We must make the union feel real, not a political abstraction

We must make the union feel real, not a political abstraction

by Linda Holt
article from Wednesday 7, October, 2020

DOUGLAS ROSS made his first speech as Scottish Tory leader at a Conservative Party Conference on Saturday. It was a belter – though not because it criticised the SNP. Instead, Ross eviscerated his own party.

“The case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh”, he said, adding: “defeatism and disinterest towards the future of the Union is rife”.

He went on: “Too many treat Scottish independence as a question of when, not if. Many, including some who govern our country, want to see a UK Government focused on England. We pretend these are the views of only a small minority, but I hear them far too often.”

I could barely believe my ears. “Despite bold promises, the Union too often becomes an afterthought. In successive governments, it is given warm words and lip service but sadly too often there is little action.”

Evidently Douglas Ross is an avid reader of Think Scotland, because in August I wrote:

“Scotland has long been an afterthought for many at Westminster, regardless of party – if it has been thought about at all. Too often that afterthought has been a reflexive panic at the prospect of a nationalist victory, based on poor advice, and not followed through.”

Of course, I’m flattering myself: Scotland’s status as a mere afterthought for UK governments and parties is a widely-held view across the political spectrum in Scotland. I don’t think I know anyone who disagrees with it, but although Scottish Tories may acknowledge it sotto voce amongst themselves, it is another thing entirely for their leader to use the most prominent and public of forums to throw it in the faces of his boss and ministerial colleagues at Westminster. 

The reason for Ross’s speech is plain. Private pleadings clearly haven’t worked, and I’m sure there have been plenty of them over the years. A Holyrood election moves ominously closer by the day. As Nicola Sturgeon signals she will use electoral victory to obtain a democratic mandate for a second independence referendum, panic has set in among Scottish Tories about No. 10’s insouciance. A little-reported part of Ross’s speech made no bones about this:

“I frankly find it insulting to hear people from outside Scotland peddling the idea that there should be another vote on independence. So, if this is the Conservative and Unionist Party, let’s all stand behind the democratic decision that two million people in Scotland made to keep our Union together.”

With recent wobbles by Labour about supporting a second referendum in the event of a nationalist majority next May, it’s difficult to forget similar statements by Ruth Davidson and Alister Jack. Clearly, a strain of opinion among both Scottish and UK Conservatives is open to the argument that withholding a referendum would be undemocratic and untenable should the predicted nationalist majority materialise next May. So far Boris Johnson has taken an admirably hard line on the issue, flatly refusing to countenance a second referendum. But he is a notoriously pragmatic politician with no qualms about changing his stance – as demonstrated by his famous pro and contra articles on Brexit, and his U-turn this week on wind energy. 

Ross used the wrong word – ‘disinterest’ means neutrality – when what he meant was a lack of interest in Scotland by Westminster politicians. To some extent, this uninterest is the inevitable by-product of devolution. When the central concerns of politicians and voters, such as education, health and the economy, are largely decided at Holyrood and only apply to Scotland, why should the 92% of the UK population outside Scotland pay attention? Ross implicitly recognised this when he said “just because there is a division of powers across our country does not mean that there should be a division of interest”, but this flies in the face of reality.

For unionist observers in England, this state of affairs looks grim. The commentator Henry Hill has ably analysed how this “division of interest” has led to “a shrinking of our horizons” which in turn leads “our imagined community of a nation” to shrink, “with the inevitable consequence that relations between the new, smaller communities are shallower and more transactional”. This is how devolution has inadvertently bolstered feelings of English nationalism, as Ross also warns. It can fuel resentment, even hostility, towards Scotland over the extra £2k it receives per capita compared to England. A YouGov pollin June revealed 49% of Tory supporters wanted an independent England.

Ross recognises “our Unionism cannot just be warm words and nostalgia”. He goes on: “It needs to be practical, it needs to be real and it needs to be shared across all four nations of our country”. In the end, though, he has few tangible solutions to offer, beyond resisting a second independence referendum and exhorting his colleagues not “to devolve and forget”. 

Hill also has no answers, beyond an implicit warning against further devolution:

“If we don’t share public services or governance, there will come a time when we no longer share an identity, and swiftly after that a time when we’re no longer prepared to share money. The Union needs the British nation, and the British nation needs shared national institutions and experiences.”

I’m not sure there is a magic solution to the conundrum as it presently exists, but we could certainly learn to live with it better.

The nationalists have turned devolution into a staging post for independence; their entire political raison d’être is to see it fail. Their political strategy is to highlight devolution’s inadequacies in every policy arena. A “lack of powers” is the scapegoat for every failing, so that every political issue in Scotland becomes an argument for independence. 

