Jackson Carlaw is the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Eastwood
Across the United Kingdom, there is a palpable sense of a new chapter beginning. Finally, we have left the European Union. The conversation now moves on from whether, to how. Process is making way for substance.
Everywhere that is, but Scotland. Scraping around in the barrel last Friday, as she sought to squeeze out every last drop of grievance from Brexit as possible, First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, wheeled out yet another attempt to keep the country stuck in her own never-ending story: “Why I won’t stop demanding a referendum until I get the answer I want”. There is to be a new constitutional convention. There is to be a fresh request to examine the question for an Independence Referendum. And civil servants whose time might be usefully served fixing the mess the SNP is making of our schools and hospitals will instead be tasked with coming up with imaginary plans for how an imaginary independent Scotland might one day try to function. It is a pathetic spectacle. The rest of the UK is moving on. Scotland appears stuck.
For those of us who live and work here, it is deeply frustrating. We seem trapped by a government that has given up any pretence of representing the majority and now spends most of its intellectual energy working out how best to keep its own nationalist project alive. But, little more than a year before the 2021 Holyrood elections, it also presents a massive opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives. We now have the chance to set out a very clear choice to people. They can opt for more of the same and another trip down Sturgeon’s nationalist cul-de-sac. Or they can shift Scotland from the rut that the SNP has put it in, so we can move on like everyone else. We have the chance to go to the electorate next year with a big positive message: you do not need to watch Scotland stay in limbo for another five years. Vote for us, and we can get the country moving – now. Vote for a new Minister for Health to focus on opening hospitals, not on independence. Vote for a new Minister for Transport to devote 100 per cent of his or her time building ferries to the islands, not independence. Vote for a First Minister who wants to create jobs, not break up the Union which guarantees our economic security. That is the message that will win us support over the coming year.
This points the way forward for our party over the coming year. There has been a vibrant debate in the party during the leadership election campaign about the need for us to be more than just the ‘No to Indyref2’ party. The truth is, of course, that we need to do both. We need to make clear that we are resolutely opposed to another referendum, and that we are prepared to defend the Union to the hilt. But we also need to set out what this position will deliver. Our support for the United Kingdom isn’t just because of a flag or love of country. It’s also because we recognise that remaining in the UK is the best way to get back onto the things that matter. So I won’t just be asking Unionists to vote for the Scottish Conservatives next year. I’ll be asking for votes from anyone in Scotland who wants to put hospitals first, schools first, public services first, decent jobs first.
And if I am elected leader of the party over the coming weeks, that message will go out the moment my feet get under the desk. We will set out fresh plans to restore Scottish Education to its former glory. We will champion a skills revolution for everyone, no matter their age. I am determined to offer a fresh economic plan for Scotland that get the nation growing again. Most of all, we will set out a new vision for cooperation, not conflict, with the rest of the UK. And our clear political point will be this. None of these things will be possible if we vote to put constitutional division first in our politics for another five years. They are only possible if people back change.
Spending 40 years as a Conservative in Scotland tends to give you quite a tough hide and a very wary relationship with optimism. We have seen far too many false dawns and disappointments to get ahead of ourselves. But I have never felt as positive as I am now about the potential for our party, both across the UK and here in Scotland. It’s because the aspirations and priorities we hold – to end the division, to get back to what matters most – is in tune with a growing majority of people across the country. The SNP believe they are impregnable – just as we did back in the 80s when it felt like we would go on for ever and ever. But all political feet are made of clay, even nationalist ones.
Under my leadership, the Scottish Conservatives will be ready to take advantage of the times, to stand firm against further constitutional division, so we can set out a clear and positive agenda for Scotland powering ahead into the 2020s.
I say No to Indyref2 – so that we can say yes to so much more.