Friends, five years ago I came to this conference, seeking to win the leadership of our party in Scotland. We’d just had our worst ever Scottish election result on the back of two decades of decline. As career moves went, the omens didn’t look exactly ideal. We were being kicked around by our opponents. And the media was calling us a corpse that wouldn’t twitch. And that was on a good day. But conference, you always kept the faith. When I argued we could win again as Conservatives, you granted me the privilege of allowing me to lead. We weren’t being credited with much in the way of prospects but we had our values, we had heart and we had belief. And five years on, I’m here to give you the good news – the Scottish Conservatives are back as a fighting force once again.
More than double our number of MSPs. Leapfrogging Labour and consigning them to 3rd for the first time in six decades. Standing up to the SNP. Being the strong opposition Scotland so desperately needs. From the Borders to Banff, we are showing that there is another way. A better way. One which seeks not to stoke divisions or split our country, but one which knuckles down and gets on with the job.
And we are not done yet. Not by a long shot. Next year every council seat in Scotland is up for grabs and we will deliver the best Conservative result since devolution. We won’t be satisfied until we have a Conservative in and working hard on the ground in every community in Scotland. It’s not leaders that turn results around; it’s teams. And the team we’re building in Scotland makes me so proud to lead it. The torch is being passed to the next generation. In parliament we’ve now got everyone from Olympic athletes to university professors, soldiers, farmers, teachers and third sector workers and we want that same spread – from every walk of life - in our town halls, too. We’re not hiding any more, conference.
We’re out and proud. We are winning support from all parts of Scotland. So I say to those who believe in service, in community, in country; let the Scottish Conservative party be your home.
I am aware how Scottish politics can sometimes look. You see Nicola Sturgeon on the TV most weeks telling you how Scotland is up in arms – again.…threatening the break-up of Britain. Asserting independence is closer now than ever before. Declaring separation is somehow inevitable. Today, speaking to people here from across the UK, I want to make this clear. Don’t believe a word of it. There is nothing inevitable about the break-up of this great nation…and I for one will fight it every inch and so will thousands with me. The SNP doesn’t speak for all of Scotland. And nor does it have the right to. Every nation is bigger than any one party - bigger than any one person. And Scotland is bigger, more varied, more complex than the nation the SNP would like to pretend. So, next time you see Nicola Sturgeon picking a fight, or trying to claim the United Kingdom is over - Remember, she does not speak for the country. And, when she threatens to put yet another divisive referendum back on the table, the nation is not behind her. She’s not speaking for the majority. Because the majority of us want to move on.
The majority have no wish to return to the divisions of the past – we want to seize the opportunities of the future. Most Scots have had enough. And they are telling her – for pity’s sake, First Minister, let – this - go.
The problem, of course, is that the SNP isn’t listening. Instead, they’re determined to keep the divisions over the last few years alive. Now, I’m often accused by those same opponents –those ardent separatists - that I bang on about independence and the Union as much as they do. Well, for so long as the SNP keeps this alive – then so be it. Because the Union matters so much. It matters for the economic stability and jobs that our partnership brings. It matters for the defence and security of our country. It matters because of the common bonds we share right across this United Kingdom. And it matters perhaps even more so now that we are leaving the European Union. Now, you all know where I stood in the referendum in June. But I tell you this: I did not vote Remain to see my vote co-opted into a fresh SNP independence drive. And I can tell you something else: whatever questions Brexit raises, none of them – not a single one – is answered destroying our own union of nations…
So I urge the SNP Government, Instead of focussing on a second referendum that isn’t wanted, why not get back to the day job, instead? And I say to the First Minister. Instead of picking endless fights with Westminster about whatever latest grievance you’ve concocted. Pick a fight with poor literacy and numeracy standards in Scotland’s schools. Pick a fight with the health gap between our richest and poorest communities. Pick a fight with the absence of mental health services for our young people. Pick a fight with the dealers who push the poison of drugs on our streets. You’re the government of Scotland and you were elected to improve the lives of the people of our country. That’s the fight that matters – so get on with it.
And be in no doubt - we’ll be there watching you, pushing you, holding you to account. …Because the Conservatives are back where we belong – back in the mainstream of Scottish politics. And we are here to stay. But all around us, the sands of politics are shifting. Old certainties are being swept aside, old alliances crumbling. And last week in Liverpool, it was there for all to see. The once broad church of the Labour Party has shrunk to a single rickety pew. The remaining true believers belting out the hymns of yesterday with gusto. Higher taxes… Renationalisation… Finding ever more ways to spend other people’s money. But they are only preaching to the choir. Labour – a party which once spoke to the hopes of a nation – now speaks to an ever smaller faction of itself. And, genuinely, I think Labour has no idea how ludicrous it looks to the wider world.
Last week – at a ghettoised ‘women’s conference’ – tacked on to the front of the main event, speaker after Labour speaker rose to denounce the Prime Minister as not a real feminist. Harriet Harman declared that Theresa May “is a woman – but she is no sister.” Well, while Labour was bathing in its own left-wing sanctimony, here’s something they might have missed. Theresa May has broken barriers her entire life – first female Conservative Party Chairman, longest serving Home secretary – male or female - since Henry Matthews in 1892, and only the second female Prime Minister in our country’s history. And she’s made sure that all along the way, she’s helped women as she goes. Increasing female participation in politics by setting up Women to Win, Cracking down on domestic abuse and passing new laws on modern slavery, female genital mutilation and forced marriage. She’s done more for women than your pink bus, Harriet.
