Three years ago, I wrote a counterfactual ‘Imagine’ in which I tried to show that Scotland need not have gone to down the road to division and endless strife along the faultline of indepedendence. It attempted to show how real leadership from Nicola Sturgeon could have led to a better country for all of us, based on a consensus around the outcome of the SNP’s referendum in 2014.
Since 2014, of course, she has done no such thing, and many of us have been in turns frustrated, despairing and enraged at her very obvious contempt for the views of the majority who voted to remain in the UK.
So it is interesting and heartening to see her article in today’s Sunday Herald newspaper, in which she states her intention that a post-Covid Scotland will be different, and will be built on working together. That was of course always the intention of the anti-independence campaign – that we get on better as a nation (and as a species) when we are co-operating and supporting each other.
Most significantly,her article does not mention Scottish independence at all. We must assume that this is deliberate.
It is clear that Nicola Sturgeon and her Nationalist Scottish Government has failed us badly. The Coronavirus Crisis has given her an opportinuity to put that right, and to build a new consensus based on the will of the Scottish people to stay in the UK.
I hope with all my heart that she has the wisdom and courage to do so. And I will be the first to congatulate her if she manages it.
My original counterfactual imagined the speech that Nicola Sturgeon might have made to her supporters if she had wished to create a better country in 2014. Here is an updated version.
Friends, colleagues, fellow Nationalists.
This terrible and deadly virus has had a profound effect on the world: on the UK, on SCotland and on each and everyone of us. We are no longer in the world of 2015, or even early 2020. We are all different, and we must all learn to live in this new reality.
I include myself in that: I have learnt a profound and powerful lesson which I hope I can pass on to you. That lesson is that Scotland is better off as a part of the United Kingdom.
I have seen the value of Scotland’s postion in the UK endorsed many times over in the current crisis: the billions of pounds in support for Scottish workers and businesses, the supply of PPE for Scotland’s frontline workers, the work of the Army in building the Glasgow Nightingale Hospital, and its role in running testing faciltiies. These will never be forgotten, above all not by the many, many thousands Scots who have kept their incomes, their jobs, their homes and their lives due to our being part of the United Kingdom.
We have learned the simple human lesson that when we work with each other, the product of our effort is more than the sum of our inputs. And that it is a strength to share and support each other. So it is time to take different path.
I have looked at our country and seen what the referendum in 2014 did to it: the divisions between friends and neighbours, the families split, the growth of a new sectarianism, where the question is no longer “which school did you go to?” but “were you Yes or No?” I have also seen that while there is uncertainty caused by the threat of a further independence bid, investment is falling in our economy, with effects on productivity and in turn on employment.
Therefore I am going to take the following steps.
First, I will convene an all-party group on recovery from the crisis. Its specific remit will be to unite the country and to build a new political consensus based on promoting Scotland’s well-being withiin the UK. That was the task with which we were charged in 2014, and we have failed. I apologise to Scotland for that failure, but as First Minister is is my job to put our failures right. There is no time to be lost in doing so.
Secondly, I will make the first item on the agenda of the group a proposal for a Government of National Unity, proving that goodwill is not the monopoly of any faction or party in this country. And as a token of our goodwill, I will take up the proposal made after 2014 by Johann Lamont to develop a bipartisan policy on National Health Service, taking it out of the political realm so real solutions for the long term can be developed. This will include updating the strategy for a pandemic which I put in place in 2007.
Finally, and I know this will hurt some, I will suspend Article 2a of the SNP constitution for a period of 25 years. This of course commits us to independence. The 25 years of course refers to our own definition of the referendum- [emphasis] OUR OWN definition – as Once In A Generation which we repeated so frequently in our campaign. But please note also that I am not proposing deletion of that clause.
In the meantime, I will be setting up a working group under my deputy’s leadership to set out a fully timetabled and costed strategy to prepare a case for independence for the next generation.
Colleagues, one of the things which I have realised in the wake of our defeat was this: our economic case was not strong enough, our currency plan was an Achilles Heel, and our opponents were right to call us out on the issues which most affect the most needy in society, notably spending on public services – including the NHS – and pensions. We need a radical rethink, we need our own Once In A Generation transformation. We need to get real and never again to offer a proposition to our people which is based on wishful thinking and half-truths.
And I have learned more from my self-reflection in the pandemic.
I have learned that those who opposed us in the referendum did so with just the same love of this country as we did: it is just they saw things in a different way. They want the same good society that we do, and the same freedoms and the same success for our nation, but they saw that they might be better achieved in a continuing union.
And crucially, it turns out, they knew our people better then we did. I know that it is hard to stomach, and I had some problem doing so. But it is a truth we must face.
What is more, I stand before you today having been a member of our party all my adult life. What I tell you is that if I can swallow this bitter medicine, so can you. Our country needs us far more as positive and engaged citizens than it does as a bitter remnant of past battles, forever crying into our our beer, wallowing in the indignation of defeat rather than addressing the challenges of the new reality we face.