I still remember the final two weeks of the Indy Ref in autumn 2014 after a shock poll put Yes marginally in front, the real sense of sadness and fear amongst the many who believe in the most successful Union of nations in the history. When Scots voted by 55.3% and a margin of half a million votes to retain the Union there was widespread relief but quickly a dispiriting sense that for the SNP no margin of defeat would be enough to cause a pause for reflection. They have one goal and one vision, independence at any price. Alex Salmond may have said in 2014 that the question was settled for a generation, but soon the SNP began the drumbeat of war again. This week, conveniently just ahead of her party conference, Nicola Sturgeon committed the SNP minority government to demanding a second referendum be held sometime in the next 18 months to 2 years.
Many arguments have already been made about the nefariousness of the SNP position, their fluctuations on key questions of EU membership and the currency, the impossibility of their alleged ‘compromise’ position to get the EU to agree to something it has never done before and allow part of a sovereign state to remain in the Single Market. The SNP have spent decades refusing to take realistic or responsible positions, and now ten years into power and with a woeful record in education and health policy they continue to try to evade responsibility for their own legacy. So it is easy to understand why many see this as yet more game playing from the SNP to fuel their electoral ends, but if another independence referendum does take place in the next few years none of it may matter. Pointing out the weaknesses of the other side is a clear moral responsibility in any campaign, but, as oft-repeated, the biggest lesson of the 2014 referendum campaign is the need for a more positive pro-Union case to be made. There is a lot to draw on, 300 years of history in fact.
When Theresa May took office in July last year in the most challenging circumstances of any Prime Minister of modern times, well aware of the gathering storm, she made a point of emphasising the importance of the Union to her personally and to the government:
“Because not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word ‘unionist’ is very important to me.
It means we believe in the Union: the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it means something else that is just as important; it means we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.”
Those words perfectly summed up the ideals of the Union – a partnership not just of nations but of people. The UK single market, unlike the EU single market which remains bedevilled by non-tariff barriers that make cross-border trade an aspiration rather than a reality for most SMEs, has been an unqualified success for the inhabitants of our islands. For 300 years people, goods and services have moved increasingly freely around the United Kingdom as first the canals, then the railways, motor vehicles and finally planes eased their journeys. This incredibly integrated market place has enabled the UK to be an economic powerhouse through the last three centuries, we are richer and stronger together. Even today we are the fifth largest economy in the world despite a population of only 65 million.
Political and cultural success has matched economic prowess. After centuries of war between Scots and English, the Union also brought lasting peace to the island of Great Britain. As a United Kingdom we have been able to shape global events as few other nations ever have, even now we remain permanent members of the Security Council, a leading member of NATO, a force for good in the world. That has been built on the united strength of people from all corners of our islands have led our governments and armies and been leading lights in our scientific and industrial revolutions. Even in sport, long considered a national failure until recent years, working together as part of the Team GB apparatus has delivered strong results, in 2016 we even finished second in the world in the Olympic Games.
It is always easier to make the positive case for change than continuity, and it is often said that the UK leaving the EU, whilst presenting more practical difficulties for an independent Scotland, also makes a positive case for the future of the United Kingdom harder. The government is working to make that case, based on a global Britain, whilst preparing people for the difficulties of the Brexit process, but the truth is it will take time for the mess of divorce from the EU to be worked through. Once a new relationship has been secured it will become much easier to have a clear view of the future for all parts of the United Kingdom, which is why now is not the time for more uncertainty and another referendum with no clear alternative scenarios. We have had enough of those in recent times. If Scotland does eventually decide to forge a separate path, it will be in a much better place to do so if the United Kingdom has secured a good exit deal with the EU. So, as Nicola Sturgeon herself said on Monday, let’s work together to secure a good deal for the whole United Kingdom. Hopefully in time these years will prove to be yet another challenge managed in the long continuing history of the Union, we have faced much worse and overcome.