Ruth’s speech to the European Council on Foreign Relations

12 Sep 2016


Ruth used a speech at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London to announce the formation of a new expert group to advise the Scottish Conservatives on the impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Ruth also spoke about how Britain will continue to play its part on the international stage, and argued that the UK must show it intends to be a “beacon” across the world for liberal, democratic values. 

She then sought to assure the audience that while the UK intends to leave the EU, it is not leaving Europe.

“Good afternoon everybody and thank-you very much for inviting me to talk to you here today.

This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to speak about the EU referendum here in London since I took part in the BBC TV debate at Wembley arena back in June.

I have to say, you are much cosier looking audience.

And it feels like a good time to reflect on the result on June 23rd.

Both our Parliaments are back, at Westminster and Holyrood. We are down to business once more.

Some of the initial shock which many people felt in the days after the vote has begun to subside.

We are getting used to the new reality – that we are now a post-referendum nation which is preparing to leave the European Union.

And we are beginning to turn to the many complex challenges that lay before us.

I want to talk today about how we move forward as a nation.

And I want to speak specifically about Scotland, where the challenges of dealing with the post-Brexit landscape have an added dimension.

As you know, a majority of people in Scotland did not vote to leave the European Union.

And, as a consequence, the Scottish National party has raised the spectre of independence, arguing that the option of separation must now be “on the table”.

I know that, for some people outside Scotland, all this has added to the view that Scottish independence is now inevitable – and that Brexit is destined to lead to the break up of our own Union too.

I’d like to start today by setting out why I believe that analysis is wrong. I’d then like to talk about how we progress – as one United Kingdom.

So first of all, let me quickly reflect on the campaign, the result and the events over the summer in Scotland.

The campaign itself was very different north of the border to that we saw in England and Wales.

For one thing there was broad political support for Remain.

I – along with the leaders of the SNP, the Scottish Labour party, the Greens and the Scottish Liberal Democrats – were all for In. With all due respect to the Out campaign, there was no Scottish Boris.

But, much more importantly, there was also a certain referendum fatigue in the air. Scotland had its nation-defining referendum in 2014, when we opted to remain within the United Kingdom. The EU referendum was not it. As I wrote in today’s Telegraph, it felt like someone else’s war. And, to a degree, it did.

Turnout for our “own” independence referendum was much higher – with nearly a million more people voting in 2014 than in 2016.

Whatever the reasons, the result was clear, a 62% to 38% vote to Remain.

But, I would argue, not as clear-cut as the SNP would like to have you believe.

Yes, 1.6 million people in Scotland voted to Remain in the EU – but more than a million people in Scotland voted to Leave – that’s more people than voted ‘Nicola Sturgeon for First Minister’ in the Holyrood election in May.

And many of them were SNP voters – indeed, polls suggest that around a third of SNP voters backed Leave.

Some of the areas that saw the highest leave vote have long voted SNP – such as Moray, represented by Angus Robertson, already leading at Westminster and now looking likely to become the party’s deputy leader.

Nonetheless, the impact of the vote has ripped open Scotland’s constitutional question once again.

The SNP’s response in the immediate aftermath of the result – indeed within four hours of confirmation – was to declare that a second independence referendum was imminent.

The First Minister announced that draft legislation for a referendum bill would be drawn up immediately.

Parliamentary questions by the Scottish Conservatives in the summer revealed that civil servants have already started work.

She also made it clear that she would want a second referendum before the UK as a whole left the EU.

Those first few days after the Brexit vote were a whirlwind period in Scotland.

In the aftermath of the referendum, it sometimes felt like the only two leaders in UK politics who weren’t resigning or facing a leadership challenge were Nicola Sturgeon – and me.

And there were some people who had previously opposed independence in Scotland who were now thinking again about their position.

It felt for many- particularly, if I may say, in Westminster – that the SNP’s independence bandwagon was now unstoppable.

The SNP’s strategy has always been to make independence feel inevitable – that there is nothing you can do to stop it.

May’s election result, where the SNP went backwards and lost their majority, punctured that sense of momentum.

But in unsettled times that pose deep existential questions, nationalism seeks to give easy answers, wrapped in a flag. It thrives on chaos. And it’s fair to describe that week after the vote as chaotic.

And in those first few days after the result – as the SNP seized the initiative – the party’s momentum returned, and ‘inevitable’ was exactly how it felt to many people.

Now, I am no psephologist, but I know a man who is – and Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University last week analysed what has happened since.

In the immediate aftermath of the result, there was a modest swing in favour of independence.

But more recent polls have made it clear that this swing has not been maintained.

As Professor Curtice wrote last week: “It looks as though the apparent swing in favour of independence in the immediate wake of the Brexit vote was no more than a short-term reaction, and that the balance of opinion has returned to where it was beforehand.”

And I’m no nationalist either, but I agree with what Alex Neil, a former SNP Cabinet Secretary, said. he noted that ‘the initial surge of support for independence in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum is  already reverting to pre-EU referendum levels’.

