First Minister speaks at Council on Foreign Relations
Nicola Sturgeon addresses think tank in Washington.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:
Its a pleasure to be here in the United States, in Washington DC and of course here in this well respected organisation.
One of the things I’ve often been reminded of since I arrived, is the fact that the very bonds between Scotland and the USA go back centuries.
They run from the discussion and debate between enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Benjamin Franklin; to the modern exchange of university graduates and the connections between our technology companies. Our relationship is cultural, social, historic and economic. We value those things very highly. And from what I’ve seen on my visit, I’m sure that those ties will continue and strengthen for generations to come.
So it’s a pleasure to be here at the Council on Foreign Relations – an organization which for more than 90 years has contributed to that exchange of ideas between the USA and the wider world.
And I’m especially pleased to be speaking at this particular time. I’m very aware that there is a strong interest here in recent political developments, not just in Scotland but in UK as a whole - and in the implications of those developments for Europe and the wider international community.
Before we begin our discussion, therefore, I want to briefly provide my thoughts on where the UK and Scotland stand now.
And in doing that, I’ll talk about two referendums and one election. I shall look back at the referendum on Scottish independence last year, and the UK General Election last month; and I’ll also look forward - to the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, which will take place sometime before the end of 2017 – although the exact time is yet to be determined.
Now, as you’ll probably all be aware, the first referendum - on Scottish independence in September –didn’t exactly turn out as I would have wanted! But while it may not have transformed Scotland's constitutional position, it did undoubtedly transform Scottish and had a transformational effect on UK politics as well.
Firstly it made Scotland one of the most politically engaged countries in the world. Nearly everyone became involved in a peaceful and passionate debate about the kind of country they wanted to live in. That has had lasting consequences.
For example in the UK General Election last month, turnout in Scotland was 5 percentage points higher than in the rest of the UK. Many people, who maybe hadn’t previously been interested in politics, understand that their vote and their voice really matter – they feel involved in decision-making in a way which hasn’t happened before.
And so regardless of the result, the referendum itself has been good for Scotland – we are more energised, informed and empowered than we have ever been before.
The result from that referendum also provided part of the context for last month’s UK General Election.
To the casual observer the UK election produced a very clear result, with the election of a majority Conservative government, and saw David Cameron remaining as Prime Minister.
But when you look in more detail, something striking and more complex emerges – in many ways there were four different elections last month in the different nations of the UK. Those elections had very different results and those results have significant implications for the UK and how its governed as a country.
The Scottish National Party won 56 seats out of the 59 in Scotland; Labour were clearly the biggest party in Wales; the Conservatives gained 60% of the seats in England; and Northern Ireland has always had a different system of party politics.
Shortly before the election I raised the question of what is an electoral mandate in the UK when the four nations are pulling in different directions. In practical terms simply winning enough votes and seats in England, can secure a Parliamentary majority. But when a government is achieved only by winning seats in one of the four nations of the UK - what kind of mandate is that?
The Conservative Party has the right to form the Government of the UK. But it was not the biggest party in three of the four nations of the UK – far from it - and so the legitimacy of its actions in those other nations comes very clearly into focus.
And so as I discussed with the Prime Minister when he came to see me after the election - what happens to the future of the UK in the years ahead will depend on how responsibly Westminster deals with that reality.
I'm not planning to refight the independence referendum on the immediate horizon - but if the UK is to remain intact it must adapt to multinational and multi-party politics in a far more substantial manner.
Here in the USA, you’re used to the idea of 50 different state governments making very different choices about very significant issues. But that’s not something the UK governments are used to – for much of the last century, it’s been a remarkably centralised state. And it’s now increasingly clear that for the UK as a whole, one size doesn’t fit all. And a one size fits all approach will not fit the bill for the future.
The distinct political identities which seem to be emerging in different parts of the UK, are also relevant to the third vote I want to talk about – the coming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
It’s also a matter of considerable interest here in the US too.
What I find odd about this referendum is that the Prime Minister says that he wants to stay in Europe; both of the biggest UK parties want to stay in Europe; there’s overwhelming support – or so it seems - for the EU in the Westminster parliament; and yet David Cameron has us standing perilously to the exit door to appease members of his own party. Many of them will not be happy with any renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership, and will campaign for an “out” vote regardless.
The UK Government’s approach seems especially odd in Scotland. In last month’s general election, across the whole of the UK, parties which want to leave the European Union got more than 12% of the popular vote. In Scotland, the figure was less than 2%. Only this week, an opinion poll of Scottish voters has shown that 72 per cent would vote to remain in the EU, with only 28 per cent saying they would vote to leave.
This is not surprising given the economic significance of EU membership. In Scotland alone, 30,000 jobs relay on exports to the EU.
So a referendum simply isn’t a priority for most people in Scotland. But it is possible – depending on how the result goes across the UK – that Scotland could be forced out of the EU against our will.
That’s why the European question is in some ways directly linked to the question of how the UK is governed.
One of the things that Scotland was consistently told, in the two years leading up to the independence referendum, is that we are a valued and equal partner in a UK family of nations. And so surely it shouldn’t be possible for Scotland’s voice to be overruled in an EU referendum.
That is why the Scottish Government is arguing for a “double majority” provision in that referendum – where the UK can only leave the EU, if each nation of the UK votes to leave. That sort of territorial requirement is used in federal countries such as Canada or Australia. It’s time to apply it to the UK - which is a multinational state – to give meaning to the views that the UK is a family of nations.
I said last week, in a speech to the European Policy Centre in Brussels, that if Scotland were taken out of the EU against our will, the groundswell of opinion in Scotland could produce a clamour for another independence referendum which may well be unstoppable.
The UK Government can remove that possibility at a stroke by agreeing to the 'double majority' provision. The referendum legislation should demonstrate what we have so often been told – that the UK Government sees the UK as a family of nations.
It’s clear from what I’ve said that these are momentous and exciting times for Scotland and indeed for the UK as a whole. That brings challenges – of course – but it also brings considerable opportunities.
The coming months and years give us a chance to secure greater powers for Scotland - allowing us to build a powerhouse economy and ensure a more equal society; they provide an opportunity to secure better governance across the whole of the UK; and they will see a vote that I hope will reaffirm the place of Scotland and the UK within the European Union.
All of those outcomes are possible, but none of them are guaranteed. They require positive argument and constructive negotiation from political leaders across the UK.
I’m determined that the Scottish Government will take the lead in making those arguments and contributing to those negotiations. Because if we achieve those three objectives, it will be good for Scotland and indeed for every nation of the UK; it will secure our place in Europe and the wider world. By doing that will help us to strengthen our friendships and alliances - both here in the heart of Washington, and right across the world.