Leaders’ speeches at party political conferences are a unique opportunity to speak to the nation. With guaranteed TV and newspaper coverage, it’s a moment for politicians to reach out beyond the conference hall to the wider public.
This week, Nicola Sturgeon utterly failed that challenge. She spoke only to the activists in the Aberdeen auditorium and die-hard nationalists at home, fixating on her obsession to break up the UK.
It was rhetoric without any substance. It says it all that independence was mentioned more than 20 times, while education was referenced just twice in 45 minutes.
Education, remember, was supposed to be the First Minister’s top priority. Nobody can now be in any doubt: her top priority will always be creating division. That is, after all, what nationalism is all about: erecting barriers between people and communities. SNP politicians have always wanted to build social and cultural barriers with England.
Now we know they are also prepared to build a physical barrier – a hard border at Gretna, Berwick and right across where Scotland meets England, where there has been freedom of movement for centuries.
This devastating scenario would arise if Ms Sturgeon achieved her aim of having a separate Scotland join the EU, leading to economic divergence from a post-Brexit UK.
The border with England would also become the EU’s border, and Brussels would demand checks on what was coming in, and what was going out.
I find it deeply upsetting that the SNP is so indifferent about the possibility of a barrier between our friends, families and neighbours in England.
I don’t want a hard border between me and my family in Manchester, and the same is true for the millions of people who share social ties across the United Kingdom.
But it’s not only the emotional impact of this that we should consider – it’s the economic impact too.
Our home market trade with the rest of UK is worth £48.9billion-a-year to Scotland’s economy – equivalent to what it costs to run our entire NHS for around three years. It makes up 60 per cent of all exports, dwarfing our trade with the EU.
Lorries, vans and trains criss-cross between Scotland and England unhindered, with thousands of businesses dependent on the UK single market. Why put all that at risk with Scexit?
And if the SNP doesn’t care about cold financial statistics, what about the real-life impact on jobs. As many as 545,000 jobs in Scotland are supported by the rest of the UK.
Those jobs are the price that Ms Sturgeon is willing to pay in her quest to divide people. It sickens me.
The First Minister revealed in her conference speech that she has instructed civil servants to build a new blueprint for a separate Scotland, to replace Alex Salmond’s discredited White Paper from 2014.
Our hospitals are in crisis with waiting times not being met, delayed discharge on the rise, and the new Sick Kids in Edinburgh unable to open its doors.
Our schools are in crisis with teacher shortages, fury over P1 testing, and a decline in numeracy and literacy levels.
Our police force is in crisis, with warnings that officers may not receive their wages in February.
All these things require the urgent attention of the impartial taxpayer-funded civil service. Instead, Ms Sturgeon is forcing civil servants to focus on breaking up the UK. It’s a scandal. But there’s little we can do to stop it. So my challenge to the SNP is to be open and honest with voters about the impact of Scexit. It must produce its own ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ document that spells out the consequences of independence.
Even without a hard border, we know that separation would be catastrophic for our economy. That’s because the SNP wants to scrap the pound – a policy supported by just 13 per cent of voters.
Unforgivably, it would put salaries, pensions and mortgages at risk. The Nationalists must also spell out what cuts they would make to public services and what tax rises they would introduce to pay for independence.
Scotland generates eight per cent of the UK’s taxes yet benefits from 9.3 per cent of the UK’s public spending. That means the annual UK dividend – the difference between how much Scotland contributes per head in taxes and receives back in public spending – is £1,968 per head, or £7,872 for a family-of-four.
And that’s before you take account of Scotland’s seven per cent deficit – the highest in Europe – which would need to reduce to three per cent to meet the criteria for joining the EU as a separate member state.
Reckless and inward-looking
These aren’t choices we have to make. A second independence referendum is not inevitable. Barely a quarter of people in Scotland want another divisive contest within 18 months. It is the very last thing that Scotland needs. But we cannot, and should not, take the SNP threat lightly. This nationalist campaign is well funded, and the SNP’s resources means that it can, and will, be out there every single day pushing for Scexit whilst also having the apparatus of being in government to help further its separatist aims.
The Leave UK campaign is not offering hope. It is offering a negative, reckless, divisive, inward-looking future. It is the positive campaign to remain in the UK that offers hope and opportunity.
An opportunity to invest in vital public services for the most vulnerable, and to invest in our schools and hospitals. An opportunity to keep the pound, protect jobs, and grow our economy. And an opportunity to preserve and grow the social and cultural ties with our families, friends and neighbours.
We are stronger together as part of the UK, and we must fight for that positive future every single day.
Pamela Nash is chief executive of Scotland in Union