Relying on self-serving platitudes won’t strengthen the Union

Relying on self-serving platitudes won’t strengthen the Union

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 24, February, 2020

HELD IN NEWCASTLE, the ‘These Islands’ event was meant to highlight there is more that unites the people of the United Kingdom than divides them. Unfortunately despite the dedication shown by businessman and blogger Kevin Hague in putting together such a large-scale gathering on 21-22 February, it fell short of doing that.

The choice of speaking topics meant that questions that mattered to a lot of ordinary people – the responsiveness of decision-makers to matters most directly affecting them, ranging from economic conditions, the quality of public services, the reliability of the justice system, the efficiency of the police, and the overall accountability of rulers – barely surfaced

Instead, the event often seemed like a festival for politicians and corporate interests who saw tinkering with constitutional forms as a never-ending pursuit. Newcastle-upon-Tyne is the main city in the English North-East where eight new Conservative MPS were elected for mainly working-class seats, none of whom have obvious regard for territorial politics. If any of them had been invited, they were conspicuous by their absence.

Likewise, until a few weeks ago one of the region’s MEPs had been Brian Monteith, a Scot who had helped secure the biggest swing to the Brexit Party (BXP) seen anywhere in Britain. He told me he was puzzled he had not heard about it until it was too late to attend, especially since he had also previously served two terms in the Scottish Parliament. 

It was former Prime Minister Gordon Brown who kicked off the event. He framed what he saw as national and regional agitation in different parts of the UK in economic terms. As a national group the Scots had the possibility of embracing full separation while in different parts of England, similar frustrations about being overlooked or exploited, had resulted in large-scale protests votes. Scotland and the English North were forgotten and had been the victims of class politics pursued from an unresponsive centre.  But never mentioned was the fact that Brown had been an unapologetic centraliser except where Scotland and Wales were concerned.  It had taken the arrival of a Conservative government in 2010 before northern cities like Manchester were able to acquire tangible measures of devolution (through the Northern Powerhouse).

He was less scathing about his eternal foe the Conservatives than he had been in 2019 when he portrayed the rise of Boris Johnson as portending the end of the Union. Johnson was now at fault for ‘offering cosmetic changes to the devolved administrations.’ He and his party remained the chief dangers to the Union because they had not divested themselves of their role as arch-centralisers.  The SNP, in their turn, were irresponsible and reckless – suggesting therefore an equivalence between the two.

There was now a British Nationalist in Downing St as Blair McDougall, a Labour veteran of devolution wars, remarked later the same day. Meanwhile, the separatist running Scotland were willing to impose a hard border if that was the price of freedom.

Disregarded by Brown and by nearly everyone else at the conference was the voting choices of millions of English people in cities, towns and smaller communities beyond London. Massive endorsement had been given to the BXP in the European elections. Six months later, in England the Conservatives emerged as the largest party representing working-class voters. As someone in the twittersphere sagely remarked:

@TedDitchburnNNP·

N Eng basically decided to put away the whole idea of existential division between 'Thatcher's Tories' & 'the rest' & move on into the new century. Here the SNP toil to keep the divisions alive; fearful folk wld then have only the empty void of their *case* for inde to judge them on

In a long prolix address Brown did offer one concrete proposal. That was setting up Neighbourhood associations in Scotland from this spring to try and re-establish common ground in Scotland between people from different political backgrounds or none.

Unless the initiative is handled well, I fear that it will be hard for the groups to avoid becoming anti-Tory conventicles.  Brown was visibly uncomfortable when the journalist Alex Massie asked him whether he had any regrets about legitimising visceral rhetoric against the Tories in the past which the SNP eventually turned on his own party. He declined to be drawn and resumed his flowery rhetoric.

Neither he nor any other speaker I heard bothered to describe the condition of Scotland under the SNP – the incompetence, arrogance, chicanery and centralising mania.

Rivalry with the SNP is tersely acknowledged but what Labour and the SNP agree upon is never conceded. Arguably, the common ground is much firmer than the solidarity between lower-income voters in Scotland and much of the rest of the UK that was alluded to.  SNP voters remain hooked on identity politics while in England and Wales there is a hunger for representation that improves the condition of life for everyday folk in practical terms. Identity politics has made strides among middle-class voters strongly in favour of remaining in the EU in Scotland perhaps more than anywhere else in the UK. (Reaching out to such voters was one of the conference’s chief preoccupations.)

Both Labour and the SNP reflect the obsession of the political class in creating multi-layered governance that invariably provides endless opportunities for career politicians. They quarrel over who should obtain the lion’s share of the pie.

But essentially both these rivals share a similar world view. They represent any defence of the UK national interest as British nationalism (except when it comes to redistributing resources). They only differ on whether Britain should be broken up completely or else become a state where the centre enjoys very little sway.

Henry Hill, one of the few Conservative Unionists present, asked Brown to reflect on whether twenty years of devolution had been a mistake. He declined and said that he had probably underestimated the degree of radical constitutional change required.

An examination of devolution as practised in his native Scotland would have shown it to be a triumph of the political class with lawyers, full-time politicians, family dynasties, and Third sector elements enjoying sway. Meanwhile, popular dismay about the performance of the vast swathes of public policy controlled by the devolved state has become increasingly obvious.

Brown and his allies blame the failure of devolution on the centre, on a privileged London husbanding resources. Their answer, as the Edinburgh financial fund manager Paul Jourdan acknowledged, is to rearrange the deckchairs, demanding yet more power and resources.

Brown’s ally, Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester spoke after him and warned that the Union would not survive another decade unless there was far-reaching devolution. His call for a Council of the North was echoed by Brown but beyond a small army of rent-seeking politicians who would enjoy a permanent income stream from politics few want this creation, and fewer know or care what it would do.

Various figures, from Scottish Liberal MSP Willie Rennie to academic Colin Kidd and the pro-Union campaigner Pamela Nash, each argued that Unionists needed to be more sensitive to people who had gone over to political nationalism. (Nash, the head of Scotland in Union, said that campaigners should re-asses the use of the world ‘Unionist’ because it put off Irish heritage Scots). At the conference, nobody was prepared to say that there was a far more pressing need for Unionists to spell out what they would not concede and how they would take steps to defend the Union against any kind of unconstitutional assault.

Kevin Hague offered the useful insight that ‘You can’t reason people out of a position that they haven’t reasoned themselves into.’ The fact is that too many people at the ‘These Islands’ event saw pursuing identity politics as the only worthwhile direction of travel. It has been tried through the eras of Blair, Brown and Cameron not only in terms of territory but in relation to personal, religious and group identity.

Britain is arguably diminished as a result and it is perhaps only the patience and moderation of the English majority that has saved the day and prevented worse outcomes. But the good sense of the English was something few were ready to acknowledge at this absorbing but ultimately unrewarding event.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016.

His twitter account is @cultfree54

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