Ruth Davidson “fired the starting gun” on the next Holyrood election on Saturday as she set out ambitious plans to keep all Scottish youngsters in school or training until 18 to help bring about a ”blue collar” revolution.
The Tory leader in Scotland unveiled a tranche of new policies she hopes will provide the platform for her to become First Minister, including a new Economic Growth Fund and a pledge of a Lifelong Skills Guarantee for older Scots who find themselves made redundant.
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Ms Davidson set out her stall to replace Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister in a keynote address to the Scots Tory conference in Aberdeen yesterday, marking her return to frontline politics after seven months on maternity leave. The next Holyrood elections are two years away in May 2021 and the Scottish Tory leader said she was targeting most seats and was ready to lead a minority administration.
She insisted the choice voters will face will be between another SNP government led by Nicola Sturgeon “banging on about independence” and a Conservative administration that would offer a “brighter horizon”.
Scots youngsters will be required to remain in education until at least 18, under the plans set out, or take up a “structured apprenticeship” or training place if they want to go in work. An extra 10,000 places would need to be created to meet the needs of youngsters who currently leave school without this. Even those who go straight into work would be entitled to one day a week of formal training.
This is similar to the Schools Participation Age regime which already operates in England and would be enshrined in law.
“I’d ask schools to make it clear: that there’s no hierarchy here. No sign in the corridors saying smart kids one way, poor kids another,” Ms Davidson said.
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“Instead, let’s make clear to pupils that they have a series of options: yes, there’s university if you want, but there’s another path towards a great job if you choose it too.”
All Scots who find themselves out of work would also be guaranteed the chance to retrain or upskill during their career through the Lifetime Learning Guarantee. A personal learning account to encourage people to set aside cash for skills of the future will also be offered, with government support geared especially for low-paid and low skilled workers.
Boosting Scotland’s economy was at the heart of the plans set out by Ms Davidson yesterday, including proposals for a new Scottish Exporting Institute.
This would foster new partnerships between the private and public sectors and “new investment hubs around our biggest market – the United Kingdom.”
The proposed Economic Growth Fund would support venture capitalists looking to invest in Scotland, while the national economic development quango Scottish Enterprise would also be reformed to ensure it is fully contributing to the new economic blueprint.
Scotland would also be spearheading a “renewables revolution” under a Tory regime, Ms Davidson added, as she targeted hydrogen gas.
“Countries like Australia are already investing millions in developing hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas,” she said.
“It’s zero-emissions, you can make it from water using renewable electricity, you can store it, and then export it to neighbouring countries.”
Ms Davidson added: “Scotland can be a society that always gives people another crack of the whip. That never gives up on them or leaves them behind,” she said.
“That’s led by a government that understands working people want to work – the clue is in the name - not pick up a welfare cheque.
“What we need is nothing short of a blue collar revolution and a government led by me would deliver on it.”
The Tory leader has already set the ambition for the Tories to be the largest party at Holyrood in 2021 but there is a still a gap to close the SNP’s 63 seats in 2016, with the Tories currently on 31.
But she insisted that this is more than the SNP had - 27 - prior to the 2007 election which it then won with 47 seats - one ahead of Labour.
“I’m starting from ahead of Alex Salmond when he took office,” she added.
“But if we’re the largest party we have the right to try and form a Government - if it’s a minority government so be it.”
And she made it clear that a Tory administration would signal a new relationship between Scotland and the UK.
“As first minister, I won’t use every engagement with the UK Government as a chance to sow division. I’ll use it as a chance to deliver better government for the people who live here.
“And I’ll make a firm guarantee now: If I am elected Scotland’s next first minister, there will be no more constitutional games and no more referenda. We’ve had enough to last a lifetime.”
It came a week after Nicola Sturgeon unveiled plans to introduce legislation for a second independence referendum in Scotland, earmarked for next year.
But the Tory leader added: “I’m back because I want to put Scotland’s constitutional division aside, to allow the country to come back together again.
“I want us to become the largest party in 2021 so we can see all the effort and hours and manpower the current nationalist administration puts into Indyref2 being put into improving our schools, growing our economy and supporting our services.
“I’m back because I want us to build a better Scotland - right here, right now.
“That election is still two years away but today it’s time we fire the starting gun on the campaign.”
SNP Deputy leader Keith Brown said: “Ruth Davidson is – just like her boss Theresa May – running scared of democracy.
“Support for independence is on the rise, and the Tories can see that – which is what lies behind their utterly undemocratic move to block the people of Scotland having a say on their future.
“That is completely indefensible, and will prove to be an untenable position for the Tories.
“Ms Davidson is guilty of the most appalling double standards, having previously said that the UK Government ‘shouldn’t block’ an independence referendum.”