Face-to-face with Colin Mackay: Conservatives leader Douglas Ross

STV is hosting a series of interviews with the main political party leaders ahead of May's Holyrood election.

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Over the coming weeks STV will be hosting a series of exclusive interviews with the main political party leaders taking part in May’s Holyrood elections.

Next up is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, who sat down with STV News political editor Colin Mackay to outline the party’s message and vision for the country.

Colin Mackay: Douglas Ross, you say the next five-year parliament should be about a recovery, not about a referendum. What’s your plan for it?

Douglas Ross: Well, it’s about protecting jobs so that’s why we put forward our plans for job security councils, for Retrain to Rebuild grants to help people upskill to get back into work. It’s about investing in education, recruiting 3000 additional teachers over the next parliament. It’s about investing in the NHS. We’ve set out plans for £2b additional support for the NHS over the next parliament. It’s about rolling out full fibre broadband over the next parliament as well. So, all policies that I think people can see are directed to secure our recovery, but I don’t believe we will be able to do that if there’s a threat of another independence referendum hanging over us.

CM: And you’re promising to build 40,000 homes for social rent in the next parliament. You do know why there was a shortage of social rented housing, don’t you?

DR: This is the most ambitious plan for social housing building since devolution, and this is why we’re taking it forward…

CM: But you know why there’s not been as much. Well it’s because of the Right to Buy which was introduced by the Thatcher government. And it’s sold off almost half a million council houses in Scotland alone…

DR: Yes, but there’s been a long time since the start of devolution to have been building social housing in Scotland and that hasn’t happened, which is why Scottish Conservatives are prioritising that in this election to ensure we do actually have ambitious plans to prioritise building social housing in Scotland over the next five years.

CM: But they wouldn’t have done it if they had to sell them off would they?

DR: That policy got many people on to the housing ladder for the very first time and it was a policy that many people benefited from at the time.

CM: So, you are no longer in favour of the Right to Buy then?

DR: What I’m saying is we have to ensure we have got the properties here in Scotland now to meet the demand that is clearly there and that’s why it is the most ambitious plan for social housing building in Scotland since devolution. That’s what people want to see. And that’s also part of the recovery. It’s about providing homes but also providing all the jobs, connected to that construction plan as well.

CM: So, you’re no longer in favour of the Right to Buy then?

DR: No, absolutely. It was a good policy; it is a good policy to help people on the property ladder.

CM: Just let me clarify. Are you or are you not in favour of the Right to Buy?

DR: I am in favour of the Right to Buy. It gets people onto the property ladder, but we also have to ensure that there are enough properties, enough building of affordable homes, social housing here in Scotland and that hasn’t happened and that’s not because of Thatcher’s policies from the 1970s and the 1980s.That’s because over the last 14 years the SNP Scottish Government haven’t built enough houses here in Scotland.

CM: The Right to Buy was only scrapped in 2016. I mean, in the last couple of years, there’s actually been more homes for social rent built in Scotland than the whole of England…

DR: Yes, I know a lot of people want to compare with England. What we’re looking at here, what we’re looking at here is what we can do in Scotland, what we can do in the Scottish Parliament in Scottish politics over the next five years, and that’s why our ambitious plans are the right way forward for Scotland.

CM: You want to build 40,000 homes social rent, but you’re also willing to sell them off?

DR: It’s a policy that helps people get onto the housing ladder, let’s help people across Scotland, across the United Kingdom and I think we want to do as much as possible to get people onto that first step of the housing ladder.

CM: You say another SNP majority will lead to another independence referendum. The Prime Minister says he’ll block another independence referendum. Who do we believe?

DR: Well, unfortunately it doesn’t matter what the Prime Minister or the UK Government say because Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP in their 11 point plan for another independence referendum have said they will go ahead regardless; whether they get a Section 30 Order from the UK Government or not. So that’s the threat. That’s what’s hanging over us. That will put our recovery on the back-foot when I want to focus on the recovery going forward. You can’t do both. You can’t have a recovery, protecting people’s jobs, rebuilding Scotland after the pandemic, and also have a referendum and Nicola Sturgeon has said she wants that referendum and the campaign in the next couple of years during Scotland’s recovery.

CM: So, the Scottish conservatives are saying, it doesn’t matter what the Prime Minister says?

DR: No, I’m saying…

CM: That’s what you said?

