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McLetchie: Scottish Conservatives are on the way up

Speech to Scottish Conservatives Autumn Conference 2003


Much has happened since we last met and I want to thank everyone in this hall for all their efforts in the recent Scottish Parliament and local elections. I know that, in the recent past, electioneering has not always been a happy or fulfilling experience for Conservatives in many parts of Scotland. However, the good news is - it's getting better all the time.

I said on the night of my election as the MSP for Edinburgh Pentlands that it was the fulfilment of one of my lifetime ambitions. However, it is not what it means to me that matters, but what it means for our Party. I have been a member of the Scottish Conservative Party for longer than I care to remember. Like all of you, it is a badge I wear with pride because I believe in the values and principles which our Party represents and I believe that policies founded on those principles are the best way to improve the lives of every single person living in Scotland today.

That's why I am delighted that May 1st 2003 was another vital step forward for our party. This was certainly not what the commentators, the pollsters and other prophets of doom expected. But they were wrong, wrong, wrong.

The truth is that Scottish Conservatives are made of sterner stuff. Let's be honest, we've had to be. However, by winning three seats first past the post in the Scottish Parliament, increasing our share of the vote for the first time in a Scotland-wide election since 1992 and increasing the number of Tory councillors we have shown we are here to stay.

However, this is no time for resting on the few laurels we have won so far. May 1st should be seen, not as an end in itself, but only as a stepping stone. Our goal must be to implement our agenda for Scotland and that can only happen if we are once again a party of government. That is the real victory we seek and there is still much work to do.

Relegate the SNP

Our next task is to overtake the SNP and become the second party in Scotland in terms of seats and votes - that is the challenge which I am setting for our Party today. It is a goal that is now well within our grasp. A reliable poll - in other words one not done by System 3 for the Herald - a reliable poll shows us neck and neck with the SNP and our support running at over 20 per cent in Scotland for the first time in over 10 years.

The Scottish Conservatives are on the way up - the SNP are on the way down.

This is good news for us and good news for Scotland, as there is a desperate need for an official opposition that is also an effective opposition. The SNP has failed to hold the Executive to account and it has even more clearly failed to offer an alternative agenda to that of the Labour/Liberal Democrat government in Scotland.

Taking this next step would free Scotland from the sterile constitutional debate that will remain our staple political diet unless we can sideline the SNP. For the SNP, every issue is viewed through a constitutional prism, with independence as the universal panacea for all ills. This simplistic nostrum has served only to distract attention from the real issues facing Scotland today.

If any further evidence were needed to prove that relegating the SNP to the sidelines of Scottish politics is in Scotland's interests, just look at the divisions in the party, which have led to the current leadership contest.

It has led to the unedifying spectacle of John Swinney climbing aboard the Dungavel bandwagon. The irresponsible way in which he has vied with the Scottish Socialists on this issue for cheap headlines shows why he is unfit to lead. He has allowed his selfish interests to cloud his judgement and used the asylum issue to shore up his position with his own left wing party activists. Such cynical opportunism is exactly why politicians and the political process are held in such low regard by the public.

And it's about time John Swinney grew up and stopped accusing his political opponents of racism in relation to asylum. There are approximately 370 million people in the EU at present. Each and every one of them is free to live and work in the UK, just as our citizens are free to live and work in their countries. 116,000 people were granted permanent settlement in this country last year. Another 120,000 work permit holders and their families were also admitted. And the number of international students who came here to study increased to 369,000. All this sounds to me like a country which welcomes people from all over the world - a country of which I am proud to be a citizen. It doesn't bear much resemblance to the racist country of Mr Swinney's fevered imagination.

This country has a long and proud record as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution. However, the huge increase in the number seeking asylum undoubtedly includes a significant percentage of economic migrants who do not qualify. The fact is that the sanction of deportation is the essence of an effective asylum and immigration policy - without it our country would become an open house for everyone who reaches our shores. If you're not prepared to chuck anybody out, you might as well let everybody in. That's an unpalatable truth that far too many people who should know better simply do not have the political or moral courage to accept.

We already know that the SNP is an ineffective opposition. The SNP's position on Dungavel shows why it is totally unfit for government.

Tackling Crime

So how do we fill that gap? The key must be to do the job of a real opposition - to hold the Executive effectively to account and offer a practical alternative which will make a real difference to the lives of everyone in Scotland.

The truth is that the only effective opposition in the Scottish Parliament has come from the Scottish Conservatives. Take the issue of tackling crime for example. It was the Scottish Conservatives who hounded Labour and the Liberal Democrats on this issue in the last Parliament. We exposed the scandal of the initial cut in the justice budget. We highlighted the fact that the number of police officers had fallen at a time of rising crime. And it was our pressure which forced the Executive to think again on its ludicrous plans to ban smacking and send 16 and 17 year old offenders to the Children's Panel.

