Many Scots would have felt an immense sense of relief at the news of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, with some even having a dram or two to celebrate. These feelings are understandable, though those who believe that Scotland is empowered by being part of our United Kingdom, and that our United Kingdom is empowered by Scotland’s place in the Union, must not rest on our laurels.
We must continue to make the economic and social case for our Union, and articulate with passion, and precision, how being part of Britain protects, and enhances, what we love about Scotland.
Under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, the SNP has caused untold harm to Scotland. Prioritising separatist interests over the national interest, the SNP have postponed much needed reform to the provision of education and healthcare to avoid upsetting parts of its diverse coalition of supporters. The SNP are a single-issue campaign masquerading as a government, and it shows.
But if we are being honest, there is an argument that we may have inadvertently aided and abetted the SNP. By focusing so tightly on the ‘Unionist’ part of our name, and by highlighting that a vote for us was a vote against a second referendum – a tactic that helped the Scottish Conservatives cement ourselves as the second biggest party of Scottish politics – we may have unintentionally helped keep the SNP’s pro-separation coalition together.
Regardless of who becomes the new SNP leader, they will almost certainly continue the “don’t rock the boat” approach of both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. We, in turn, must be more strategic and more focussed in our opposition, explaining how the SNP’s approach of avoiding the serious business of government has left our public services worse off. We must be relentless in this pursuit.
“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time.”
This is the advice that Sir Winston Churchill gave the Prince of Wales in 1919, and I couldn’t agree more. The SNP have presided over a litany of failures in healthcare, education, and policing, and we must be unabated in our efforts to raise awareness amongst the Scottish public of these failures.
We cannot trust Scottish Labour to do this as over the past few months, they have shown that they have the backbone of an invertebrate jelly when standing up to the SNP. Despite numerous Labour MSPs voicing concerns over the Gender Reform Bill, Anas Sarwar whipped his MSPs to vote with the SNP. And at last year’s council election, at least 25 Labour candidates had either backed a second referendum or separation itself.
Whilst it is only the Scottish Conservatives that have a strong, consistent, record of standing up to the SNP, though we can do better, we must also do more to earn the trust of the people of Scotland.
First, we must recognise and work with the grain that most Scots will always identify primarily as Scottish rather than British, and that this trend existed well before the start of the devolution era. Yes, Scottish Conservatives are proud Scots and we stand four-square for the United Kingdom. Now we must assert a vision of Scotland as it could be with a Conservative First Minister and a Conservative Cabinet – an ambitious platform which will strike a chord with the aspirations of Scots across all parts of our nation and all demographics. Focussing on our unionism has taken the Conservatives to second place, now it is for us to spell out how our love of Scotland translates into a plan for bettering the life-chances of our compatriots.
We must show that we are interested in conserving the things we love about Scotland, as implied by our name. We must develop policies that show how the Scottish Conservatives will conserve and enhance Scotland’s landscape, history, culture, and food & drink. In fact, everything about Scotland that makes us proud to be Scots.
Scotland benefits from her place in the United Kingdom and our distinctive Scottishness helps add colour and benefit to the entire Union.=
Scotch Whisky is worth £6bn in export sales to the UK economy and is a brand recognisable to consumers right across the globe. Scotch Whisky benefits from the strength of Britain’s global economic standing, while everyone benefits from the prestige as well as the revenue from these iconic products. In turn this means that jobs and enterprise are supported in some of the most remote and rural parts of Scotland. This is the very embodiment of the symbiotic relationship where the things that make us proud to be Scottish are an intrinsic part of the diverse tapestry of Britain.
Another weakness that we have seen in our defence of the Union is the attitude that it is a “Scottish” problem, but this could not be further from the truth. Our United Kingdom is made up of a family of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The argument for our United Kingdom must be made from every corner of every nation.
The conflation of the UK Government with English-only affairs is an additional weakness. When the Prime Minister of our United Kingdom speaks but is not addressing the whole country, as we saw numerous times during our response to COVID, it gives the false impression that the UK Government is somehow remote to everyday realities of Scots. This perspective must change and addressing English devolution could be part of a solution.
Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy in Scottish politics should be that she was a successful politician at winning elections but whose instincts as a nationalist were always to reach for tribal and divisive tactics to win. Rather than attempt to reconcile the different interests of the Scottish people, she was only too ready to state how much she “detests the Tories” to shore-up her base. She revelled in division. It is unsurprising, therefore, that she leaves office with the nation’s opinion of her highly polarised. Her time in office is best characterised as heavy on the language of confrontation and light on achieving anything of note.
It is my hope, though not my expectation, that the next First Minister of Scotland will drop this divisive narrative and focus on promoting the common good.
Nicola Sturgeon’s departure is the 21st century equivalent of waving the white flag. It is an admission of defeat. Scotland will not be leaving the United Kingdom in the immediate future.
But we cannot think that this is victory. Ultimately, on its own, it changes very little.
Churchill wrote during the Great War: “You cannot afford to indulge even for the shortest period of time in resting on your oars. You must continually drive the vast machine forward at its utmost speed. To lose momentum is not merely to stop, but to fall.”
Sturgeon’s resignation is an opportunity for us to grab the initiative. To show how the Union supports the conservation of the things we love in Scotland, aligning our message to how the people of our nation identify.
If we do this successfully, it will have a much more significant impact, in a positive sense, on the future of our United Kingdom.