The alternative strategy would be to set out to make a success of devolution. This is a task for both UK and Scottish governments, and neither can do it on its own. Certainly the creation of the Union Policy Implementation Committee chaired by the Cabinet Office Secretary, Michael Gove, and supported by the Union Unit inside No. 10, is very welcome. Its remit is to ensure that money previously allocated by the EU is given to projects that bind the UK’s four nations together. Nevertheless, a hostile nationalist government in Holyrood will hamper the union dividend and limit the positive PR such projects should bring.

The key, then, is a non-nationalist government at Holyrood committed to showing that devolved government can really deliver competent administration which improves people’s lives. None of the Scottish outposts of the three Westminster parties will be able to do that, in my view; even in opposition they are unable to project themselves as a convincing government in waiting.

Scottish Labour, the Scottish Tories and the Scottish Lib Dems are as mired in constitutional politics as the SNP. The Scottish Government frames every political issue in constitutional terms, and the opposition is forced into a reactive rather than proactive position. The opposition may try to put forward distinctively Scottish policy positions, but there is little space for them. If their policies are the same as those of the Westminster parties, they look like branch offices forced to follow a UK line, and are attacked for policy failings elsewhere in the UK. If the policies diverge from Westminster’s, the SNP stir the pot of disunity and disarray between the branch office and its mothership party. Either way, the opposition party is permanently on the defensive.

The three unionist parties in Scotland lack the freedom to make the most of devolution. For all their talk of being their own men – and I do not know how much institutional control the Westminster HQs exert over their Scottish parties – none can do or say anything without looking over their shoulder, worrying how their words and deeds play in terms of national UK politics. They are always vulnerable to attacks and deflections by the SNP, and indeed the press, based on their parties’ positions at Westminster. Such attacks sooner or later end up foregrounding constitutional politics.

For example, Scottish Tories were hamstrung in attacking Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic, such as care home deaths, the SQA results fiasco or the university lockdowns because these failures so closely mirrored what happened in England under Boris Johnson. 

Polling evidence suggests that voters are getting sick of the constitutional merry-go-round while services like health and education stagnate or decline. Research commissioned by the Scottish Fabians in August shows only 36 per cent of those surveyed said they consider independence ‘one of the most important issues facing the country’, and 52 per cent said it ‘distracts’ from other issues. A Survation poll in July put independence and constitutional matters at 15 per cent, seventh on a list of voters’ top concerns, far behind services and the economy.

With his speech at the Tory conference, Douglas Ross seems determined to project himself as independent from the Conservative government at Westminster. It builds on his most distinctive political action to date as the only minister to resign over Dominic Cummings’ lockdown breaches in May. This week he reversed the Scottish Tories’ long-held opposition to free university tuition, putting himself at cross-purposes with the university fee regime in the rest of the UK. The more he asserts an independent Scottish Conservative voice, the stronger the question will become: why not go the whole hog and become an Independent Scottish Conservative party that can fight wholeheartedly for Scottish interests?

There is, undoubtedly, a vacuum in Scottish politics for a new party singularly focussed on making the best of devolution, on maximising the benefit to Scotland from the union by being able to assert, without fear or favour, Scotland’s interests to Westminster. 

For the SNP, doing the best for Scotland is synonymous with doing the best for independence. For the same reason, the three unionist parties see doing the best for Scotland as doing the best for the union. As a result, the unionists and nationalists are engaged in a permanent proxy war about independence, while the nitty-gritty of sorting out devolved policy to Scotland’s best advantage is overlooked.

Such a party – or perhaps a government of national unity, as envisaged by the Alliance For Unity – would be free to give devolution a chance because it could park the constitutional issue. It would not be put on the back foot all the time by the SNP. It would not be responsible for defending mothership UK-wide policies in a constant rehearsal of indy/unionist antagonism. At the moment, all Scottish political factions seem to be stuck in Groundhog Day, endlessly fighting the neverendum instead of providing competent government. 

In many ways the union feels like an abstraction. What feels concrete are cultural, historical, linguistic, family, and personal relations. Perhaps this applies to the constitutional side of things – constitutional relations between countries are abstractions after all – though of course, the union feels all too real to the nationalists who see it as the root of all evil.

One way to dilute, perhaps even dissipate this feeling, might be to exploit the power and potential of devolution. The big strength of Devolution is that – unlike the union – it is politically meaningful on an everyday level: potholes, schools, getting a GP appointment, housing, whether Covid restrictions mean we can go to the pub or visit our friends. These are all things determined entirely in Scotland. So are the scandals which currently afflict the Scottish Government – Mackay, Salmond, Ferrier. Indeed, they are entirely created by the SNP.

For all the schizoid games the SNP plays about economic levers, the majority of our daily politics are the responsibility of the Scottish Government. This is what is real to people. A government which can connect with this lived experience, and which can use the power of devolution to improve people’s lives in concrete ways, will restore faith in both devolution and the union.

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward and a prospective candidate for alliance4unity in next year's Holyrood elections. lindaholt.org.uk

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