David Cameron’s fullest case for the Union was made during the spring before Scotland’s independence referendum – three years ago. “Centuries of history hang in the balance,” he told his Glasgow audience, and went on to mention the Acts of Union, historic universities, the Scottish enlightenment, the Black Watch, the Falkands War and “Lord Lovat on the beach on D-Day, the bagpipes playing as his brigade landed ashore”.
There was none of that yesterday from Theresa May as she delivered her speech to the Scottish office of the Department for International Development. Instead, she cited ending violence against women and girls, exploring the potential for new vaccines, emergency food assistance for Somalia, the UN appeal for South Sudan, the Hunger Safety Net Programme in Kenya, and humanitarian support in Syria.
The Prime Minister, of course, is not facing a second independence referendum in the immediate future, because she is rightly refusing to grant one. But a vote will probably take place in the wake of Brexit – and her speech suggested that she is starting to draw up a plan to win it.
What she was attempting to do yesterday, rather than glance back at the past, was to look forward to the future, and place the debate about Scotland’s future fairly and squarely in the context of Brexit.
This is a gamble, since more Scots voted to remain in the EU than to leave it, but one can see what she is trying to do in a country that leans further left than England, and to whose swing voters emergency aid may be important.
It is to frame Brexit Britain as a future-orientated, liberal, forward-gazing, progressive country. “We are going to take this opportunity to forge a more Global Britain,” she said. “This is not – in any sense – the moment that Britain steps back from the world.”
This is exactly what ConservativeHome recently suggested she might do: “maybe Brexit provides an opportunity to offer a new version of Britain to Scotland – that of an outward-looking, globally engaged, free-trading country: Europe’s leading player in providing aid and peacekeeping, with its G7 membership and a seat on the UN Security Council”.
Cameron’s Scotland speeches weren’t just about the past, of course. In the one quoted earlier, for example, he also referred to Scotch whisky, green energy and the fashion industry. But they lacked the strategic plan and opportunity that Brexit opens up. May is boldly trying to turn what is apparently a weakness in Scotland into a strength. Let’s hope she succeeds.