By Iain Martin
8 August 2019
This has not been a good few days for the Union. In Scotland this week almost every person I talked to who wants to remain part of the United Kingdom was worried or fatalistic about the situation. They look at London and see Boris Johnson pledged to make Brexit happen “do or die” and wonder whether in the aftermath it will be the partnership between Scotland and England that ends up being killed.
I am less pessimistic than my friends about the prospects. The Union can be reformed and revivified and, with a little luck, saved. But if it is to be rescued there is no use in pretending that the threat is anything other than extremely serious.
Polling published this week, conducted by Lord Ashcroft, showed the tide of opinion among Scottish voters moving again in the direction of separation, recording the first lead for independence in two years.
Naturally, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, hailed the “phenomenal” poll and said that because of Brexit the Westminster government should not stand in the way of a second independence referendum. At which point, enter the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. With perfect comic timing, from the SNP’s perspective, McDonnell visited the Edinburgh Festival this week and gave interviews in which he said that the Labour leadership at Westminster would give the Nationalists their new referendum. The Corbynites are also flirting with doing a deal with the SNP in the Commons. This sell-out violates a core Scottish Labour policy, that it is supposed to be anti-Nationalist. What are Scottish Labour voters who support the Union supposed to do now?
Nationalists, unable to believe their luck, had only to stand back and laugh as the farce unfolded. But the most ominous news for unionists lay in what voters told Ashcroft they expected the outcome of another independence referendum to be. Only 30 per cent said they thought that Scotland would vote to stay in the United Kingdom. That grim forecast suggests that the Union side may have difficulty rallying defeatist supporters if another vote on independence takes place. Why fight for something that looks lost?
The answer is that the relationship, more than three centuries old, continues to be one of the most successful and close-knit partnerships going. In 2017 Scotland’s exports to the rest of the UK totalled £49.8 billion, compared with £14.9 billion to the EU. It’s about much more than trade, though. The cultural bond is strong and, for all the rivalry, we are family.
Unionists should be more upbeat about the chances, considering the potential weakness of the Nationalist side. The record of the administration that Sturgeon runs is almost parodically dire. Away from the Edinburgh Festival the main story in Scotland’s capital city is the scandal of a new children’s hospital, “the Sick Kids”, that cannot open because of flaws in the building. The SNP’s health minister is beleaguered. After 12 years in power the party’s list of achievements and successful reforms on health, local government and education is so short it would fit comfortably in extra-large lettering on a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer wrapper.
The independence-obsessed Nationalists have a leadership problem too. While they revel in portraying the new prime minister as a gift from the gods, a Latin-quoting Wodehousian caricature of an English Tory on the make, Sturgeon herself is a deeply divisive figure.
Further complicating the SNP’s pitch, the party’s former leader Alex Salmond goes on trial next year charged with attempted rape and sexual assault. Sturgeon may not survive the fallout. A split party, divided between Sturgeonites and Salmond supporters, is heading for internal warfare at the point when it needs to be united to make the case for independence.
So, the end of the Union should not be seen as somehow preordained. But if the Conservatives, the largest opposition party at Holyrood, are going to block the SNP from getting an overall majority at the election in 2021, opening the way to the referendum the SNP wants, the Tories need a plan. Whatever disagreements there are between Johnson and the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, the pair urgently need to find a way of working together. Johnson and Davidson uniting for a bigger cause could be a surprisingly potent electoral force, whatever the Nationalists say.
A messy Brexit complicates matters, of course, but the Scottish Tories must realise that an epic constitutional crisis is coming, in which they have no option other than to say that the deeper Union trumps the European Union. The SNP offer after Brexit will be tougher to sell too, because it necessitates complex negotiations with the EU to get Scotland back in while it still shares a currency with England.
If the Brexit crisis does tip into a general election this autumn, the Tories should make two clear pledges on the Union. First, that they will not allow an independence referendum for five years, while Brexit plays out, thus making themselves guarantors of the Union and the secure home for anti-Nationalists when Labour is a lost cause.
Second, they should be much bolder on wider constitutional reform. A commission is needed that will recommend devolving maximum powers across Britain — on taxation, for example — and consider turning the UK into something closer to a federal collection of states, pooling defence and foreign affairs.
England needs devolution. It’s time, post-Brexit, for a new UK. Put it all on the table, including an elected replacement for the Lords in the shape of a Britain-wide senate. In this way the Union can be updated and saved. But to do it the Tories will have to be bold.
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