DR: Yeah, because that’s what the SNP are saying. The SNP are saying they will go ahead with a referendum regardless. So, they are not interested in what the Prime Minister says, despite Nicola Sturgeon previously saying that the 2014 referendum…

CM: Do you think he could stop another referendum?

DR: He could not stop a wildcat, illegal referendum. That’s what the SNP are determined to do.

CM: But that’s not what they are proposing. They are proposing to have what they say is the “gold standard”. They are aiming for the Section 30. But he can say no to that…

DR: And if they don’t get a Section 30, despite that being the gold standard, Nicola Sturgeon said that the referendum in 2014 was the gold standard of referendums. They’ve also said in that 11 point plan that they’ll go ahead with another referendum anyway, in the middle of a recovery from this pandemic.

CM: He would presumably challenge that in court, wouldn’t he?

DR: Well yes, but why do we need to go through that? Why do we need to take this into the courts, why do we need to have that threat? Why do we need to have people worried about their jobs, worried about employment businesses considering investment in Scotland, and all the negativity surrounding another referendum campaign? If we could just put that off the table, stop the SNP getting a majority; stop another referendum like people did five years ago by voting Scottish Conservatives.

CM: If they do get a majority that means that people want another referendum?

DR: People have to be really clear that a vote for the SNP is a vote for another independence referendum. That is what they are taking forward. It’s not their plans for Scotland…

CM: But if they are clear about that, then shouldn’t they be allowed to have that?

DR: I don’t want another referendum…

CM: I know you don’t want another referendum. You’re the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. We know you don’t want another referendum. But what if the people of Scotland want another referendum?

DR: The people of Scotland have an opportunity to stop that…

CM: But they also have the opportunity to actually vote for it, and I’m asking you, what happens if they vote for it?

DR: Well, they voted in an independence referendum just seven years ago…

CM: But they are voting in three weeks time in a Scottish Parliament election. What if they vote for a party, the SNP, or the Greens even for that matter,…But what if the vote is for a party that promises the referendum?

DR: The only party that can stop another SNP majority, their plans for another divisive independence referendum, are the Scottish Conservatives. The same party that stopped it five years ago when people supported the Scottish Conservatives on the Party List can do it again this year in 2021 by stopping an SNP majority.

CM: Is the union based on consent and a partnership of equals?

DR: Yes, that’s how our family of four nations work together. We’ve seen that during this pandemic when the UK furlough scheme has protected jobs here in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. When the vaccination scheme that’s being rolled out is protecting the most vulnerable in our society and more than 2.6 million people in Scotland have already had the first dose of the vaccine. 

CM: And what if the people of Scotland withdraw that consent, if they vote for a party that wants to hold another independence referendum then vote for independence in that referendum they’ve withdrawn consent for the union, would you just not allow that to happen?

DR: I’m encouraging people not to support the SNP and you wouldn’t expect me to determine the outcome of an election before a single vote has been cast. So, what I’m trying to do is say to the people of Scotland, we can put that debate to one side. We can say there shouldn’t be a focus on a referendum, there should be a focus on the recovery. But the only way we can do that is vote for the strongest party to stop the SNP and across Scotland that’s Scottish conservatives.

CM: So, what’s your vision for the future of a devolved Scottish Parliament? Would you devolve more powers?

DR: I think we should use the powers that we currently have. I think we have got powers here in Scotland that is not being used. We’ve already seen on Social Security that the SNP called for more powers and then handed them back to Westminster because they couldn’t set up a scheme with social security quickly enough…

CM: So that’s as far as devolution goes?

DR: No, I’m saying that the Scotland Act of 2001, 2005, I think, and 2015 have all looked to increase the powers to the Scottish Parliament. But now we should look at actually using the powers we have here at the moment, to better influence the lives of people across Scotland.

CM: Now when you became Conservative leader you said that you wanted to be First Minister. Is that still your ambition?

DR: I think everyone in Scottish politics would seek to aspire to the highest office. If that’s not that the role people have planned for me, then I will do whatever the people of Scotland think I should do after the election. But again that will be up to people in a few weeks time, when they cast their votes.

CM: Do you think you can be First Minister?

DR: I look at the polls just now, it looks like Nicola Sturgeon is going to continue as First Minister, but what I would far rather see is the Scottish Parliament that’s focused on recovery and rebuilding, not a referendum. So, we have to stop that SNP majority, because that’s a threat to recovery.

