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My Lords, vocabulary is inadequate to describe events post the EU referendum. There have been the appalling and repugnant incidents of racism, which we condemn as of one. On an almost daily basis, the political world has presented us with drama, crisis and shock as the body politic has ripped itself to shreds. Much of that has been accompanied by meaningless platitude, vapid generalisation, acerbic rhetoric and behaviour which transcends anything that even the most inventive scriptwriter for a TV soap opera could concoct. Among all this verbal detritus, a bewildered and divided public are looking for a vision, plan, map, compass or anything which might seem to have about it a whiff of direction or a road to travel. In the midst of this chaos, there are some certainties and we need to sift them out.
First, the result: the UK decided to leave the EU. I wanted to remain. I do not like the result, which I profoundly regret, but I absolutely must respect it. Indeed, the most certain way of keeping raw and bleeding the wounds of division across the UK is by not respecting that result. The recrimination, regret and blame are for the past. The future is about the new journey which we have been mandated to embark upon, trying to heal and unite as we travel, moving forward with purpose, focus, energy and hope, about which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke so eloquently and percipiently. The second certainty is that within two years of invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, the UK will leave the EU and the third is that the UK negotiations for that exit can only be led by the UK Government as a member state. Finally, by early September, we shall have a new Prime Minister and a Cabinet ready to lead these negotiations. It seems to me that these are the certainties, but that swirling around them are the tides, eddies, currents and undertows with hidden reefs, which will require consummate skill, astuteness and wisdom to navigate.
On a purely personal level, I observe that I am very sad it will not be David Cameron who leads us through these uncharted depths. I understand why he felt he had to resign and his decision was the correct one, but it makes me no less sad at losing him as Prime Minister. When he became leader in 2005, I had just become leader of the Scottish Conservatives. He was a huge support to me, always available to speak to, always ready with sound advice. He has provided firm and courageous leadership during very difficult and challenging times and I thank him for that tremendous contribution. I will not dwell inordinately on his successor, other than to define what I want, which is someone steadfast in their political views, steadfast with their political colleagues, steeled by experience at the highest levels of government with proven wisdom and good judgment —someone in whom the British public can have confidence. I want someone who is known to and respected by international leaders, including those in the remaining EU countries. I find one person satisfying those criteria and I make no secret of my support—it is Theresa May.
Different contributors to this debate will want to focus on particular aspects and it will surprise no one that I want to talk about Scotland, which voted decisively to remain in the EU, or that Nicola Sturgeon and I interpret that outcome very differently. I voted to remain in the EU, but on the basis that the UK would be the member state. That was the question before me. I read the ballot paper carefully and I do not recall any explanatory note saying, “By the way, if you live in Scotland, your vote to remain will be a Nicola mandate to keep Scotland minus the UK in the EU”. What a completely ludicrous, illogical and flawed proposition. An EU without the UK as a member state is a materially altered and changed EU. Who knows what shape it will take or what shape it will be in? So when Nicola Sturgeon says she has a mandate to try to keep Scotland within the EU, I say, “Just simmer down, you have nothing of the sort”. What she does have is the responsibility, as Scotland’s First Minister, to do all she can to ensure that Scotland’s best interests are at the very heart of the leave negotiations and that involvement can only be as part of the UK negotiations. Now, her Écosse charm offensive—clicking her stilettos around the corridors of Brussels—may assist these negotiations. She is a formidable communicator, but her role and her responsibility is to keep the Scottish dimension at the forefront of the UK negotiations, not to go off on some diplomatic exit frolic of her own.
Many may have doubted how divisive a referendum campaign can be. I have now lived through two doses of corrosive referendum acrimony and what is Nicola Sturgeon’s healing and measured contribution to this crisis? She wants to prepare for another independence referendum. It is a seriously misjudged response. It may reflect the Scottish National Party’s interests; it profoundly disserves Scotland’s national interest. First, 1.6 million votes in Scotland to remain in the EU do not cancel out 2 million votes to stay in the union of the United Kingdom. Secondly, the union she wants to leave accounts for two-thirds of Scotland’s exports; the Union she wants to join accounts for just 15% of them. Thirdly, the fundamental flaws of the separation case remain unaltered and every bit as stark: no central bank, no currency, a worsening budget deficit of £15 billion and business jitters.
My message to Nicola Sturgeon is this: your country’s interests are at stark variance with your party’s interests. Your duty in these turbulent times is to your country. Protect and promote Scotland by being at the heart of the UK leave negotiations. Use your considerable skills and undoubted ability to form and influence these discussions. Use your position to reassure the business community and to engender stability. Above all else, do not wreck that positive platform for progress by reigniting the destructive and divisive process of an independence referendum. We may have made a decision to leave one Union. That decision is precisely why we must strain every sinew to protect and preserve our remaining United Kingdom union.