Ruth Davidson: I've got some free advice for Nicola Sturgeon

The SNP should stop obsessing about indyref2 and fix the NHS, education, potholes and other problem areas, writes Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

THE in-tray for the Scottish Government is overflowing at present, as challenges on the domestic front mount up. But, rather than focus on such pressing matters, we learn this week that the SNP’s top brass is once again mulling over its latest tactics on independence.

The matter was parked by the SNP last year after Nicola Sturgeon’s initial attempt to push a second independence referendum resulted in the loss of 21 SNP MPs. Her current stated position is to announce Plan B later this year. But the movement is restless. Contenders for the party’s vacant deputy leadership post are piling on pressure to push the button now on another referendum. At the weekend, Glasgow played host to a march from independence supporters, with a clear call for the SNP to get on with it.

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The First Minister, of course, metaphorically led those marchers half way up the hill when she recklessly spearheaded the independence charge after Brexit. Now – with voters having given her plans a clear thumbs down – she seems uncertain about where next to go. Other SNP figures, including her former key adviser, Noel Dolan, are now urging her to back a re-run of the Brexit referendum before anything else. Not surprisingly, SNP figures who actually supported Brexit two years ago – like MSP Alex Neil, former deputy leader Jim Sillars, and around 300,000 SNP voters – are less keen. And so Nicola Sturgeon is reduced to tweeting a “thumbs up” to the marchers on Saturday, conveying implicit support for their cause, while not actually marching herself.

Nicola Sturgeon is facing demands from party supporters from an early indyref2

Meanwhile, a blueprint on the economic case for independence, which she commissioned former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson to write two years ago, is still sitting on her desk, gathering dust. Having moved in haste, she is now being forced to repent at leisure – leaving Scotland on pause as she does so.

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Let’s not pretend. Everything we know about the last few years suggests the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon will continue to push the independence cause to the full. The only real question is timing. When that happens, the Scottish Conservatives under my leadership will oppose it. And we will repeat – and repeat and repeat – our demand that, instead of trying to take Scotland back into ever greater constitutional turmoil, it really is time to get on with the day job of governing Scotland.

I’m delighted when I hear SNP MSPs groan when we’ve made this point over the last few years. I know – and they know – that it’s right. Because I know – and they know – that most Scots have had enough; that another referendum isn’t going to solve anything; and that the SNP must now re-earn the trust of voters who want to see a long list of domestic issues being acted upon for once.

And what a list it is. Across the Western world, governments are grappling with the challenges of an ageing population. But the SNP’s attempts to modernise our NHS and social care services are going nowhere. Targets are missed, staff vacancies are left unfilled and patients needing treated for everything from cancer to mental ill-health are being told they have to wait. It’s time for Shona Robison to prove she’s got what it takes to take our health service forward or, if not, let someone else try to sort it out.

Huge new welfare powers are now coming to Holyrood. But seemingly every week we’re told the SNP has asked Westminster to hold onto them because it’s not ready to take them on. This from the Government which claimed it could sort out independence in 18 months! It’s time for Nicola Sturgeon to crack the whip and use devolution not as an excuse, but as a chance to improve people’s lives.

Scotland’s economy is flat-lining – way behind the UK as a whole. Our most respected economic think-tank says the SNP has lost its focus (I wonder why?) and government projections say Scotland is in its longest period of low growth for 60 years. Isn’t it time the SNP actually discovered an economic strategy, beyond moaning about Brexit?

On education, 11 years of neglect has left us drifting, with nowhere near enough teachers. Once upon a time Scotland wasn’t known for referendums – it was admired for the best education on the planet. Don’t we deserve a plan to ensure that reputation is restored?

I could go on. Why can’t the SNP get a grip on our train service? This week, we learnt that ScotRail missed performance targets in 22 out of 24 areas in the first months of this year, and accumulated a record £1.6m in fines on everything from train seats to toilets to ticket machines. When the SNP’s Tranpsort Minister isn’t making inaccurate predictions about Glasgow’s football rivalry, perhaps he could sort this out, please.

What about the so-called ‘smaller’ issues? It’s been estimated that if you add up the combined depth of all the potholes on Scotland’s roads you’d fall 6,350 metres before hitting rock bottom. Deep enough to fit no fewer than 4,243 cars on top of one another. Deeper than the Mediterranean Sea.

The Scottish Conservatives support a dedicated pothole fund that local authorities can draw down on in times of extremis – and before people scoff about the political importance of potholes, let me ask this: what do people in communities across Scotland find more important – a march on a road in Glasgow, or the quality of the road itself?

Taxpayers’ money currently services the ranks of SNP ministers, their cars, and their special advisers. They serve at our pleasure, not theirs. Instead of using the privileges of office to plot their next move in a referendum campaign most Scots don’t want, it is time they got on – to the exclusion of all else – with the job in hand.

Free advice, Nicola. I hope you take it.