Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.
There is a tried and trusted way to ask for people’s consent at an election. You put things in a manifesto and ask voters to back them.
However, the SNP last week unveiled a new method. Nicola Sturgeon published her manifesto at a New Labouresque extravaganza in Edinburgh. Missing was an upfront commitment to hold a second referendum on independence. Instead, the SNP is proposing the political equivalent of reserving a parking space. It wants to call referendum if and when Nicola Sturgeon thinks there’s been a “material change” in Scotland. In other words, if and when it thinks it can win one.
Ms Sturgeon’s reasons for doing this are pretty cynical. She knows a referendum is unpopular but she also wants to keep the independence bandwagon rolling. It is a squalid compromise. More importantly it absolutely isn’t a mandate for another referendum. As I made clear last week, I’ll be advising David Cameron against agreeing one should the SNP win another majority next week.
Unfortunately, that won’t take it off the table. And my concern after this election is that the SNP’s flirtation with a referendum just leaves Scotland mired in uncertainty. Only on Sunday, Ms Sturgeon was talking up the prospect of holding a snap referendum later this year should Scotland vote to remain part of the EU, if the rest of the UK votes to leave. And this is the concern for the next five years: that a re-elected SNP government continually raises the prospect of a return to the uncertainty and division of a second referendum whenever the opportunity arises. This summer, the reason will be the EU referendum; by autumn, no doubt it will be Trident renewal; this time next year, who knows?
This requires a firm response from opposition parties which support the Union. We face five years of attritional tactics from the SNP – both in Edinburgh and London – during which time they will seek to slowly tease the United Kingdom apart and grind down opposition. As tempting as it is, our response cannot simply be to ignore it cross our fingers and hope for the best. I believe we need a clear response.
That is why, at my own manifesto launch two weeks ago, I announced plans for a fresh, positive drive to promote the benefits of the Union to us all. This is not to repeat the arguments of the independence referendum campaign – indeed, I believe it is time to dump the so-called “Project Fear” tactics altogether. The case for the Union cannot rely on the flaws of the case for independence – easy though that argument is to make. It needs to win over heads and hearts and speak directly to people who voted Yes in 2014 that their ambitions and aspirations can be met as part of a United Kingdom. That is the task I want to lead in opposition over the next five years. I believe that the new Union we are forging is the best solution for all of us in the UK. It represents increasing autonomy for our nations and regions, backed up by the strength and security of one United Kingdom. We need to start making the case for it.
Clearly this is not a task that should be taken on by one political party – even one with the word “Unionist” in its title. But I believe, from the evidence of this election campaign, that the Scottish Conservatives currently offer the only clear plan to lead it. That is because, on this most vital of issues, the Labour party is in a state of complete confusion. The leader of Scottish Labour, Kezia Dugdale, insists she is for the Union and would vote No in a future referendum – and I have no reason to disbelieve her. Yet, pressed at the weekend, she refused to close down the fact that her candidates, MPs and MSPs are free to support separation should they so wish. There is a reason for this: at this election, Scottish Labour is chasing many people who voted Yes in the referendum in 2014 and who are now likely to back the SNP. Rather than stick to its principles, the leadership has softened its position on independence in the hope of winning people back. With nine days to go, it has left Scottish Labour in an increasingly awkward position: beating the Unionist drum to appeal to No voters, at the same time as candidates are able to speak freely in favour of independence, as some are doing.
The facts are these. The SNP is on course to win the election next week. And once back in, it will continue to try and tease apart the bonds that bind the UK together. Their case is as weak as ever but, armed with both plenty of time and the biggest megaphone in Scotland, it will continue to pose a grave threat to our unity as a nation. We need a positive, uplifting response to this – which demonstrates how our Union is working for us all. We need to set out how, if the Union didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent it. We need to understand why so many Scots decided they wanted to leave the UK and patiently seek to make the case that the Union can work for them.
That requires a firm resolve over the coming years to back the decision Scotland made in 2014 – and not an attempt to be all things to all people.