The First Minister must focus on what’s best for the country, instead of what’s good for the SNP says Ruth Davidson
As it does for the rest of the United Kingdom, Brexit throws up many questions for Scotland.
And, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the task for politicians is the same: to ensure we do not damage the things that keep us strong, while also grasping any opportunities that arise from leaving the European Union.
As we mark St Andrews Day today, the Scottish Conservatives are putting forward what we believe should be the founding principles for how we achieve those two goals for Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon sought to define these interests herself back in August when she set out “five tests” which she would follow to, as she called it, “protect Scotland’s interests”. These varied from having an influence in EU rules, to ensuring that nations continued to tackle crime, terrorism and climate change.
I am sure there will be room for agreement in some areas here. But the difficulty for pro-UK politicians like me is that the SNP’s main goal since 23 June has been to use the referendum result to crank up support for independence.
Thus the question has arisen: are the SNP seeking to protect Scotland’s interests, or further their own?
So today, the Scottish Conservatives are setting out our own five tests which we believe Nicola Sturgeon should follow if she really wants to protect Scotland’s interests.
It starts with the most important theme of all – the economy. I campaigned for Remain because I supported continued free access to European single market. Now we are leaving the EU, I still want a deal which continues to deliver free trade in goods and services so firms have the greatest possible freedom to trade and operate in Europe.
That deal is of huge importance. But the truth the SNP won’t tell you is that - even by their own figures - the rest of the UK is worth four times as much to Scotland’s economy than the EU area.
So our first test is that, when the Scottish Government represents Scotland in discussions with the UK, it must champion the integrity of the UK domestic market.
If the SNP are serious about Scotland’s economic interests, they have to protect our full and free participation in its most important market – which is that of the existing UK.
Second – and following from this – the SNP must therefore create no new barriers to free trade within the UK. The UK works for Scotland because it allows the best of both worlds: genuine autonomy over domestic policy, tax and spending, in the context of a union with stronger economic, defence and diplomatic heft.
In order to keep that balance we must avoid any new hurdles for companies wanting to work on either side of the border – whether that’s barriers to flows of people or goods, separate currency arrangements, coming up with disjointed rules or regulations for the sake of it, and more.
Third, I want the Scottish Government to play its part in making the UK a beacon of free trade. I do not need to be reminded that Brexit presents challenges; indeed, it was my concerns over these potential pitfalls which pushed me to campaign for Remain.
But with the vote now having been taken, we must drive ahead to make Britain the free trade capital of the world. Some crucial Scottish industries are crying out for a more balanced view of Brexit. The whisky industry, for example, isn’t just a great Scottish success story, it is Britain’s biggest net exporter in goods. The Scotch Whisky Association points out that new deals with countries like India or Brazil – which EU membership made impossible – would transform their prospects.
That means that as the negotiations go on, the Scottish Government must go global, and grow links with export markets across the world.
Fourth, the Scottish Government position must be practical and deliverable. This might sound obvious but recent days have suggested the SNP simply does not get this. The party has talked up the idea of Scotland arranging a “differentiated deal” to the rest of the United Kingdom, while remaining within the Union. It has taken Spanish MEP Estaban Pons, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones and former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton to point out the difficulties of such a position. A sound Scottish position has to recognise the established rules of international diplomacy. It has to recognise basic political facts and the essential structure of the EU. It has to be a situation that Scotland can aim for.
And finally, the fifth test for the SNP is to respect both of the referenda we have held over the past two years: the independence referendum of 2014 and the EU referendum of 2016. The 2014 referendum made it clear that Scots want to remain within the UK.
The 2016 referendum was a UK wide vote. Nicola Sturgeon recognised this before it was held, which is why she campaigned in television debates in England. The UK electorate concluded that the United Kingdom should leave the EU. As democrats, it behoves us to respect both. We should never stop reminding the SNP that it promised that the 2014 referendum would be once in a generation. And while I don’t doubt Nicola Sturgeon is a democrat, she must rid the SNP of the suspicion that they only accept democratic results when they like the outcome. That means respecting both referendum results.
I say all this as a Remainer who wishes the decision we took in June had been different. But the task now is not to mope about what might have been, but to work out what comes next. For a Scottish Government, that means making the best of Brexit, not using it to crank up support for yet another independence referendum.
It is right that the Scottish Government represents Scotland in Brexit discussions with the UK. But it does not have the right to launder the votes of Remain voters in Scotland into tokens of separatist support.
Our five tests will mean that the Scottish Government is focussed on what’s good for Scotland – not what’s good for the SNP at the expense of the country.