Lack of concern for Scotland among London-based English politicians presents dangers
By Tony Barber
27 June 2019
In her 1993 memoirs, The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher wrote that Scots “have an undoubted right to self-determination . . . Should they determine on independence, no English party or politician would stand in their way”.
Respecting Scotland’s right to decide whether to stay in the UK is one thing. Thoughtless political gambles that threaten the UK’s break-up are quite another.
The most startling aspect of the ruling Conservative party’s leadership contest is the almost total absence of serious discussion about the dangers posed by Brexit to the UK’s territorial unity and constitutional order.
However, matters are no better in the opposition Labour party. Mired in internal power struggles, the party is in the grip of a leftwing leadership for whom the UK’s preservation is a lesser priority than root-and-branch demolition of the capitalist system.
Each in their own careless fashion, Conservatives and Labour are confirming the insight of Michael Keating, politics professor at Aberdeen university, who says that “most multinational unions collapse at the centre, not the periphery”.
Just as Russian and Serbian policies accelerated the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, so the lack of concern for Scotland’s interests among London-based English politicians presents dangers for the UK’s future.
“I believe the union is today more at risk than at any time in 300 years,” says Gordon Brown, the former Labour premier, referring to the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707.
Mr Brown’s first concern is the Tory contest that has narrowed to a choice between Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, his successor.
From the start, this contest focused on extreme definitions of Brexit, crafted to satisfy rank-and-file Conservative party members. Such an approach alienates most Scots, who voted heavily in 2016 to remain in the EU.
Moreover, few Scots are unaware of Mr Johnson’s opinions about Scotland, a calculated blend of jaundice and frivolity. The frontrunner in the race to succeed Theresa May as the UK’s next prime minister, Mr Johnson has encouraged English voters for many years to believe that Scotland receives “unfair” financial subsidies from England, is over-represented at Westminster and has too much autonomy.
The second development that alarms Mr Brown is the decline in support for a soft divorce from England in the pro-independence Scottish National party.
At the time of Scotland’s 2014 referendum on independence, rejected by 55 per cent of voters, the SNP advocated staying in a monetary union with England.
Now the SNP, Scotland’s hegemonic party, backs the creation of a separate Scottish currency after independence. In Mr Brown’s view, this might pave the way to Scotland’s exit from the UK single market and customs union.
The SNP’s harder line reflects frustration with the Conservatives in London. When Mrs May became premier after the 2016 referendum, she promised Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, that the UK government would pursue a path out of the EU that took account of Scottish interests. Scotland’s government contends that Mrs May betrayed that promise when she settled on a Brexit plan that involved leaving the EU’s single market and customs union.
For sure, there is no automatic correlation between pro-independence and anti-Brexit sentiment in Scotland. Some Scots who voted for separation in 2014 also voted for Brexit in 2016.
But the harder the form that Brexit takes, the greater the risk of extreme political and constitutional instability in the UK.
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