Ruth Davidson: Talking up Union still key to Scotland's future
On these pages last week, Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, took me to task over my plans for the forthcoming election campaign. Generously, The Scotsman offered to provide me with some space to reply. So, at the risk of conducting an exchange with a fellow party leader in public, let me try to answer some of his points.
For those who didn’t see it, Mr Rennie used his piece to attack me for continuing to campaign for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. His argument was as follows: the referendum on independence was held more than 18 months ago; people have now had enough; we should simply accept the SNP has taken independence off the agenda; so I should stop talking about it, too.
Let me first try and set out where I agree with Mr Rennie.
Like him, I too long for a moment when Scotland’s public discourse is no longer dominated by the constitutional question. For many, the referendum wasn’t the “joyous, civic” festival of ideas of Alex Salmond’s imagination. It was fractious and unsettling. I know many now just want debate about it to be over. I certainly do.
And – also like Mr Rennie – I believe it’s important we focus on other important issues. The week after the referendum vote, I used a speech in the Scottish Parliament to urge the SNP to respect and accept the result. I warned them that without such acceptance, we couldn’t push ahead as a country. There is so much else we could have been debating during the referendum campaign: the quality of our education, standards of healthcare, the reforms of our police force, the need to stimulate a stronger Scottish economy – all these took a back-seat while the SNP has focussed on its referendum obsession. It is absolutely vital that the next Scottish Government spends its time on getting the country moving again, not on yet more constitutional navel-gazing.
So on all this, Mr Rennie and I agree. But here is where I must part company with him. And here is where I must take him to task for what I believe is a quite staggering failure of judgment – one also taken by Kezia Dugdale, the leader of the Scottish Labour party.
Both appear now to be of the view that we no longer need to worry ourselves. Both say they will “take Nicola Sturgeon at her word” that the SNP will no longer push for independence. In their rush to “move on”, both are now declaring merrily that they will allow MSPs and activists to back independence in future if they wish (as Mr Rennie said last year “if [LibDem] members want to speak up for independence in our party, they’ve always been perfectly entitled to do so”). The idea appears to be that if we on the pro-UK side just wish hard enough, then the SNP’s campaign for independence will just go away.
I am afraid to say that for so long as the SNP is in power, this is pie in the sky stuff. Any political leader who believes Nicola Sturgeon has given up on independence is utterly naïve. And I have to wonder whether Willie Rennie and Kezia Dugdale have learned anything at all from the experience of the last few years.
Perhaps some basic facts need to be repeated. The SNP exists to further the case of Scottish independence and to try and break apart the UK. This is what it is for. In 2011, the SNP was elected with a majority at the Scottish Parliament. It used that majority to conduct a three-year referendum campaign, and then to hold the referendum in September 2014. Here is what it will do if re-elected with a majority: it will continue its campaign to break up the United Kingdom.
This is not me stirring things up, as Mr Rennie seems to suggest. It is what Nicola Sturgeon herself said in the Scottish parliament only three weeks ago. “In the months to come, we will also lead a renewed debate about how the enduring principle of (independence)… is relevant to, demanded by, the circumstances of the world we live in today.” I disagree with the SNP about many things but it does what is says on the tin. The Scottish National Party is about Scottish nationalism.
Having campaigned side by side with him during the referendum, I think Mr Rennie knows this. So that begs the question as to why he has changed his tune. I can only conclude he has calculated that by lowering the constitutional divide, he can coax back some of the support he’s lost in recent years to the SNP. That is up to him, but I find it disappointing that he puts his party’s electoral gain above the fight we all fought together over the last few years.
For my part, my plans for this coming election campaign are clear. I want to show that there is an opposition party which is prepared to hold the SNP to account. I want to propose alternative plans for a better Scottish government – such as the detailed and extensive proposals on taxation that were set out earlier this week. And if the SNP is re-elected, I will do my utmost to ensure it focuses on the task in hand, that it respects Scotland’s two million No voters, and does not take us back to another referendum. And, no, I won’t stop raising this. Scotland does indeed need to move on. But as I said immediately after the referendum, it does so only when Nicola Sturgeon honours the promise she made before the referendum – that it was a “once in a generation” event. I have challenged her again and again to simply repeat those words and let Scotland move on. She has refused. If and when the First Minister makes that promise, I’ll gladly put the constitutional question behind me. Until she does so, however, I believe it would be a dereliction of duty to do so.
For as long as the SNP actively try and bring independence closer, I will stand up for Scotland’s place in our United Kingdom.