Willie Rennie: Tory election plans risk damaging Union

Ruth Davidson, former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and Willie Rennie  pledged their support for further devolution before the referendum. Picture: TSPL

Ruth Davidson, former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and Willie Rennie pledged their support for further devolution before the referendum. Picture: TSPL

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THE Conservatives seem to be planning an election campaign involving little more than singing Rule Britannia, writes Willie Rennie

I have spent the past five years of my political life, and many years before that, campaigning for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and I stood side-by-side at numerous Better Together events stating our clear, lasting position. We all knew how much it mattered to each of us. I therefore find it curious that Ruth is now telling anyone who will listen that I no longer support the Union.

Let me explain why this not just wrong, damaging to the Union but also won’t work for the Tories.

I will then judge the position of the Tories on the Union by their record, not their empty campaign slogans. By these standards, Ruth Davidson and her party colleagues are not working to save the Union. They are putting it at risk.

The trick the Tories are up to is to suggest that any of my team of parliamentarians will back independence now. They won’t. The Conservative claims are a calculated misrepresentation of my appeal to liberal-minded Yes voters to back the Liberal Democrats.

There were liberal-minded people who voted for independence. There were conservative-minded people who did the same. I recognised and respected the views of those who looked at the referendum arguments and reached a different conclusion to me, even though I disagreed with them.

I want liberal-minded Yes voters to know they can vote for the Liberal Democrats because Scotland needs strong liberal voices in parliament to stand up for investment in opportunity through education and good health, to guarantee our civil liberties and to protect our environment. We need a strong outward-looking, internationalist, altruistic, tolerant, reformist, pro civil liberties, pro-Europe, pro-environment, pro-business party in Scotland. You don’t get that with anyone else and Yes voters as well as No voters should back us if they want that platform.

Yet this is not just about liberal voices. A quarter of a million Scots have experienced a breakdown in a relationship with a friend, a family member or a neighbour in the last few years because of the referendum. I admit many found it uplifting but so many others found it upsetting. With the biggest mandate possible we have settled the issue, for a generation and more I hope, so now it is incumbent on all of us to move on and seek to bring our country together again.

If the dividing line in Scottish politics continues to be independence then we are playing into the hands of those who want to continue the independence debate. That is why the SNP are now talking up the chances of the Conservatives. The First Minister did it in parliament and her former advisers are doing it in the press. They want the Tories to talk about independence so that they can talk about independence too. They are feeding off each other.

We have resolved the issue of independence yet there are so many other issues that remain unresolved. We saw what happened when the SNP government was distracted by the referendum. Our international standing on education has slipped, our NHS is under strain, climate change targets have been missed and Police Scotland – we all know what happened there.

For the sake of the country the next five years should be dominated by domestic solutions rather than extending a debate on the constitution that has already been decided.

Tory claims to be the last bastion of Scottish unionism ignore the decades of disregard by the Conservative Party towards Scotland. Whether it be the poll tax, the decimation of Scottish industry and even Margaret Thatcher herself there is no doubt that many people were driven to vote Yes because of the actions of the Conservatives over the years.

Now the Tories stoke the fires of English nationalism, putting the UK on a course for division again.

Through the referendum I respected David Cameron’s commitment to the campaign as much as I respected Ruth’s. But that respect was shattered on the morning of 19 September. Instead of marking the first time that Scotland had voted to confirm its place in the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister immediately sought party advantage by putting English votes for English laws on the table.

At a one of the most significant constitutional moments since the formation of the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister put his party before his country. The Prime Minister put his party before his country right up through the general election too. He sought to scare middle England with the prospect of the rise of the Scots. The publication of a poster of a Scotsman, on this occasion Alex Salmond, pick-pocketing an English taxpayer was a reckless act that promoted an inaccurate characteristic of Scots. How on earth does that help keep the country together?

The Conservatives were only interested in election victory, and never mind the damage done to the relationship between Scotland and England. These were not the actions of a party that was putting the long-term stability of the United Kingdom first.

The referendum caused deep divisions and rancour in our country. Yet the Tories seem to be planning a campaign that will involve little more than draping themselves in the Union flag and singing Rule Britannia – a referendum-themed tribute act with nothing to say about the issues that affect our day to day lives.

After decades of electoral failure in Scotland perhaps the fear of independence is the only thing they have left. But the answer to the problem the Conservatives created is certainly not more Conservatives.

In any case, the First Minister has given her word that this election campaign will not be about independence and I take her on that word. It’s just now up to Ruth Davidson to think again.

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