Scottish independence: Nicola Sturgeon wants to plunge Scotland back into toxic referendum debate when Union dividend is more important than ever – Pamela Nash

Ten years ago, in the early days of 2012, David Cameron made the traditional Prime Ministerial appearance on The Andrew Marr Show.

Much has changed in the decade since: Cameron is enjoying his retirement in a luxury shed; then-First Minister Alex Salmond is now a pitiful figure shouting from the fringes of Scottish politics; and there’s the small matters of Brexit and Covid.

Even Andrew Marr has said goodbye to Sunday morning TV after setting the political agenda for so long.

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It was on his show in January 2012 that Cameron made comments that led to the Edinburgh Agreement between the UK and Scottish governments – called the “gold standard” by Nicola Sturgeon – and ultimately allowed Salmond free rein to set the timing and wording of the referendum.

For more than two years after that Marr interview, the constitution consumed all before it.

It was a toxic, deeply divisive period in Scottish public life, causing friendships to break down and hurtful and offensive words like “Quisling” and “traitor” to seep into our politics.

However much some nationalists try to rewrite history, for huge numbers of people in Scotland it was an upsetting experience.

Never before had Scots been challenged about their love for their country or told to question if they belonged here simply because they believed in solidarity with our neighbours and friends across the UK.

David Cameron set out the basis for a Scottish independence referendum on an episode of the BBC's Andrew Marr Show (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

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It’s little wonder that a majority of people in Scotland have no desire to relive that experience any time soon.

The most recent opinion poll, by Survation, found that a growing majority of people in Scotland are against another contest within the next two years, up two points since September. Most just do not want it to happen within this period, which is Nicola Sturgeon’s stated timeframe.

The referendum in 2014 (which, let’s not forget, Sturgeon promised was a “once in a lifetime” event) ultimately resulted in over 55 per cent of voters choosing to remain in the UK – with majorities in 28 of 32 council areas.

Throughout the past decade, scores of polls have confirmed that this remains the view of the people of Scotland.

In fact, the Survation poll for Scotland in Union in November found that 59 per cent of people would now choose to remain part of the United Kingdom if asked in another referendum.

The SNP tries to dismiss this, suggesting people aren’t capable of understanding the question if framed this way.

Personally, I have more confidence in the intelligence of the people of Scotland.

This evidence alone should be enough for the SNP to accept it has failed to convince voters and it’s time to move on from the constitutional divide.

But the nationalists have never stopped campaigning to divide us once again. That is a grossly irresponsible way for any party of government to behave.

And when we cast our minds back to that period following Cameron’s 2012 interview, it’s worth also remembering the wider impact beyond the divisions it caused within Scotland’s communities.

Governance was put on hold. The constitution was all that mattered to the Scottish government, necessitating tens of thousands of civil service hours be devoted to it, and millions of pounds of public money.

The NHS, education, and council services all took a backseat.

Public policy reforms were put on hold or even shelved because they might jeopardise support for separation – as senior SNP figures have since admitted.

We are still paying the price for this period of inaction today.

Scotland has tumbled down the international education rankings, our NHS has struggled with huge staff and resource shortages, and council cuts have decimated local services.

And all this was happening long before Covid struck, with the problems now dramatically magnified.

The idea of putting governance on hold once again, for another lengthy referendum contest, should fill any responsible politician with utter horror.

And yet Sturgeon persists with this demand. For someone who has made her name as being seen as a voice of reason when it comes to many other aspects of public life (rightly or wrongly), she has a blind spot when it comes to the constitution.

And to even contemplate promoting another referendum as we continue to grapple with the Covid pandemic is astonishing.

We know there are more variants of the virus to come. And we know that even if life returns to some kind of normality, there will be a devastating impact on the NHS and educational attainment for years – if not decades – to come.

Health inequalities caused by missed diagnoses will sadly widen and a generation of youngsters have missed out on learning.

This is what a responsible government should prioritise – not a constitutional obsession.

As part of the UK, we are best equipped to focus on the lengthy recovery ahead.

Along with other devolved nations and some regions of England, the pooling and sharing of resources across the UK ensures that we can invest more in public services than we could as a separate country – equivalent to around £2,200 per person.

We have the strength of the pound and the safety net of the reserves and international borrowing power of the UK.

And, perhaps most importantly, we have the opportunity to rebuild together – leaving no community behind.

When important political decisions are made through the limited lens of nationalism, then we miss out on opportunities to work together.

People across the UK have much more in common than any differences between us.

We are weaker when we are ruled by politics focussed on nationalism and division, but we are stronger when we work together for a better future.

As we mark the start of a new year, Scotland has a hopeful future built on solidarity and cooperation ahead of it as part of the UK.

Pamela Nash is chief executive of the pro-UK campaign Scotland in Union

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