In other words, we seem to be back where we were.

This appears to have been recognised by the SNP. Last week, the First Minister laid out her programme for government for the coming year.

And, rather than publishing her draft referendum bill, we were informed one will be drafted up and left on a shelf – but a low shelf – to be ready if and when the SNP wants to go ahead.

In other words, the unstoppable bandwagon of late June now appears to have been parked in a lay by.

Why has this happened? There is one overwhelming reason.

I suggested before that Scotland was suffering from referendum fatigue. We have had five years of uncertainty and rancour over our constitutional status – now added to by the EU referendum result.

As a result, most people in Scotland do not now want to add to that any more.

Yes – they remain troubled by the EU result but that is not translating into support for further constitutional upheaval in the form of another referendum on independence.

The evidence for that is clear. While support for and against independence is more or less  unchanged since 2014, support to have yet another referendum to look at this is dwindling – down to 37%. Even those who would vote Yes in the event of a second referendum being offered, don’t want to see one any time soon.

Most people simply want to put it behind us. And I really don’t blame them.

Politicians like me have spent the last five years on their TV screens pleading with them to say Yes or No, Leave or Remain – and telling them they have the fate of nations in their hands.

I don’t blame people if they just want politicians to get on and actually run the country for a bit.

I’ve noticed, of late, a bit of nostalgia for the good old days, of before 2013. That’s when the independence referendum started to heat up.

Now, I hear people recalling a time when families didn’t split down the dinner table over constitutional questions, when online abuse from armies of keyboard warriors was yet to come, when we had a politics of issues, not of identity.

That might be a bit rose-tinted. After all, the SNP were still in government then.

But there’s something to this sense of wanting to leave the rancour and division behind – and just move on.

That is exactly what I have suggested the SNP Government does.

But the risk is that Scotland now enters something a limbo period.

We know the SNP is preparing a fresh campaign for independence – the First Minister announced the details of it a couple of weeks back.

But – with the polls no longer showing any support for a referendum – the SNP leadership clearly hasn’t decided what happens next.

It is as if an Army platoon has been told to assemble at dawn for a fresh push – only to be told by the generals that it might now be lunchtime, or tea, or tomorrow before the attack begins.

There is a very good reason for this – which is the SNP leadership are caught between the demands of their core support, and the political realities of the majority of Scots.

They are a huge party – and their members are, funnily enough, dyed-in-the-wool nationalists. They champ at the bit for another referendum.

They are constitutional hawks, spoiling for a fight and urging their generals to attack.

But the leadership are pragmatists. They recognise that passion alone is not enough for the hard-headed, moderate Scots who rejected independence in 2014.

These people are suing for peace – and don’t want another war.

This is the dilemma the SNP face. And it paralyses them.

This, primarily, is why I have asked the First Minister to simply take the proposal for a second referendum off the table.

Not just because there is no justification for a re-run of a vote we held only two years ago.

But also because I fear that having a sword of Damocles hang over us for the next phase can only be bad for Scottish investment and bad for jobs.

In short, on the back of Brexit, most Scots do not want to double down on uncertainty.

Ok, political point scoring over.

And, as ever, the question has to be – what next?

As I said at the beginning of this speech, my view in the campaign was that – on balance – it would be better to remain within the EU.

Some of the warnings about Brexit may have been overblown, but as the Prime Minister has rightly said – it may be that we face some difficult times ahead.

So I believe we do need to focus first on measures to stabilize the economy and ensure that Brexit is not counted in lost jobs and a lower standard of living.

That’s something that the new UK Government has made clear it is doing – and I hope to see more of that in the Chancellor’s autumn statement.

And we want to see more of this from the Scottish Government in the form of support for our many businesses who, under current proposals, are having to pay higher rates than their counterparts in England.

One of the frustrations of a nationalist government is that simple steps like competitive tax are within their power – but are ignored for jockeying for position on the constitution.

Over the longer term, the question turns to how we re-order our relationship with Europe and with the wider world.

Now, there has already been a lot of – to my mind – unfair criticism of the UK Government in the wake of the referendum.

It is of course entirely understandable to want clarity and certainty. But I believe it is right that the Prime Minister does not limit her options ahead of any negotiations.

And I also believe that we have to accept that we are at the start of what will inevitably be a lengthy process.

A good parallel is with the Scottish parliament. When it was first set up in 1999, it became a cliché to declare that this was a “process not an event”.

The point was – while power was being transferred from London to Edinburgh in the form of a Bill, devolution would take time and would evolve.

And indeed it has: later this year, we will adopt tax and welfare powers than were never even conceived when devolution was first proposed.

The legal framework is one thing. The change in political culture is another.

I believe the same thing will be true of Brexit.

We have begun a process of taking power that currently exists within the European Union and transferring it to the United Kingdom.