But one thing Jack McConnell doesn't lack is brass neck. Despite his Executive's criminal record, he has had a lot to say about tackling crime and anti-social behaviour recently. But frankly, it's all soundbite and no substance.

For instance, if he wants to be so tough on crime why isn't he addressing as a matter of urgency the scandal of automatic early release? Of course, Labour has previous on this issue. Michael Forsyth, when Secretary of State for Scotland, legislated to end automatic early release and ensure that criminals had to earn any remission through good behaviour in prison. However, almost immediately on taking office, Labour repealed this legislation. And when we tried to amend the Executive's Criminal Justice Bill to reinstate it, Jack McConnell knocked it back.

So when he says he wants to address the issue of automatic early release, we should take it with a large pile of salt. He told me two weeks ago at First Minister's Questions that it would be 'First priority' for his new sentencing commission. Unfortunately, he didn't compare notes with his Justice Minister. She told me that it was only one of many priorities, that it only applies to prisoners serving four years or less, that no timetable or agenda has yet been finalised and that it wasn't her decision to make in any case. This would mean that a five year sentence, such as that given recently to the man who raped a 13 month old baby would still be automatically reduced by one third. And they call that justice.

Honesty in sentencing is the foundation on which the rest of sentencing policy should be built. Until Jack McConnell is prepared to do this, no one will take him seriously on crime.

Regaining Trust in the Scottish Parliament

However, simply pointing out the deficiencies in the Labour Government in Westminster and the Lab/Lib Executive in Scotland is not enough. That is partly because they are now so obvious, people can see them for themselves. They know they are paying more in tax, yet despite all the extra spending the improvements in our public services that they were promised are nowhere to be seen.

This failure on the part of Labour and the Liberal Democrats has seriously undermined public confidence in the Scottish Parliament. That was shown only too clearly by the low turnout at the Scottish elections. We need to regain that confidence in our democratic institutions as a matter of urgency.

Let me make it clear once again. We must make the Scottish Parliament work for the Scottish people because the only winners if we don't will be the separatists. There is no turning back or as Michael Forsyth put it a number of years ago, 'A Scottish Parliament is for life, not just for Christmas.' He was right. We cannot unscramble the eggs and the failure of devolution would mean a one way ticket to the break up of the United Kingdom. We cannot let that happen.

For example, never again can there be a repeat of the Holyrood fiasco that has symbolised the failure of the last Parliament and disillusioned so many. The truth is that instead of acknowledging public outrage about the scandalous rise in the cost of Holyrood, far too many MSPs simply wanted to brush the whole thing under the multi million pound carpet.

This is particularly true of the Party where the blame for this whole affair undoubtedly lies. A succession of Labour First Ministers have ducked their responsibility for the rising cost of the Holyrood project blaming it on the Presiding Officer, the Corporate Body, the Progress Group, the architect, the project manager, the weather - anything or anyone to get them off the hook. Rest assured we will not let them get away with it. Labour chose the site, Labour rejected a fixed price tender, Labour rejected PFI, Labour and their Lib Dem lackeys voted for the project to proceed on 4 separate occasions and it's the Labour and Liberal Democrat Executive which to this day continues to sign the blank cheques. As they say in the legal profession, it is an open and shut case.

However, Jack McConnell found himself under so much pressure that during the election campaign he promised an inquiry into the whole fiasco. And typically he put a Tory in charge and not just any old Tory, but a former Lord Advocate, MP, Government Minister and, irony of ironies, Chairman of the 'No, No' campaign in the referendum. The First Minister is very pleased with his wheeze because he thinks it will shut us up. All I can say is if he thinks that, he's got another think coming.

Peter Fraser is a fine man for whom I have a high regard. However, as we said when the inquiry was set up, he is only as good as the powers he is given. And the fact that a fellow Conservative is in charge of this inquiry does not mean we will be pulling any punches. We want answers because the Scottish public wants answers, we want them as soon as humanly possible and we want them at as little cost to the taxpayer as possible. I understand why a final report cannot be issued until the project is completed. However, most of the crucial decisions were taken before 1999 and this period demands an early investigation and report. Quite frankly, next summer or even later is not soon or good enough which is why I will be asking Lord Fraser to publish an interim report before Easter dealing with the key political decisions taken in the early days. We will also be insisting that the inquiry keeps to its already generous budget of £1.2 million. Far too much money has already been wasted on Holyrood - by contrast, the Fraser Inquiry should be a model of economy and efficiency.