CM: I mean just what six, seven, eight months ago; it looked like Jackson Carlaw would be sitting in that seat during this election. Did you make a mistake with that coup to get rid of him?

DR: Jackson decided to stand down. He reflected on his time as leader and he took a very dignified stance to stand down and I’m delighted to continue the work that Jackson started into this election.

CM: Do you think you’re doing a better job than he would have done?

DR: I think I am leading the Scottish conservatives in this campaign with bold, imaginative ideas to take Scotland forward in our recovery. And I think that’s the right thing. And I’m working with Jackson and I’m working with all our candidates across Scotland to get across that positive message to outline the policies we would take forward in a Scottish Parliament, but only if we have a parliament focused on our recovery.

CM: A moment ago you said you would do whatever the voters decided you should do. Well in 2016 they decided you should be at the Scottish Parliament. You didn’t stay for long did you?

DR: I was elected to the Scottish Parliament as a member for the Highlands and Islands, which included Moray. But I had an opportunity in 2017 to fight for the seat that I’ve been born in, grown up and lived my entire life. I was returned as MP for Moray in 2017, beating the SNP leader at Westminster. I was re-elected in 2019. But now I have an opportunity to continue to serve the people of Moray, but also to seek election as a Highlands and Islands list MSP.

CM: If the Tories slipped from second to third place, would you still take up your seat in the Scottish Parliament, or would you just stay at Westminster?

DR: Well, I would absolutely take up my seat in the Scottish Parliament. I don’t think either of those things are going to happen because the Scottish Labour Party have lost votes and lost seats at every single election since devolution in 1999. People can see across Scotland there is one party challenging the SNP, and that’s the Scottish Conservatives.

CM: Back to policy…so far the SNP, Labour, Greens and Lib Dems have pledged to double the Scottish child payment to 20 pounds to help lift children out poverty. Would you do the same?

DR: Yes, we’ve supported the introduction of that policy and we would support the increase as well.

CM: Because as a party you’ve not got a great record on free school meals in England — some of your Scottish colleagues voted against that — you didn’t, you missed that vote I think…

DR: I knew I didn’t take part in that vote because it was for England only. But in the Scottish Parliament our MSPs put forward the Scottish Conservative policy, which is to introduce free school meals and breakfast here in Scotland, and the SNP MSPs abstained. When they had an opportunity to implement that policy here in Scotland—why did the SNP not support free school meals and breakfast in Scotland?

CM: Your MSPs also backed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and yet the UK Government want to stop that in Scotland…

DR: And as we discussed in the debate last night that’s not the case as you are aware Colin. The UK Government have said they support the principles of the bill. Our MSPs supported it at Holyrood. But if that is a legal issue that has to be tested, the Scotland Act of 1990 affords that opportunity to do so.

CM: Why are they taking the Scottish Parliament to court, rather than just implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, across the UK and protecting children right across the UK? Surely that would be the first thing that they would do, rather than instantly going to court?

DR: That convention has been introduced across the UK since 1991. But in terms of the specific Act that was brought forward in the Scottish Parliament, the UK government offered amendments to the Scottish Government that would have resolved these issues before we got to this stage. They weren’t taken forward, and there’s an opportunity to test the legal issues; the minor legal issues that have been identified…

CM: But why are you testing that rather than just passing the same law at Westminster to protect those kids right across the country?

DR: Because what the issue with the Scotland Act…

CM: That’s technical. The image that it presents is of the Conservatives being the nasty party again…

DR: I mean, that’s ridiculous because our MSPs support it, the UK Government have said they support the principles of the Bill. But there is a legal issue they need to clarify, and they will do so with that in the Supreme Court.

CM: Final question, your manifesto is coming very soon. Will a bridge or a tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland be in your manifesto? Boris Johnson wants it…

DR: This is a manifesto to what we can do in the Scottish Parliament. It’s an ambitious manifesto to recruit more teachers, invest in the NHS. I’m not going to give too much away, but there’s not going to be a comment on that because that’s an issue for the UK Government. I’m focused on what the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament should be focused on: our recovery.

CM: Douglas Ross thanks for joining us on Scotland Tonight.

DR: Thank you.

Join the Scotland Tonight team again next week for the third part in the series of leader interviews ahead of May’s elections.