we would invest to deliver the rollout in our rural communities first, to ensure that they are not again left until last, as they have been under this SNP Government.

Taken together these policies would deliver local growth across our country.

To give every community the chance to succeed and every person the chance at a good job wherever they live.

Finally, we need to stand up for the values that are held by our communities.

Our emergency workers have been on the frontline in this pandemic, taking risks every day, to the worry of their families.

I know this feeling because my wife is a police officer. I remember not long after we were married waking up to find Krystle wasn’t home long after her shift was supposed to have ended.

I was woken by a call from the divisional commander informing me as a local councillor of a major incident that had happened through the night.

He told me of a murder that had taken place – thankfully so rare in our part of Scotland – and how the suspect was still at large.

He didn’t mention Krystle; but I knew she was out there with her colleagues facing danger as many of us had slept securely knowing they were keeping us safe.

Our story is not unique. Everyone who has a loved one working in the emergency services has a night like that, but we shouldn’t also have to worry about them being assaulted as well.

Yet the maximum sentence for a criminal attack on an emergency worker is just 12 months.

And because of this SNP Government’s effective ban on short sentences, it means that attackers probably will not even have to go to jail.

Our communities expect the law to properly protect emergency workers, which is why we would double the maximum sentence for criminal attacks on them.

To send a strong signal that we do not accept violence towards them.

That we value our emergency workers.

You also expect a justice system that is on the side of victims and provides closure.

Scotland is one of the few countries in the world with more than two verdicts in a criminal trial.

The court can decide that a crime has been ‘Not Proven’, which results in exactly the same outcome as ‘Not Guilty’ for the accused and accuser.

Sadly, this verdict is used in almost a third of rape cases.

The SNP know that this is an injustice at the heart of our courts system yet have kicked a review into the long grass.

Well having examined this issue in detail and listened carefully to victims, support organisations and legal experts, the Scottish Conservatives will support the bold action the SNP are too timid to take forward.

We would abolish the ‘Not Proven’ verdict.

To end the confusion and distress that this brings for the victims of the most horrific crimes.

We are coming up with the ideas that Scotland needs after 13 years of the SNP being in power.

While the nationalist focus is on separation, our focus is on Scotland.

It would be easy for us to play the part in the SNP’s campaign for independence.

To be the ‘no campaign’, as they seek to make next year’s election a spring referendum on whether there should be an autumn poll on Indy Ref 2.

To join them in dividing Scotland, just like they did six years ago,

splitting colleagues, friendships and families all over again

But that is the fight that they want to have.

They want another bitter and angry fight about the constitution.

They do not want to debate their 13 long years in government or how little they have to show for their time in office.

Be in no doubt that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party I lead will always stand up for Scots who do not want to go through that division and uncertainty again.

But we will not fight against a second referendum solely because we oppose separation,

But also because we are sick and tired of the same arguments taking all of the airtime in Scottish politics.

This has been going on since 2007, why can’t they just give it a rest?

So no, I refuse to play by their rules,

I will fight next year’s election on my terms and contrast their record in government, with our fresh vision for Scotland.

One that does not need years of constitutional upheaval to achieve, one that we can deliver right now.

A vision of community, of rebuilding our villages and towns

Of a Scotland that backs local businesses and jobs.

A Scotland that offers equal opportunity and good public services regardless of where you live.

A Scotland where both of our governments work together to support us.

I want to give you the power to make your own Scotland in your own image.

In all our diversity, creativity, humour and quirkiness.

Because that is a Scotland of depth beyond the shallowness of nationalism.

I started my remarks with hope and I want to end with hope.

The hope of returning to normal after Covid-19.

The hope we will all feel following the men’s football team at the Euros next year.

The hope that we can deliver for you, and your family and your community.

The hope of a better 2021 and beyond.

Thank you.