The slow death of Nicola Sturgeon's reputation

The First Minister is attempting to overturn two democratic votes

March 16, 2017
©Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images
©Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images

The shadow of a second independence referendum has loomed large on the horizon in recent months, but this week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out her stall. Despite putting on record in 2014 that “constitutional referendums are once-in-a-generation events,” she has now laid out demands for another secession referendum to take place between autumn 2018 and spring 2019—just four years after Scots went to the polls and voted decisively to stay in the Union. Our country doesn’t want to go back to the divisions and uncertainty of the last few years. That is why Ruth Davidson and Theresa May have both said “no” to a second independence referendum—for now.

Scotland did not want independence in 2014, and it does not want it now; poll after poll makes it perfectly plain that most Scots do not want a second independence referendum. But within just three hours of the EU referendum result becoming clear in the early hours of 24th June last year, the SNP put independence back on the agenda. The grounds? That Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against its will. In these circumstances, the SNP argue, they have a “cast-iron mandate” to have a referendum. But no minority government has a “cast-iron mandate” to do anything.

In any case, new polling shows that two in three Scots either want Britain to leave the EU, or for the EU’s powers to be reduced. One million Scots voted Leave on 23rd June, including many who had voted Yes to independence in 2014. Meanwhile, the SNP is hijacking Remain votes as their own—mine included. By ignoring these voices and attempting to overturn not one, but two democratic votes, Nicola Sturgeon has ceased to be First Minister for all of Scotland—and has shown she is prepared to play fast and loose with the future of our country for her party’s political gain.

The SNP government is not faring much better. This is a government that has repeatedly said education is its priority focus—Nicola Sturgeon even staked her personal reputation on closing the attainment gap. Yet, in the five months following last May’s election to the Scottish Parliament, it failed to introduce even a single bill. And then in October, under cover of recess and with no parliamentary debate, a first bill did eventually emerge—a draft independence referendum bill, further confirmation that the SNP government would rather obsess about independence than get on with the day job of improving our education system, our NHS, and policing.

And obsess they have: since June last year, the SNP has been manufacturing grievance over the single market; the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, and workers’ rights. Not, I should add, to get the best deal for Scotland, but to build a case for independence. Yet the truth of it is that there are more areas of convergence between the Scottish and UK Governments than the SNP would ever care to admit.

On trade, the SNP has called for continued membership of the single market—Theresa May said she wants the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU. On EU nationals already in the UK, the SNP has made repeated calls for us to guarantee their rights will remain unchanged—the UK Government has confirmed it wants to be able to guarantee their rights as early as possible. On workers’ rights, the SNP wants key employment rights to be protected—the UK Government has committed to fully protect and maintain them. All of this is hardly the “hardest” of Brexits. But of course, Nicola Sturgeon and her merry band of ministers know all of this, because they’ve been part of the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations—they’ve just chosen to ignore it.

The First Minister said she wants to give Scotland “an informed choice” about the kind of change it wants, but she can’t even confirm if an independent Scotland would seek to become a full member of the EU. In fact, just a day after she set out her plan for a second separation referendum, senior sources in the SNP indicated that she would try to join the European Free Trade Association in the event of independence. That is a far cry from joining the European Union, the very pretext—or so we are told—for holding a referendum in the first place. But then it’s no surprise her case for independence is starting to unravel less than 72 hours after announcing a second poll, because she doesn’t have a case at all.

The choices that Scotland faces are clear. We should be bold in our pursuit of global trade and open in our dealings not just with the rest of Europe, but with the rest of the world. We should be pulling with the British government as it negotiates Brexit, not seeking to pull Britain apart. Brexit is not a moment to turn inwards, to harden borders, or to put distance between ourselves and our nearest neighbours. That’s the way of the separatists. That’s the way of the nationalists and the protectionists. But that is not Scotland’s way.

The 31 Conservative and Unionist MSPs elected to the Scottish Parliament in May were elected on a clear, unambiguous manifesto commitment to oppose any second independence referendum. At First Minister's Questions today, Ruth Davidson set out our clear position on any second independence referendum, which was reiterated by Theresa May. They said, unequivocally, that there can be no such referendum until the UK's new relationship with the EU is clear and settled, and until it is clear what an independent Scotland's relationship with the EU would be. Even then, there should be no second independence referendum unless there is clear majority support for it in Scotland.

The 2014 referendum was based on the Edinburgh Agreement, which said any secession referendum in Scotland must be fair, clear, legal and decisive. Applying those criteria, it plainly would not be fair or clear to ask the independence question again now. There can be no referendum on the timetable unilaterally demanded by the First Minister this week. There is no justification for it; no case for it; and there is no mandate for it.