This is an edited transcript of Ruth Davidson’s speech at last night’s launch of Onward, a new liberal Conservative think tank:
Sometimes the Tories just look a bit dour. You know, we look a bit joyless. Fair? A bit authoritarian sometimes. We don’t get to win if we start hectoring the people that we need to vote for us. We don’t get to just say ‘Please stand on the right’ like every tube message out there. We’ve got to learn to be a bit more joyful and that’s something that I think that we have tried to learn in Scotland.
Trust me, when I started out in the Tory party in Scotland in Glasgow in 2009, if you weren’t a blind optimist, the Scottish Conservatives really weren’t for you! I had my first by-election in Glasgow North East when Michael Martin, the great Speaker, stood down and it was beyond unwinnable. But I have to say it was the most fantastic fun I have had in politics. The other candidates that were in that by-election – there were 13 of us – it lasted five whole months. One of them was John Smeaton, the chap who became famous at the Glasgow Airport bombing for booting a bomber in the balls. We also had Tommy Sheridan, Scotland’s most famous socialist perjurer…that’s quite a crowded field! And while I have an apology to make to the party, I did not overturn the 59 per cent Labour vote in that seat, I did campaign and the team campaigned with a smile and we leapfrogged all the way from 6th to 3rd in that seat.
But what that did was allow us to hold our heads up, not just in Glasgow North East, but across the whole of Glasgow. So in 2011, we won a Holyrood seat. I was elected to the Scottish Parliament. And then since then, we managed to get our first seat on the outskirts of Glasgow in East Renfrewshire, a suburb right there, to this House as part of the 13 that we got in – our great result in Scotland for practically 30 years in a general election. You don’t have to tell me that Glasgow is special and the electorate are quite a hard nut to crack, but it does represent what we’ve got to achieve not just in Glasgow, but we’ve got to do it in Huddersfield, we’ve got to do it in Liverpool, we’ve got to do it all across the country, and we can. We’ve got to speak to the pensioner in the same way as we’ve got to speak to the graduate who’s worried about getting a job. We can’t just talk to the mother that’s worried about childcare. We’ve got to talk to working parents that want to make sure their kid’s got a good education when they come out the other end. We’ve got to have that confidence to speak to the whole country and not to speak to our tribe.
So the choice isn’t between whether we speak to young or old, or urban or rural, the entrepreneur or the millennial or the baby boomer factory worker. How do we set ourselves out for the whole country, look like an open feeling, a forward leaping conservatism that looks at the equality for all. And I think that’s what Onward represents. I think it is exactly what we need in our party. We need an instinctive sunniness. We need a sense of being comfortable with the modern world. We need a willingness to listen. That’s what we need. And I look at some of the board members like Tom Tugendhat and John Lamont, and I see the future of our party. And I look at what Will Tanner and Neil O’Brien have put together under Danny Finkelstein, and what excites me is that we’ve got the brains and the detail. And by God, do we need to do the hard yards of policy development, and we need to do it from backbenchers out of government, to be able to have something that ministers can hold on to. Because we need to be able to renew ourselves in government, because particularly with this opposition, we owe it to the country to be in government for some time yet.
And I think if we look at the options that are open to people across the UK, you know, it should give people in this room pause. Vince Cable and what’s left of the Lib Dems, they’ve got all the intellectual agility of a diplodocus. You’ve got Nicola Sturgeon and her outriders, who’ve got all the subtlety of a vuvuzela, perhaps just as annoying. If you look at Jeremy Corbyn, actually I feel sad. And it’s an odd thing for a Conservative to say, but I feel sad at looking at how far a once important, integral, sensible, solid party has fallen. I do. I then look at John McDonnell and the shock troops, and the troll factories and their conspiracy theories and their envy and their fake news and their Skwawkbox and the Canary and all the rest of it, and I think that this Labour party has about the same level of moral authority as Sepp Blatter going down the bookies and putting a fiver on Russia getting the World Cup. And I genuinely think to myself, when I look at the nationalists or the Corbynistas – what I see is a movement that wants in its own way to break up our country. That’s what they want. They want to tear it apart. And what these movements have in common is what they’re based on. It’s a foundation, it’s the foundation of grievance, of mistrust, and a tendency to look backwards. They feed off their own history and narrative – some post-war era of high taxes, sunshine, a pre-union Scotland of free unicorns and Scottish flags. And whatever the question is, the answer is always a cocktail of nostalgia and rage. It’s to control, it’s to nationalise, it’s to tell people that they can’t make decisions for themselves.
Well, do you know what? We’re better than that. Because that is lazy thinking, and we can do better than that. Our party has always had a taste for reinventing itself to win, but it’s not just about our party, it’s about the country that we’re trying to win for. That’s what’s important. So we have to refresh ourselves because we have a moral duty to do so, because what we’re fighting against is the politics of anger. And I don’t think that serves anyone.
Now, as you’ve heard from Neil, we’ve got a whole lot of things we can play for Onward. We’re looking at some of the really big questions – AI, we’re looking at automation. And governance, we’re looking at devolution across the whole of the UK. And education, we’re looking at an economy that requires ever faster adaptation. There are massive, massive challenges, but we’ve got to be equal to those challenges. And I look at something like automation, and I fear the old tropes. That technology will first of all – it’s going to undermine us, then it’s going to overtake us, it’s going to come for his job, then it’s going to come for my job, and then it’s going to come for all our wives. That’s not how it’s going to be, because if we get it right, and if we do the thinking now ahead of all of that, then just as with every other wave of economic change, the predictions of mass unemployment have proved not to be true. We can create more jobs out of this, but only if we get the thinking right.
And I think if you look at something like immigration, everybody wants to deal with people’s concerns – absolutely valid concerns – about services, about provision, about community cohesion. Of course we do. But we’ve got to ask ourselves fundamental questions about whether a policy that we’ve never hit, that was devised when unemployment was running at over 8 per cent still works when we’ve got a skills shortage. Does it still do the job? Do we want to be a sunny, optimistic, outward looking country that says to the brightest and best ‘We want you here’. Yes, we want to choose, we want to have control, but we want you here too. Of course we do.
And finally, I guess the big one for me – and as always, I’ll always bang on about this, and I’ll never apologise for it is education. And we have this idea that’s set in us that education starts at 5, and it finishes at either 18 or 21. Well, that’s not going to work in a country where we need to have technical revisions at all points through our lives. We’ve got to realise that education is now a process. We’ve got to be able to have the ability to be able to upscale and retain at all points in our lives, if we want to catch the economy at its highest point and give people the best chance.
So I guess I’ve bored on for far too long, but I’ve fulfilled my role as pregnant lesbian. And I think what I really want to say is, we’ve got a government that is dealing with so much, in terms of Brexit – nobody has ever done this before, not just in this county, but in any country – the capacity that they’re having to work at is phenomenal. And we’ve got – I look at the Great Offices of State and I look at the work that ministers are doing, and I absolutely take my hat off to them, absolutely take my hat off to the effort and the endeavour and the service and the focus that they’re putting in. But that means that they need us to fly the kites. They need us to think the big thoughts. They need us to renew the party and the national narrative. And I look around this room, and I think we’re just the people to do it.