A weak Unionist response has facilitated Scottish nationalism. With the May Holyrood elections fast-approaching, Unionist parties must tackle SNP calls for a second independence referendum head on – and use SNP divisions to their advantage, argues John Baron MP.

May's elections to Holyrood, and the high stakes riding on the outcome, have put a fresh focus on Scotland. Current polling suggests the SNP are on course either to continue as a minority administration or to win an outright majority, even after the recent controversies. The SNP have already announced that they will interpret either result as a mandate for a second independence referendum, even if the Parliament at Westminster refuses its consent.

For too long London has largely stood apart from Scottish affairs for fear of being seen to be meddling. The time has come for Unionists across the UK to step up to the plate and make a muscular case for the United Kingdom by pointing out the very many positive reasons we should stick together – which many across the UK take for granted.

As a proud unionist, and one married to a Scot, I declare an interest. Yet as something which has the potential to fundamentally change our country – not least by removing about a third of its landmass and over five million of its citizens – we should all take a strong interest. Indeed, had the rest of the UK taken a stronger interest in the years since 2014, we might not have found ourselves in this situation.

In 2014 the separatists had the wind at their back: they chose the timing of the vote, and ensured they got the 'easier' question – 'yes' being more positive than 'no'. Despite these advantages, and a London political class who did not sit up and take notice until one rogue poll late in the day, the electorate returned a comfortable 'nae thanks' to independence.

The Prime Minister is quite right to remind the SNP that they themselves referred to the vote as a 'once in a generation' event – now or never. A mere seven years later does not cut it as 'once in a generation', and it introduces a fundamental and unfair imbalance if the unionist side has to keep on winning referendums to maintain the status quo, but the separatists only have to be lucky once before achieving their goal.

In any case, contemplating a referendum in the present circumstances is extraordinary – some in the SNP are calling for a second vote by Christmas. At a time when the locked-down county is engaged in an all-consuming struggle to battle the coronavirus, including by running the largest vaccination programme in our history, a fresh bout of constitutional upheaval is surely not a priority. There are also better uses for the nearly £16 million the 2014 vote cost and reopening rancorous divisions at this time of national crisis, when we all need to pull together, will serve no helpful purposes.

Though the separatists always push the narrative that independence is only a Scottish affair, for only people in Scotland to consider, the British Government should respond more robustly by pointing out that the Parliament and Government of the United Kingdom has the right to take a full interest in its own future. There can be few more important concerns for any government to contemplate than its own political and territorial integrity, and the British Government and other unionist parties should stop playing the bystanders in the independence debate and put their shoulders to the wheel.

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Unionists must start by being unafraid to make a more powerful and muscular case for the union. These muscles have atrophied over the last decades, as Scotland has slowly drifted apart from the rest of the United Kingdom. This is readily appreciated by looking at the media, where most major newspapers have Scottish editions and there are also separate Scottish TV channels – including BBC Scotland and BBC Alba – which contribute to an unhelpful sense that Scotland is already at one stage removed from the rest of the UK. Discrimination in the Scottish higher education system, whereby SNP policy ensures British students from outside Scotland have to pay full student fees – despite EU students benefitting from the same deal as Scottish students – have also contributed to this. Years of SNP dominance and aggressive support for independence have cowed unionists in Scottish civil society, especially in the arts and cultural sectors, and this should also be addressed.

In making the case for the union, campaigners must not repeat the mistake of the 'Remain' campaign, and to an extent that of the last independence campaign and focus overly on the economic case against leaving the UK. These are powerful arguments, but merely frightening people into voting to remain in the UK is not a productive way forward.

More positive reasons, instead focusing on our emotional, cultural and social links across the United Kingdom, need to be stressed, valued and promoted. That the SNP is alive to the challenge these pose to their cause is shown by their ministers and officials taking care never to refer to the 'Oxford vaccine' or the 'British Army', even as they combine to protect tens of thousands of lives across Scotland and the UK. Unionists should also make a point of not falling for and adopting the SNP's divisive terminology. For example, is there such a thing as the 'People of Scotland', a nation apart from the rest of us, rather than people in Scotland?

As part of this growing unionist confidence, the Government is quite right to consider using the newly-repatriated powers in the Internal Market Act to fund projects directly all across the UK. Local authorities in Scotland (or Wales, or Northern Ireland) should be able to put bids directly into the Treasury for funding for their local priorities, and we should not be coy about informing voters in Scotland as to where the money is coming from. From time to time that does include putting a union flag on it – the EU has been doing this for many years, to some effect.

Perhaps more than anything, the unionist movement needs to press the SNP Government on its record, which is frequently weak despite their claims to the contrary. After 14 years in office the SNP is beginning to look tired and is falling short on its own terms.

In 2016 the SNP promised to close the gap in educational attainment, but the Scottish Government's own agency reports that this has not happened. Scotland's maths and science ranking have fallen to record lows in the international PISA rankings, and the publication of the OECD's recent assessment of Scotland's education system is being held back until after the election; it is easy to speculate why.

On the economic side, the SNP have presided over the lowest rate of job creation in the UK. If Scotland had matched the UK-wide growth rate since 2007, when the SNP took office, there could have been an additional 261,000 jobs in Scotland's economy by the end of 2019. In addition, by opposing the Internal Market Act the SNP voted to put over half a million Scottish jobs at risk by failing to ensure free trade within the UK's internal market.

On law and justice, the SNP's police merger to create Police Scotland means that most areas of Scotland now have fewer officers on the frontline. Violent crime in Scotland has also been rising for the last five years, with an 18% rise in homicides over the last year, whilst the SNP has pursued illiberal and chilling policies such as its Hate Crime Bill and the Named Person scheme.

There is growing evidence that the tawdry spectacle of the recent weeks, during which the bitter civil war between the Sturgeonites and Salmondites has burst onto the national (and international) stage, is biting into the SNP's previously unassailable polling lead. It is not a done deal that supporters of independence will command a majority in May's elections, and there is truly all to play for. The starting pistol on the Holyrood campaign has been fired, and unionist parties should set out their stalls with confidence.

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