Ruth Davidson is Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and an MSP for the Glasgow regional list.
For the first time in my lifetime, the Scottish Conservatives have good reason to claim that we stand foursquare aligned with the values of the majority in Scotland. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to make such a claim and have it taken seriously. But, in what is a transformative time in Scottish politics, all the evidence suggests that the ambitions and values of our party and the ambitions and values of people in Scotland are moving in the same direction.
That’s why, as we meet for our spring conference today, we do so with a genuine sense of optimism. Where’s the proof? Most obviously, it comes right now from the Independence referendum campaign. Within our own movement, the fight to save the United Kingdom has met with an extraordinary response. More than 80,000 people have now joined our ‘Conservative Friends of the Union’ campaign group; far exceeding expectations and confounding critics.
Today, that grass roots enthusiasm will be illustrated by a packed hall at Edinburgh’s International Conference Centre, with more than 1,000 people expected to attend. It illustrates how the campaign has energised our cause, reviving long held principles, and compelling people who have never previously been involved in politics to act in order to defend what we hold dear. All this is good news for Conservatism in Scotland. But more importantly, the campaign has given us the chance to re-engage people who we haven’t been connecting to for far, far too long. Conservatives across the country are now making the sensible, serious and progressive case for a strong Scotland in the UK.
As Scots on the doorstep consider the things they take for granted, from the pound in the pocket to the simplicity of living on a borderless island, that most old fashioned of political creeds – Unionism – has come alive. Of course there are those who will vote for independence no matter what this September. But all the signs are that people are responding positively to our message. In school after school, university after university, and in organisation after organisation, hustings and mock referenda are showing overwhelming support for continuation of the UK.
I believe firmly that the next six months will see not just Scotland, but England, Wales and Northern Ireland too, come to appreciate the Union’s eccentric genius afresh. Conservatism in Scotland has often stood on the wrong side of these cultural shifts. This time we’re helping to shape it. Even in Scotland, however, it’s not all about independence. And what heartens me most about our future is that our party is on the right side of the big policy issues as well as the constitutional question. The left-leaning consensus in Holyrood’s political village might not notice, but the fact is that on a host of bread and butter concerns, the public mood is moving our way too.
Alex Salmond attacks our welfare reforms – but ignores the fact that a majority of people in Scotland think the current system discourages people from going back to work. Labour and the SNP talk of a Scottish social democratic consensus against tax cuts – ignoring the fact that only a minority of Scots now think public expenditure should be increased. All our rivals oppose a referendum on our EU membership – in apparent ignorance of the fact that a majority of Scots think there should be one.
In all of these areas, opinion has shifted dramatically in Scotland over the last decade. It suggests to me that, as in the rest of the UK, people in Scotland realise the same truths apply; that the welfare state needs reform , that our relationship with the EU needs to be improved, and that – at a time when money is so tight – people and businesses should be allowed to keep more of their hard-earned cash. Starting from our conference today, our task is to focus on these, the real values of Scottish voters. We need to show people we are relevant and serious once again.
It is only the Conservatives who have a long-term plan to secure Scotland’s future. And we need to tell people bluntly that if they want to see the changes we all desire, then they need to put a cross against our name in the ballot box.
The referendum has given our party a renewed legitimacy, as well as the permission to talk to people who had long since stopped listening. It is our job to keep the conversation going beyond the constitution and to convince them of our shared values and aims.
A Scottish Parliament with new powers over the money it raises – not just the money it spends – will see the political landscape revert to a proper contest of principles.
On the left, the SNP and Labour can fight each other over who is best to preserve producer interests. On the centre-right, the Conservatives will stand for a rejuvenated vision – one that campaigns for a Scottish revolution in educational standards, that calls for a renewal in our Scottish tradition for enterprise, and that aims to put money back in the pockets of Scottish families.
A string of by-elections with increases in the Conservative vote shows that ever more people are being attracted to our cause. People in Scotland understand the arguments of a pro-enterprise, pro-reform party that wants the best for all working men and women. Just as we are on their side on the big issues, they’re instinctively on the side of a party that wants Scotland’s egalitarian traditions to be respected, and its buccaneering spirit revived. So we meet today in Edinburgh in good heart – fit for the fight to keep our country together, and laying the foundations for renewal at the ballot box.