LAST WEEK I had the great pleasure of attending the 2017 Scottish Conservative Conference in Glasgow. The atmosphere at conference differs immensely, dependant on the relative fortunes of the party at the time of the gathering.
For Scottish Labour’s recent conference, it was gloom and despair as the party’s divisions were deeper than ever, speakers spoke off-message, UK members came up and went off-piste and their messaging was in disarray.
The coming SNP conference is expected to be one long cry for a second referendum to the conundrum of the First Minister who is trying to appease the SNP’s new found fame amongst pro-indy, socialist voters but at the same realise that most Scots have no interest or desire in another vote.
For many years the Scottish Conservatives’ conferences were events centred around “pleasant but realistic cheer”. But this year was different; the conference was packed like never before and we could feel the momentum in the air.
It felt good, a new confidence as a party that had more than doubled its presence in Holyrood and overtaken Labour as the second largest party in Scotland. For me personally it was an emotional trip onto the podium to deliver my speech on the digital economy.
We also had the opportunity to hear some high-profile speakers including the Prime Minister Theresa May, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, International Development Secretary Priti Patel and Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell. They reminded us that the UK government is committed to a strong Scottish future.
As our Deputy Leader Jackson Carlaw finished his closing speech he called on every pending local council election candidate to stand up; nearly half of the hall rose to their feet. Motivated men and women ready to stand up for the Union and sweep the board this May.
We are certainly ready to build on last year’s Holyrood success. There is a feeling of optimism in the air.
It is, however, Ruth Davidson who leads the army. Her speech was a stunning example of what a strong opposition can achieve in such a short period of time, and what a government in waiting might start to look like. It’s not what you’ve done it’s what you’re going to do, she told conference. And you know what? She is right.
It’s not enough for us continue to pat ourselves on the back. The Scottish Conservatives now need to look to the future and lay the groundwork for 2021.
The fact is that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is not a party of opposition nor a party of protest, we are a party of government. As our first year approaches its end, the training wheels are off. The earnest, fresh faces at Holyrood are already maturing into a sea of heavyweight, hard-hitting, knowledgeable and robust debaters. Holding the SNP administration to account day-in, day-out. And do you know what? They are really starting to feel the heat.
We have defeated the government a number times now; Nicola Sturgeon is now learning that her parliamentary authority is not absolute and that the Scottish Conservatives will challenge anything that her party brings before Parliament.
The SNP probably didn’t expect to find itself where it is today. It is increasingly distracted by a Scottish independence referendum that puts the separation movement ahead of more important issues. On top of this, for the first-time its Ministers and MSPs are being met by stiff resistance by a true opposition in the Chamber. A united front that wholly backs its leader and puts up a fight. An opposition that is popular with the electorate, with a leader who polls high. This is a million miles from the old days of Labour on the opposition benches in Holyrood. This is a force to be reckoned with.
Conference reminded me that the coming years are an opportunity for our party to really define ourselves in Scotland. As Conservatives, we have a mandate to rein in the unruly spending of the SNP and shape policies that won’t damage long-term growth in Scotland. As Unionists, we have a mandate to show the SNP that the independence rhetoric has to end.
Being a Unionist doesn’t mean being anti-Scotland, and our work over the next few years can show the Scottish people that this is the case. The days of saying why independence is bad, and that alone, are gone too. The case now is to state why the union is good. What makes Britain Great. What makes the Kingdom United.
The coming local elections are just as important as our work at Holyrood; we are hoping for record support for the Conservatives across Scotland.
As you can see, a lot of us feel like we have petrol in our tanks to be the best we’ve ever been as a party in years. But, we must have a vision for where that drive will take us. I want to lay out my hopes for 2021.
By 2021, we will be out of the EU and the uncertainty around Brexit will have cleared. I am optimistic that we will see big improvements by getting better deals for the Scottish people. A couple important examples were made at the Conference;
Firstly, when we leave the EU, we can expect big increases in our whisky exports. Scottish whisky exports are severely damaged by EU regulation.
Secondly, leaving the EU will give us back control of our fishing industry, and make sure that Scottish waters are fished by Scottish ships. Fishing in Scotland has been severely damaged by our place in the EU.
A post-Brexit Scotland in 2021 will be enjoying the benefits of trade deals that put Scotland first.
The conference last week reminded me what we are working so hard for; Scotland after 2021 could usher in an era of prosperity many of us have long-hoped for; stable and robust national government that empowers Scottish people while enjoying the security and opportunities that will come with a post-Brexit United Kingdom.
Holyrood now controls more aspects of life in Scotland than ever before, and Scottish people deserve a competent government to wield and yield those powers. The SNP is a protest party in power. It was never meant to be a ruling party, and its attempts at leading Scotland reveal this.
The Scottish Conservatives can and will rise to the challenges ahead, watch this space as we transition from the strong opposition, to a government in waiting.
Jamie Greene is a Scottish Conservative MSP for West Scotland and party spokesman for technology, connectivity, the digital economy and broadcasting.