May Says 'No Economic Case For Breaking Up UK' Amid Pledge Over Union

3 March 2017, 11:50 | Updated: 3 March 2017, 11:51

Prime Minister Theresa May Scottish Conservative C

Theresa May has promised to put the preservation of the Union at the heart of Government policy as she set out her personal case for keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom.

In a speech to the Scottish Conservative conference in Glasgow delivered against the backdrop of renewed speculation about an independence referendum, the Prime Minister accused the SNP administration at Holyrood of selling Scotland short with a "tunnel-vision nationalism which focuses only on independence at any cost''.

Declaring that there was "no economic case for breaking up the United Kingdom'', Mrs May said she would ensure that more powers would be devolved to Scotland as a result of Brexit - though she stopped short of meeting demands for the Scottish Parliament to take over full authority of areas such as agriculture and fisheries currently dealt with in Brussels.

And she vowed to "explicitly look to the interests of the Union'' in all policy areas handled from London and to "collaborate and work together'' with devolved administrations to improve outcomes in issues for which they have responsibility.

Addressing the Scottish conference for the first time as PM, Mrs May said she wanted to make clear that "strengthening and sustaining the bonds that unite us is a personal priority for me''.

In contrast, she accused Nicola Sturgeon's SNP administration of treating politics "as if it were a game'', and pursuing policies "not in the best interests of Scotland but in the political interests of the SNP''.

In a savage onslaught on the Scottish government, she accused the SNP of "neglect and mismanagement'' of education, "abysmal failure'' on farm payments, "starving the health service'' and replacing stamp duty with a tax which cost homebuyers more but brought in less revenue than expected.

"Politics is not a game and government is not a platform from which to pursue constitutional obsessions,'' she said.

"It is about taking the serious decisions to improve people's lives. A tunnel-vision nationalism, which focuses only on independence at any cost, sells Scotland short.''

Mrs May said that both Scotland and the rest of the UK have benefited from and depend upon "the fundamental unity of the British people which underwrites our whole existence as a United Kingdom''.

And she won a standing ovation as she declared: "We should never forget that the people who benefit the most from solidarity across the United Kingdom are not the strong and the successful, but the poorest and the most vulnerable in our society.

"We are four nations, but at heart we are one people.

"That solidarity is the essence of our United Kingdom and is the surest safeguard of its future.

"Let us live up to that high ideal and let us never stop making loudly and clearly the positive, optimistic and passionate case for our precious union of nations and people.''

Mrs May said she was determined to achieve a Brexit deal which "works for all parts of the UK - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - and for the United Kingdom as a whole''.

And she said that as powers were repatriated from Brussels, she will ensure that "no decisions currently taken by the Scottish Parliament will be removed from them'' and "more decisions are devolved back into the hands of the Scottish people''.

On the possibility of powers being transferred from Brussels to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in areas like agriculture, fisheries and the environment, she said she wanted to ensure that "the right powers sit at the right level to ensure our United Kingdom can operate effectively''.

"Our aim will be to achieve the most effective arrangements to maintain and strengthen the United Kingdom, while also respecting the devolution settlements, and we will work constructively with the devolved administrations on that basis,'' she said.

Mrs May said there was "no doubt'' about her party's commitment to devolution, which stood in clear contrast to the EU's efforts to centralise ever more powers in Brussels.

But she added: "The devolution of powers across the United Kingdom must not mean we become a looser and weaker union. We cannot allow our United Kingdom to drift apart.

"For too long the attitude in Whitehall has been to 'devolve and forget'.

"But as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I am just as concerned that young people in Dundee get a good start in life and receive the education they need to reach their full potential as I am about young people in Doncaster and Dartford.

"I care as much about the dignity and security of older people on both sides of the River Tweed or the Irish Sea.''

Promising a new "collective responsibility across the United Kingdom'', she said: "In those reserved policy areas where we govern directly for the whole United Kingdom, we will explicitly look to the interests of the Union - both the parts and the whole - in our policy-making.

"And in policy areas where responsibilities are devolved, we will look for ways to collaborate and work together with the devolved administrations to improve the outcomes for everyone.''

The Prime Minister pointedly noted the support the Scottish oil and gas industry had received from the UK Government following the collapse in oil prices, as well as the Treasury's rescue of troubled Scottish banks in the financial crisis.

And she said the Government was making "a major investment in the future of the West of Scotland'' by making the Clyde nuclear base home for all the Royal Navy's submarines and providing "a great future'' for Scotland's shipyards with the construction on naval frigates.

Highlighting the Conservative case that the experience of falling oil prices has demolished the SNP's economic argument for independence in the 2014 referendum, Mrs May said: "Public spending here in Scotland has been protected, even as North Sea tax receipts have dwindled to nothing.

"Time and again the benefits of the Union - of doing together, collectively, what would be impossible to do apart - are clear.

"Indeed the economic case for the Union has never been stronger. There is no economic case for breaking up the United Kingdom, or of loosening the ties which bind us together.''