Ruth Davidson has made her pitch to be Scotland’s next first minister, pledging to bring about a “blue-collar revolution” that would get the country “on the right track”.
Despite the next Holyrood elections being two years away in May 2021, the Scottish Tory leader said the choice voters would face would be between another SNP government led by Nicola Sturgeon “banging on about independence” and a Conservative administration that would offer a “brighter horizon”.
Ms Davidson pledged a new approach to vocational education and plans to ensure teenagers stay in education until at least 18, or take up a “structured apprenticeship” or training place if they want to go into work.
The Tories want the 10,000 youngsters who leave school every year and take a job with no training, or who have no job at all, to be able to carry on with their education or learn new skills, with a future Tory administration pledging between £20 million and £60 million to help make this happen.
In her speech she said the “greatest service we can do to our nation” would be “bringing down the curtain on 14 years of SNP grudge and grievance”.
Closing the Scottish Conservative conference in Aberdeen, Ms Davidson said: “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.”
The speech marked her return to frontline politics after going on maternity leave, and she told activists: “I’m back because I want to put Scotland’s constitutional division aside, to allow the country to come back together again.
“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.”
With Ms Sturgeon having declared her desire to hold another independence referendum within the next two years, the Scottish Tory leader was clear about “saying no to another referendum”.
But she stressed that was because she wanted to “deal, front and centre, with the very real issues affecting our country”.
The bulk of her speech was about the policies the Tories could bring in if she achieves her goal of ousting Ms Sturgeon.
She outlined plans for a “new skills participation age” of 18, ending the current system which allows children to finish education when they are 16.
Ms Davidson said she wanted it to be “the law that everybody up until the age of 18 has to either go to college or university, or if they want to start work, it’s through a structured apprenticeship or a traineeship”.
As part of a “sea change in culture” in vocational education, she argued for junior colleges to be set up to provide more opportunities for those who choose not to go to university.
Ms Davidson also promised a “lifelong skills guarantee” that could help workers of all ages to retrain or improve their skills to help their careers.
“What we need is nothing short of a blue-collar revolution. And a government led by me would deliver on it.”
On the economy, she pledged the Tories would start by “untangling the bureaucracy that’s spread like Japanese knotweed under this SNP Government”.
In addition there would be a new economic growth fund to support those looking to invest in Scotland, as well as the establishment of a Scottish exporting institute.
With the world facing the “massive challenge of climate change”, she said Scotland could be at “the forefront of the new clean energy revolution of the future too”, adding that her government would work to encourage technologies such as hydrogen power.
“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. Well why not us too?”
But SNP depute 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.”
Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said the Tory had been “silent” about how the reforms she promised would be funded.
Mr Gray said: “Labour is committed to lifelong learning, but the most urgent reform our education system needs is more funding – we have over 3,000 fewer teachers under the SNP but Ruth Davidson won’t ask the richest to pay their fair share to deliver it.
“In fact, Ruth Davidson was silent on how she plans to pay for her plans.”