And, right now, there are girls and young women across this country that are looking to Number 10 Downing Street, and who see that gender is no barrier to advancement. That with hard work, application, commitment, there is nothing they can’t do. What do the Conservatives do for women? We empower them to be leaders. And Theresa May is exactly what a sister looks like. Now I know the temptation is to celebrate what could be the effective demise of Labour as a functioning political party. It’s tempting and I do understand that. But it would be utterly wrong. Because the truth is that Labour’s retreat from reality under Jeremy Corbyn has left millions of people across our country feeling disenfranchised. Ordinary people who don’t expect miracles……Just a job that pays them fairly. …A good local school. …A neighbourhood that’s free of crime and drugs. Labour has turned its back on these ordinary, decent people; so it’s up to us to act. It’s our job to show them that we understand their anxieties, that we share their concerns. …That we’ve got a plan to improve lives and that we’ve got the conviction, the drive and determination to see it through. And we mustn’t do it to fulfil some cynical electoral tactic. Yes, of course we want their support in the ballot box, but much more importantly we want to earn that most precious thing - trust. We need them to know that they have a voice that will be listened to. …That when we speak, it’s with them in mind. …That when we act, it’s with their interests at heart. And we need to rise to this challenge because that’s what it is to be a truly national party.
We’ve made a good start. We can take pride in the achievements so far from our six years in government. 2.7 million more people in employment. More than 700,000 off unemployment benefits. And half a million fewer children in workless households – and what a fantastic figure that is. That’s a solid record of achievement, and one recognised when the people of Britain chose to put their trust in the Conservatives at the last general election, returning a majority government. But we must also understand that in the eyes of many people, these are just a list of statistics that bear no relation to the reality of their lives. Because for the last few years, this has been a time when the system has simply stopped working for them. When the deck feels stacked against them. I’m a Conservative; I believe in hard work and just rewards. But let’s be honest: too often in these last few years, working hard just hasn’t been enough. The want-to-work mother trapped at home because she can’t afford the cost of childcare… The older worker - out of a job or looking to change career – who hits an age barrier when it comes to training opportunities… The tenant imprisoned in a drug-riddled neighbourhood. No way out and nobody there to help. They aren’t strangers to us; they are our neighbours, our families, our friends. These are people who do play by the rules, but it’s STILL not enough.
So it’s up to us to change those rules……to make sure we have real equality of opportunity in this country, to drive the social and economic mobility we need. That means tackling the causes of poverty – like poor education, addiction and dependency– not forever mopping up the consequences. It means a house-building revolution so couples in their thirties have the chance of buying their own home – not renting out for ever. And it means being unashamedly pro-family –giving parents the support they need to bring up their children, so they can do what every parent wants. Ensuring their child a better life than that they've had for themselves. All easy to say, and none of it easy to do. But you know the old saying
If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, get a woman. And in Theresa May, we have a Prime Minister who I know is absolutely determined to act and to face down these challenges. And she’s just the woman for the job.
When I backed Theresa to be our new Prime Minister I did so because I saw in her someone who had the experience, understanding and the resolve to drive forward the change we need. And when she first spoke from Downing Street on that morning of July 13th, my faith in her was repaid in full. “We will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” That is noble. It is right and it is true. And in the months and years ahead it must be our guiding principle. More than that, it is our duty. In the absence of a functioning Labour party, a rump of liberals and an SNP more concerned with partition than policy, it is up to us to seize the centre ground and to act for all. At our best, the UK is a shining light of democracy, liberty and hope. One of the reasons I love this country so much and have fought so hard to keep it together is because I know it is a force for good in this world. I’ve seen – up close - British troops protect civilians in war. I’ve met the Scottish charities working to make the world land mine free I’ve watched our businesses trade and support nations abroad. And I’ve seen our universities collaborate the world over to make vital breakthroughs in medical science. That strong, proud, virtuous internationalism that has so shaped our national character cannot be cowed by the challenges of the day. We are a great nation precisely because we supports our allies, value our neighbours and shoulder our burden in the world. I am proud of our past, but I believe, firmly believe, that our best days still lie ahead.
Conference, that internationalism abroad must find its echo at home. We must not forget our own party’s history and values. I once listened to Sir John Major tell of his childhood in Brixton – then an area where many new arrivals to Britain set up their first home. And he talked of his Conservative values and those of his neighbours – and said there is nothing as Conservative as pulling your loved ones close and striking out to build a better future for your family.
So as we have difficult – but necessary - debates on how we manage borders in future, let us not forget that behind discussions of numbers and rules and criteria, there lies people and homes and families. And for those who have already chosen to build a life, open a business, make a contribution, I say this is your home, and you are welcome here. The Conservative party I know is optimistic in spirit and internationalist in outlook – we are an outward looking people, and so we must remain.
Conference, I’m an old-fashioned Tory. I believe – unselfconsciously - in God, and country and community. I believe in personal freedom, personal choice and personal responsibility. I believe in small but effective government. In service, in duty, in decency. In Britain. We are about to enter a period of great upheaval. There will be obstacles to overcome, orthodoxies to challenge and, yes, some old thinking to be set aside. But the prize will justify the journey. I want us to be able to look back - five years from now - and say; we did all that we could, and we did it for the right reasons. That we were guided by the values we hold dear.…To know that we reached out across this country; to every town, city and community; to those who share our beliefs and those who don’t.…That we shone a light on darkness…brought hope, created opportunities and widened horizons. That we made lives better for those with little, and that everyone felt the county could work for them. Conference, it’s why I’m in politics, it’s why Theresa May’s in politics; it’s why you are too. Not for my own ambitions and goals – but because I believe that this it is our values, our mission and our beliefs that will make this country a better place.
So our goals are clear, our resolve firm. And together – every one of us – let’s get down to work, and build that better future. Thank you.