Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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The priority for Scotland must be on Covid recovery – not another referendum

4 min read

Once again, it was only the Scottish Conservatives who could be trusted to stand foursquare for Scotland’s place within the UK.

The results of the Scottish election on 6th May were known weeks before polling day.  At least that is what you would have thought judging by much of the media commentary and professional punditry over the course of the campaign. 

The SNP was going to secure a majority and with it a mandate for another independence referendum.  That was a virtual certainty.  The Scottish Conservatives would go backwards – perhaps significantly so – and fail to repeat their fluke success of 2016.  And Scottish Labour, now under new management, would be restored to their rightful place as the second party in Scotland.  That was the script which had been written - but then the voters had their say.

Having spent much of the campaign on the streets of my own constituency – in a socially distanced manner, naturally – it seemed clear that many of the assumptions being made simply did not match up with the reality on the ground.

The Scottish Labour Party failed to read the room

Yes, of course, the key issues for most of the public were the continuing need to bear down on the coronavirus and thereafter to focus on rebuilding Scotland’s economy after its ravages.  And everyone agreed with the need to help children absent from the classroom for the better part of a year to catch up with their education.  And there was a consensus on the need to give further support to our NHS and care services, which have performed so heroically over the course of the pandemic.

But however much agreement could be found between parties and across the public on these issues and many others beside, as ever in Scotland the fundamental debate came down to that of Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom and the demands of SNP for another referendum on Scottish independence.

And, once again, the Scottish Labour Party failed to read the room.

The reality is that no matter how much we all want to move on from the fractiousness of constitutional debate, wishing won’t make it so.  The Nationalists have one singular goal and that is to bend every issue and circumstance towards the arc of independence. You can’t compromise with that sort of single-mindedness, you have to confront it and defeat it.

Once again, it was only the Scottish Conservatives who demonstrated that they could truly be trusted to stand foursquare for Scotland’s place within the UK and against the referendum they are bent on securing.  And once again those voters who simply want to put the divisions of the 2014 referendum behind us, but who know that can only be achieved by standing up to the SNP, recognised that a vote for the Scottish Conservatives was the best – indeed only credible – means of doing so.

So what now?  We have a Scottish Parliament with a majority, if not for the SNP, then of pro-independence MSPs, but with a majority of voters of Scotland having backed parties opposed to another referendum.

In these circumstances, what is the way forward?  There can only be one, and it is as set out in the letter sent by the Prime Minister on Saturday inviting the leaders of the devolved nations to a summit on how "Team UK" can recover from the pandemic.  The only way forward - to address the need to rebuild from the coronavirus - is through greater not less cooperation across the United Kingdom, and for any thought of another independence referendum to be pushed firmly to the back of everyone’s minds.

Out of the mixed results and conflicting messages of this election, one theme was clear.  The priority for the foreseeable future must be on recovery and not another referendum.  It’s what the public were promised, it’s what they voted for and it is what must be delivered.


David Mundell is the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

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