And while there will be a day when we leave the European Union, that will be just the event.

There will also be the process of constructing of a whole new set of power lines to support the transfer of authority from Brussels to Britain.

It will involve a protracted period of negotiation. We may end up with something that, right now, is hard to picture and will change and evolve over time.

None of this makes for a neat sound-bite when asked for Yes or No questions on what Brexit includes.

But it is closer to what I think will happen.

We’re not heading into the EU Exit shop at Brussels airport and grabbing a “hard” version or a “soft” version off the shelf. This isn’t like buying shoes.

Rather, we are starting a conversation with the EU where we should take our time in order to negotiate a bundle of bespoke agreements which are tailored to our national interest – and which, crucially, should also suit our neighbours across Europe too.

My hope is that taking this route will ensure that the deals we strike will meet the unique requirements of the United Kingdom – including Scotland.

Let’s just take two examples that are massively important to Scotland – fishing and farming.

For nigh on half a century, there was little room for tailored farming or fishing policy.

That’s because any action had to be compliant with EU-wide frameworks.

This has had a disproportionate impact on Scotland, where the bulk of the UK fishing fleet is based and where so much farming takes place too.

What Brexit demands is that we now have to think afresh about exactly what we want out of these industries, and how they are integrated within a wider UK economic policy.

I speak as an Inner, but the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has already said that Brexit means we could now “lead the way in developing fit-for-purpose management that will enable fishing to sustainably develop”.

Whether that actually happens can’t be answered now. It will take time;  – after all, we haven’t considered these issues in isolation for decades.

But I think that even politicians like me who wanted to Remain now have a duty to roll up our sleeves and seek out the opportunities where they arise.

This is something all political parties and all parts of the United Kingdom need to put their efforts behind.

And I am glad that the UK Government has already made it clear that it wants the Scottish Government, and all devolved administrations, to be an integral part of this process.

That is only right.

It is also something I and my party in Scotland want to contribute too – and this is something I would like to announce today.

As I spelled out earlier, I believe the Scottish Government has got it wrong in its response to the Brexit vote.

The First Minister tried to use the vote to create a bow wave surge for independence. It hasn’t worked but I don’t think the SNP will stop trying.

And sadly, in our judgement, the push for separation will continue to be the main priority for the SNP Government as we head into Brexit discussions – and not the best interests of Scotland and the United Kingdom.

So while I will continue to support the Scottish Government’s involvement in Brexit discussions, I am also announcing today that the Scottish Conservatives will form our own expert group to assess the risks and opportunities of Brexit for Scotland.

As well as two of my MSPs – one who voted Remain and one who voted Leave – I am delighted to say that the group includes a panel of leading figures including Sir Iain McMillan, the former head of CBI Scotland, and Gavin Hewitt, the former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association and, prior to that, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Belgium, Finland and Croatia.

I will ask them to report to me on how best they believe Brexit can deliver for Scotland and – crucially – for the entire United Kingdom.

…because we believe that Scotland’s interests are not served by constantly trying to pick apart the United Kingdom.

We believe that Scotland’s best interests are served by ensuring the strength and durability of the entire United Kingdom of which we are a key part.

This same point of view also helps to answer the question that some have raised since the vote – whether Scotland, as part of the United Kingdom, might get a different deal with the EU to the rest of the UK.

Firstly, it is difficult to envisage circumstances where the EU would sign up to part of the UK remaining while the rest of the UK left.

But perhaps more importantly, there is also the question of whether Scotland would benefit from one.

In terms of trade, the rest of the United Kingdom is more than four times as important to Scotland as the entire European Union.

Our interests are best served by maintaining our own single market and our own Union.

For Scotland, the EU was a 40-year-old, relatively loose economic union with social and legal implications.

The U.K. Is a 300-year old, deeply embedded, economic, social, political and emotional Union.

And, so far, it has not been made clear why Scotland would want to weaken a Union of fundamental importance to us, in order to remain in a Union four times less so.

So to conclude Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have now fought two referendums in three years and the score so far is: won one, lost one.

That isn’t, in a Scottish international football context, a bad score line.

I hope it is a very long time before I have to contest another.

As a democrat, I believe we now need to honour the results of those two referendums: leaving the European Union as one nation.

I know there are many diplomats here today from our friends and allies around the world.

I want to repeat the message that many others have given in the weeks since the referendum result – from both sides of the referendum divide.

….that, while we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe, and we will not turn in on ourselves.

I fought for Britain to stay together in the Scottish referendum. I did so not just because of the bottom line but because I believe the United Kingdom is a force for good.

Now that we are leaving the European Union, more than ever, we must prove to you that we remain that same outward facing nation which which I have always known – one that shoulders its burden in the world and is a responsible and constant ally.

…which seeks to be a beacon for the values we share – of the rule of law, freedom and solidarity with one another.

The structures behind our relationship will change over the coming years. I am confident that the nature of our friendship will not.

Thank-you very much.”