Murdo Fraser is Member of the Scottish Parliament for Mid-Scotland & Fife, and the Scottish Conservative spokesman on Covid Recovery
With the Scottish Conservatives having deprived the SNP of an overall majority in Holyrood in May, the immediate threat of another independence referendum has receded.
But that does not mean that it has gone away for good, and the UK Government needs to guard against complacency. In this short series for ConservativeHome, I will set out what needs to be done to secure Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom for future generations.
The framework within which Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales operate is the United Kingdom, a nation state made up of four nations, and an entity worth more than the sum of its parts. Not four separate nations, but interdependent peoples whose framework is unique. Each nation has managed, indeed been encouraged, to hold onto its distinct identity, traditions and history, while simultaneously creating a distinct one in which they all share.
It is a concept, a living, growing entity, which is difficult for the binary minds of nationalists of all stripes to comprehend, which in many ways proves its worth. It is the antidote to nationalism.
But the framework within which the debate about the United Kingdom’s future is held is badly distorted. For some even of its staunchest supporters the Union is something which needs to be ‘defended’. For others it needs to be recast. Both approaches are wrong. The Union needs to be celebrated rather than defended – celebrated in its diversity and fluidity, not its uniformity.
Nor does it need rebuilt or repaired as though it was broken machinery. To regard it as that is to misunderstand it. The Union has always been fluid and changed, it is its nature. It is organic and grows, it is not a fossil that is frozen in time. To regard it as such is to misrepresent it.
Regard the four nations as primary colours and the Union is the pallet on which together they can create a spectrum of vibrancy and subtlety. The nationalist sees things only in monochrome.
So before we ask where we should take the Union next, let’s celebrate not what it was, but what it is. How the benefits of being greater than the sum of its parts benefits each of those parts.
To give just one example, Scotland has a National Health Service that no independent nation state in the western world has, other than the United Kingdom. Not Ireland, nor Denmark, nor Norway, that many Scottish nationalists compare themselves to. Thanks to the United Kingdom, Scotland spends more per head on its health service than the UK average.
That to me sounds like something to celebrate, and not just if you are a Scot. The Union distributes resources broadly on the basis of need, not uniformly – a radical idea. The question then is why do we not celebrate the Union more, when the health service is such an example of its success?
The United Kingdom as a whole is still responsible for more spending in Scotland than the devolved administration dispenses from the block grant it receives from Westminster. Of the £99 billion spent in Scotland in 2020-21, less than half was under the control of Holyrood, but few Scots know this. And why should they? British ministers, who are not foreign politicians after all but lawmakers whose decisions directly affect Scotland, rarely visit.
The billions of pounds of the furlough scheme spent during the height of the Covid pandemic saved thousands of Scottish businesses, hundreds of thousands of Scottish jobs, and gave every Scottish family a lifeline.
But where was the Chancellor of the Exchequer? It is perhaps not surprising that an opinion survey last year told us that more Scots gave credit to Nicola Sturgeon’s administration for supporting jobs and the economy than to the Treasury. The communications battle was being lost.
The late David McLetchie when he was Scottish Conservative leader would often remind us in speeches that Scotland has two Governments – one in Edinburgh and one in London. It didn’t seem like that for a long time. In the period from 2010, the approach of the Cameron Government could be summarised as ‘devolve and forget’. There are now, thankfully, encouraging signs of a new approach from Whitehall, taking a much more activist stance.
Bringing the COP26 event to Glasgow – a decision of the UK Government – doesn’t just put Scotland on the world stage, it provides an estimate £100 million boost to the local economy, particularly to sectors such as hospitality which have suffered so much over the past 18 months. It is ironic that whilst the UK Government provide this benefit, the SNP-run Council in the city have been left, due to their ineptitude, embarrassed by a refuse collectors’ strike and communities over-run by litter and rats.
The announcements in last week’s Budget on the Levelling-Up Fund, with direct support of £172 million for a diverse range of projects including the Aberdeen City Centre Marketplace, the refurbishment of Inverness Castle, and even the community buy-out of our remotest pub, the Old Forge in Knoydart, have been warmly welcomed.
They have created a political challenge, too, for the SNP, who can hardly condemn support for these projects publicly, even though they might inwardly be seething at devolution being bypassed (as they would see it). The self-same Nationalist ministers did not, of course, have any such concerns when the funds being spent in Scotland originated in the EU rather than the UK.
This new approach might be summed up as ‘show, don’t tell’. Grand speeches and press releases on the benefits of the Union are so much less effective in communicating the message than actual delivery of important projects that would otherwise not happen if left up to the Scottish Government. And there is no need to plaster all these projects with Union flags to show where the money came from, providing the communications strategy is right. A parade of British ministers opening initiatives across Scotland funded by UK money will tell the story far more eloquently.
We need to see Cabinet ministers not treating Scotland like the home of a distant relative they only visit once a year as a matter of duty, and then for the shortest possible time. The truth is that the UK as a whole is their country, and their duty is to represent every part of it.
I know that Covid has made it difficult for everyone over the past 18 months, but as restrictions relax the opportunity for visits becomes easier. The Prime Minister being in Scotland should be no more remarkable than him visiting Slough or Solihull. Both he, and the rest of his team, need to be here on a regular basis as the embodiments of the benefits that being in the UK provides to Scotland.