19 Oct 2016
The article below, in which Ruth warns that the SNP need to put pragmatic decision-making before the politics of nationalism, appeared in the Financial Times.
For all the questions being asked in Scotland about Britain’s departure from the EU, none is answered by severing us from our own union of nations.
In terms of trade, the United Kingdom is worth four times as much to Scotland as the EU. In terms of social, cultural, historic and family ties, it is worth far more. These are the facts as Scots examine their constitutional position following the Brexit vote in June. And being facts, they are therefore being entirely ignored by the Scottish National party as it gathers for its conference in Glasgow this weekend.
For Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and the leader of the SNP, there is a mass movement to manage. Membership of her party hit 100,000 in 2015, with many of the new members demanding independence at any price. When she took to the stage on Thursday, the first minister gave the crowd what it wanted. A second referendum on independence was threatened and an ultimatum delivered to Theresa May. Ms Sturgeon’s tactic is to ignore the evidence, or the economic case for independence, and feel the roar of the crowd. The result is a carefully cultivated image, aimed at both those in the hall and the watching TV audience, of a movement on the march.
How should those who believe in the integrity of the UK respond? They should ignore the fevered atmosphere in Glasgow and look at the facts. Ms Sturgeon claimed before the Brexit vote that, if Scotland voted to remain in the EU, while the UK as a whole voted to leave, support for independence would surge. So far, she has been proved wrong. The majority of Scots do not want to compound the uncertainty over Brexit with the far greater instability that leaving the UK would cause. Support for another referendum on the matter is even lower than support for independence itself. Memories of the division and toxicity of the last referendum in 2014 are still raw. It is little wonder that most Scots do not want to reheat the same old arguments all over again.
We should remember that while the SNP wants to convey the impression of a nation on the march, the reality is more complex. Like most Scots, I voted Remain in the EU referendum. Indeed, I shared a platform with Ms Sturgeon on the campaign trail. But I and thousands like me did not cast our vote that way in oder for it to be co-opted for the cause of independence. What is more, Ms Sturgeon appears to dismiss the fact that the largest group of Leavers in Scotland were SNP supporters: 400,000 of them in total.
The SNP’s calls for independence, therefore, are not representative of mainstream opinion in Scotland. We can expect the SNP to assemble its list of impossible demands and unending grievances. Unionists should recognise these for the tactical devices that they are and focus instead on making a measured assessment of what works for Scotland and the UK as a whole. This means putting pragmatic decision-making before the politics of nationalism. And while it entails respecting the vote to leave the EU, it also means maintaining our history and traditions as a proud European nation.
The SNP might not like to hear this, but there is an open door at Westminster to discuss this agenda. While Ms Sturgeon was issuing threats in Glasgow, I was holding talks with David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and his officials on how best we should proceed.
The British union has always prospered as a flexible arrangement between the country’s constituent parts, and there is no reason why that should not continue now. It is not, nor ever has been, the bogeyman of nationalist imagination. There is little doubt, as we face up to Brexit, that the union will be challenged once again to deliver. Despite the SNP’s predictable gripes and grievances, I have every confidence that it will do so.