It doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does we should give three cheers: the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson gave a good speech and it is worth considering what she said.
I do not wish to sound churlish or grudging. It is not that Ruth Davidson cannot give a good speech, she certainly can – it is just that there is a great deal to be said from the Scottish Conservative perspective and whether or not the media think it interesting she ought to do more of it. Speaking is one of her strengths, and there are enough people working for her who can give her ideas for her to develop.
Doing more than her predecessors Annabel Goldie or David McLetchie is not a particular high bar to set, she ought to raise it higher, especially after the referendum when there is likely to be a vacuum that she can fill.
The theme of this week’s speech was how Scotland leaving the United Kingdom would give young people less opportunity than remaining in the United Kingdom. This might not seem an obvious claim to make, given that initially we can expect some sadness and goodwill to help maintain the social union until any negotiations are concluded.
Nevertheless Davidson’s point is important for it raises the issue of how natural competition between Scotland and the rest of the UK, together with a hiatus in Scotland’s EU membership that we cannot predict the length of, must eat away at the social union and undermine the natural sympathy that young Scots might expect to have in the British job market.
Davidson quite correctly pointed out that the mood of young Scots is with her, explaining how in mock polls in schools and universities up and down the country – and even in nationalist heartlands – the vote has been overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining the Union:
“Eleven and a half thousand high school pupils in Aberdeenshire – polled on a single day in a mock referendum – Seventy five percent of them said they supported a No vote.
Last month, the whole of Moray [a nationalist stronghold] held a mock referendum in every secondary school across the region, 71% of pupils also said No.
In six of our Universities, across four of our cities – In Glasgow, in Edinburgh, in Aberdeen and Dundee, every single one has politely said ‘No thanks’.”
Davidson claims the young are with her for three reasons. The first is that anyone aged 34 or under is now a member of the ‘devolution generation’ a subset of the electorate that in their experience of voting has only known power being shared between Westminster and Holyrood and that the SNP’s grievance politics sound especially odd and jarring. She is not wrong. The SNP expected that young people would instinctively wish to vote against the British state, to fight the machine, but Alex Salmond and his advisers have been completely wrong – they took young people for granted.
“Alex Salmond isn’t the plucky outsider trying to bring an overbearing Westminster to heel. He’s been in power at Holyrood for seven years. He IS the political establishment.
If you are a 17-year-old voter, casting your first ballot, you were ten when he entered Bute House. People in their teens and twenties in Scotland have no memory of another party running the country.
You can’t claim victimhood when you’re the ones in power.”
Ouch! This is just the sort of incisiveness that would make Davidson a good foil against Salmond in a TV debate. Forget Salmond versus Cameron, instead the Conservatives should offer up Davidson. It would make far more sense putting up a young female who does not have the political baggage with which the First Minister usually wishes to characterise Tories. Better, too, to make Salmond look like the arrogant, complacent and patronising face of the establishment.
The second reason is that she believes young people inherently love freedom, have embraced the opportunities that the fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall brought and that erecting a new barrier between Scotland and England in particular – no matter how real or virtual – does not sit well with this attitude.
“…a decision to erect barriers where none previously existed goes utterly against the way young people think the world should work.
They expect to be connected. They expect not to have to pay for it. They don’t like anything that blocks our access to the wider world. They place a very, very high premium on things that keep us wired up. They don’t want that put at risk.”
Again, I think she is right on this – and there is an important lesson here for people wishing to campaign for the UK leaving the European Union.
Any such anti-EU strategy must develop a positive narrative about extending opportunities for Britain’s youth by the UK becoming truly global rather than limiting itself to a narrower focus of the European Union or dealing with the world through the EU (as is the growing trend).
Davidson’s third reason is a highly positive one – and it is welcome news to see it being made so passionately and with pride.
“Look around modern Britain and see the success stories around the country.
Where is cutting edge research taking place right now into developing the one-atom thick material Graphene which could revolutionise manufacturing? Manchester.
Where is the world’s third largest technology start-up cluster after New York and San Francisco, where Google has set up shop to create a new Silicon Valley? Shoreditch in East London.
Which city is leading the world in video game development, and was the birthplace of Grand Theft Auto to name but one? Dundee.
And where is the medical research on cloning and stem cell technology happening which could arrest and reverse diseases across the world? Edinburgh.
Why would you want to carve this country up so that it is more difficult, not less, to decide which of these brilliant opportunities you want to take up?”
Note how any one of those claims, all of them in fact, could be said by a Labour leader who is genuinely proud of his or her country – and yet such a positive message from Labour politicians does not exist. They avoid talking about opportunity, and instead deliver a partisan message about correcting Tory political sins. This fundamentally negative strategy has made the No campaign seem grudging and carping. Davidson’s speech is a breath of fresh air.
And the truth is such a positive message about the achievements of modern Britain, about the greatness of the country that so many people outside the UK wish to belong to, could be developed further – for the list is far, far longer – but too few politicians are making it.
Three cheers for Ruth Davidson in putting this message out. There are only two months left for the No campaign to develop an upbeat message; Davidson could do worse than repeating this speech about the positive future for young Scottish people to audiences young and old.