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Nicola Sturgeon: 'Brexit was a reckoning'

Image credit: David Anderson

Nicola Sturgeon: 'Brexit was a reckoning'

Eleven years ago, when the SNP last gathered in Edinburgh for our spring conference, the party had been in office only a matter of months.

We were still largely untried and untested in the eyes of the Scottish public, who, in the Holyrood election the previous year, had placed their trust in us – but only just.

We had won the election by a single seat over Labour, demonstrating the way in which an informed electorate can carefully calibrate its view of the choices in front of them. People may have wanted an SNP government, but they weren’t yet ready to give us their unqualified support.

It was, in many ways, a very Scottish election result. People wanted to give us a chance, but at the same time, didn’t want to see us getting too big for our boots.

In short, while the electorate had placed their trust in us, it was a conditional trust. We knew we would have to work hard every day to retain that trust and to build on it.

More than a decade on, and it is worth reflecting – and not just in Scottish terms – on that core principle of trust in politics.

The intervening years have seen a global financial crisis, the growth of populism tied to the erosion of many established political certainties, along with the rise of Trump and the emergence of Brexit as the defining political issue of the age for the UK.

Trust in politicians, or lack of it, has been at the core of all of these issues.

And trust is something that we, as a party and a government, have continued to strive to earn and re-earn over those years.

In the time since that last Edinburgh conference for the SNP, we have gone on to win another two Holyrood elections, two Westminster elections, two European elections and are now firmly established as the strongest party in local government across the country.

All of those victories have been founded on trust, and the understanding we have reached with the people of Scotland that we will always be guided by what is in the country’s best interests.

That has been our guiding principle in the almost three years since the result of the EU referendum.

The fiasco that Brexit has become also goes to the heart of the issue of trust in politicians because voters will not easily forgive – nor should they – those politicians and parties who, like the Leave campaign in 2016, played fast and loose with the truth. 

Brexit was a reckoning. It followed decades of scaremongering and scapegoating of the EU by those in the UK who needed an easy target or bogeyman. With the cumulative weight of decades of anti-EU propaganda, combined with eroding trust in politicians as a whole, it perhaps shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise that so many people voted to leave.

The result in Scotland of course was very different – an overwhelming and decisive vote to remain in the European family of nations, and a vote which has been scandalously ignored at every turn by the Tory government in the three years since.

But while Brexit itself may have been a long time in the making, the Conservatives now face a reckoning of their own.

It remains to be seen whether people in Scotland and the rest of the UK will get the chance to cast their votes in the European Parliament elections next month, as a result of the latest Brexit extension, but that is my hope and expectation.

If and when they do, it deserves to be a devastating verdict for a Conservative party which has put its own narrow political and personal calculations and interests ahead of the national interest at every possible stage.

For that they deserve to forfeit any trust which may still be held in them. That includes the Scottish Tories, who have disgracefully gone along with whatever Brexit orders are handed down from whichever faction of the Conservative party they are loyal to – instead of standing up for Scotland and representing their constituents’ strong vote to remain in Europe.

The longer extension now granted by Brussels means there is now a real chance of stopping Brexit altogether. It gives time for a fresh referendum to be held, with the issue being put back to the people.

It remains to be seen exactly where things will settle when the Brexit process resolves itself one way or another in the weeks and months to come. But the choice ahead for Scotland is, in my view, very clear. We must have the opportunity as a nation to look again at how we wish to be governed, with people having the chance to choose to be an independent country.

The case for independence has been immeasurably strengthened by the shambles of Brexit and the complete and utter dysfunction of the UK state. Westminster clearly isn’t working for Scotland anymore, if it ever did.

The Tories know and understand that better than they let on – their shrill reaction to the whole issue of independence betrays their fear. The truth is they are running scared of the verdict of the people of Scotland.

But it is the people who, ultimately, must be trusted to have the final say on our country’s future. 

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