And we will apply the same principles of value for money across the whole of government and the Scottish Parliament. We need smaller, better government for Scotland with fewer MSPs, ministers and bureaucrats and a more disciplined focus on issues that really matter to people.

However, some of you may have seen a headline in a Sunday newspaper last week which suggested that we were more concerned about something called 'fiscal independence.' Well I can assure you I am not in favour of independence - fiscal or otherwise, because I am a Unionist. But I am also a Conservative and believe in prudent, responsible and limited government. The current spend, spend, spend mentality of the Scottish Executive is holding Scotland back. We certainly don't want fiscal independence, but there is a strong case for a more financially responsible Parliament. That's a very good Conservative principle, as opposed to a very bad Nationalist one.

However, the problem with giving the Parliament greater financial responsibility is that most people believe that more tax raising powers will inevitably lead to higher taxes and we've had quite enough of them already courtesy of Gordon Brown. One can hardly blame them when all the other parties in Scotland believe that higher spending is the answer to all our problems. That's one good reason why we need more Scottish Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament. It is also why, as we said in our manifesto, that we need a full, independent inquiry into all the implications before any conclusions are reached.

Real Reform

But that is all for the future. I want to focus on the present because whilst the SNP is always telling us what the Scottish Parliament can't do, I am more concerned with what it can do, right here, right now to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

And there is an enormous amount that can be done within the existing powers - it's just none of our opponents have the political will to do so.

It is our job to demonstrate to the Scottish people that they don't need to accept second best public services. There is a better way and that means we must be the party of radical change in Scotland. Some may find this language odd coming from a Conservative, but Conservatives only wish to conserve what is good. From Edmund Burke onwards Conservatives have always been willing to embrace change when it was necessary and that is certainly the case today.

Change in health and education means empowering parents and patients to make real choices on behalf of themselves and their families, whilst trusting the professional judgement of those who work in our schools and hospitals to meet their needs. That means releasing them from the control freak mentality of the Scottish Executive.

And we know that applying those principles will work in practice because it already does in so many other countries. Parents in Denmark, Sweden and Holland take choice for granted as do patients in France, Germany and Switzerland. This guarantees high standards for all. It's about time that here in Scotland those who have the nerve to lecture us on the need to be good Europeans, started to learn some of these lessons from Europe. Why should patients have to put up with a system which leaves a constituent of mine waiting for 5 years for facial reconstruction surgery? And why should parents tolerate a system in which two thirds of 14 year olds can't write properly and more than a half can't read properly.

We shouldn't. It's a national disgrace and an international embarrassment. We will change it.

And the same applies to the parlous state of our economy. Jack McConnell now says his top priority is, and I quote, 'growing our economy'. I thought that was something you did with your garden. But nothing in this garden is growing because the hoe and sickle of the New Labour regulated economy will be no more successful than the hammer and sickle of the socialist command economy.

When it comes to the economy there's much we can do within the powers of the Scottish Parliament. In particular, we can use some of the current Scottish Enterprise budget to cut business rates and invest in improving our transport infrastructure - whilst we need an immediate scheme to relieve Scottish businesses, large and small, of the burden of excessive rises in their water bills. Some businesses have seen their bills rise by 500 per cent in the last year alone, yet our water is of the poorest quality in Britain. Higher bills, lower quality - what a damning indictment of our publicly-owned water industry. It's high time we took Scottish Water out of public ownership and turned it into a mutual company run by and in the interests of its customers. This would finally give our people a quality of service that our neighbours in England and Wales take for granted.


People want politicians who give it to them straight setting out clearly and consistently what they offer. That's why with the Scottish Conservatives what you see is what you get. We say what we mean and mean what we say and we will not worship the false God of consensus. We need the clash of ideas. We need to present clear choices. That is vital if we are to regain the public's trust and interest in politics and our democracy.

So our objective is clear.

We are united in our determination to serve Scotland as a party of government once again.

Every election is vital to achieving this aim. Just as Chairman Mao initiated the permanent revolution, what we now face in Scotland is the permanent election.

So we must all work together. Our job is to be with Struan Stevenson and John Purvis and our other candidates in the European elections next year. And after that to elect more Scottish Conservative MPs to join Peter Duncan at Westminster.

That requires a joined up campaign. Iain Duncan Smith and I are united in our determination to return our Party to power. There may be differences in the detail of policy, but the basic principles and themes remain the same.

So let us have the courage to embrace change.

The status quo is failing the people of Scotland. We must show there is an alternative based on Conservative principles. Principles of choice, responsibility and the real devolution of power to individuals, families and communities.

I do not pretend it will be easy. Success requires commitment and perseverance. Fortunately Scottish Conservatives have these qualities. We have them in abundance. So let us rise to the challenge. Together we can bring about that change.

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