Fraser Raleigh was Special Adviser to David Lidington, when the latter served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at the Cabinet Office, Secretary of State for Justice, and Leader of the House of Commons.
As more of the previous certainties of British politics cease to be taken for granted as certainties, Conservatives must recognise the importance of re-stating the case for the Union, recognising the distinct issues within its four nations that will have an impact far beyond the current election and the next Parliament.
As the Conservative and Unionist Party we rightly champion the Union, its shared history and its enduring value. While Labour sends confusing messages about its commitment to the Union, and stokes fears that it would do a deal with the SNP to open the door to a second independence referendum, the Conservatives are committed to respecting the result of the first one.
But as we champion the Union, we need to recognise that each nation is having a subtly different conversation with itself about its future.
In Northern Ireland that conversation has taken on a markedly different form and tone since the vote to leave the EU, and is bound up with the delicate balance of the traditions and aspirations within it.
In Scotland, the SNP’s single strategic objective is to carry on the conversation that voters told them was closed in 2014, arguing that Brexit gives them an excuse to reopen it.
In Wales, while nationalism remains a relatively fringe issue, Plaid Cymru see an opportunity to nudge the debate forward, with a close eye on events Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In England, perhaps most worryingly, the conversation can often involve a sense of weariness or even apathy about the benefits of the Union, underlining the importance of pulling the strands of English devolution together in the context of what James Brokenshire called ‘a new Unionism’ on this site earlier this year.
As a party that stands candidates across the whole of the UK, the Conservatives are well-placed to lead these different conversations through actions that demonstrate that modern unionism continues to deliver tangible benefits. As the government of the whole of the United Kingdom, we can and should be visible and active in all four nations, recognising the significant powers still exercised at UK-level and communicating the shared opportunities of initiatives such as the GREAT campaign, while being to be seen to understand devolved policy issues. As the second largest party in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, we have a record of holding the SNP and Welsh Labour governments to account for their poor records in those devolved areas. And, of course, as a party working to win and retain new seats, we prove that we value the voices of all parts of the UK.
Winning those seats demonstrates that we are sincere when we talk about our unionism. In particular, electing thirteen Scottish Conservative MPs in 2017 didn’t just prove to be the difference in being able to form a government, it was a clear signal that working to maintain a presence across the whole of the UK is a fundamental part of our identity as a party, not an optional extra. We should reject any loose talk that resigns itself to electoral damage in Scotland or even sees it is a price worth paying to make up ground in England and Wales: a UK-wide party must be seen to have genuine UK-wide relevance.
In Scotland, this is vital as we face an SNP that deliberately conflates its own voice with Scotland’s and that has appropriated the votes of ‘No’ voters who subsequently voted ‘Remain’, as if the latter cancelled out the former. The Scottish Conservatives have fought effectively to challenge this attempt by nationalists to hijack the conversation, while at the same time working together to achieve real results for their constituents over the past two years.
It is important, however, that we recognise the nuances in those different conversations taking place within the UK and respond to them proactively. We can never be complacent about demonstrating the continuing relevance and strength of the Union, or assume that the argument makes itself.
Neither can we allow any sense of political Balkanisation to take place without us noticing. We need to recognise and respond to the fact that the political landscape has changed since the advent of devolution 20 years ago, when Labour ran all three governments within Great Britain. Now, no party holds a majority of seats in more than one of the nations and, if power-sharing were functioning in Northern Ireland, no fewer than six different parties would be in government across the four nations.
As a proud unionist party, we must work to prove that the Union can accommodate difference and remain strong, recognising – and leading – the different but overlapping conversations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and demonstrating the value of ‘Four-nation Conservatism’.