19 December 2022

A lot of Yes voters don’t actually want independence – so what does that mean for Unionism?


Regular readers of CapX won’t need me to tell them that Gordon Brown’s constitutional proposals would strike a possibly fatal blow to the United Kingdom. At least, not again

But buried in the underlying research is something truly, truly fascinating: a lot of so-called ‘Yes voters’ aren’t actually especially interested in what you or I might think of as the fundamentals of independence. 

Writing on his Substack, Eddie Barnes takes us through the numbers. A majority of pro-independence voters want to keep: NHS cooperation; free movement for people and goods (ruling out Single Market membership, at least as long as we’re out); a common old-age pension; shared intelligence services; a common diplomatic approach; and, most crucially, a shared welfare system.

Further, and more extraordinarily still, a plurality would also retain both a unified military and a British (rendered as the sterile ‘UK’) passport and citizenship. Barnes sums it up well when he writes:

‘Indeed, when it comes to actually getting rid of elements of the UK, the only things they said they were keen to dump was a UK wide approach to immigration, UK funding for economic growth, Team GB, and the Monarchy.’

Now, Barnes and I have crossed sabres before, and I have no doubt that he and I will probably draw different conclusions about what this data has to teach us. I strongly believe that we need to take cultural, sporting, and civic institutions just as seriously as the nationalists do – Team GB may not appeal to self-consciously ‘Yes’ voters, but shared experiences like cheering a common team are the crucibles in which ‘No’ voters are forged.

But looking at it, you can see how Brown might have convinced himself (or convinced himself that he’d convinced himself) that there was a viable path towards saving the United Kingdom in simply cutting off various bits that these ‘soft Yes’ voters dislike and keeping what they do.

In fact, such an approach strongly echoes the ‘best of both worlds’ line peddled by panicking unionists in the closing stretch of the independence referendum in 2014, which culminated in the lamentable ‘Vow’ of even more powers in the event of a No vote. 

There has always, however, been a fundamental contradiction between the logic of this position and its stated goal of maintaining the UK: it essentially amounts to asking Scottish voters to reject the separatists’ conclusions whilst simultaneously accepting most of their premises. It does not say much good about the Union if even its defenders seem to think the ideal deal for Scotland is as much cash as they can get, with as little British governance as possible.

As I explained on ConservativeHome, such an arrangement would be neither sustainable nor just, not least because it would rely upon different parts of the UK having entirely different motivations for maintaining it: England (London and the South in particular) a patriotic and generous one, Scotland a largely mercenary alternative.

The more thoughtful nationalists get that. They recognise the danger that the block grant poses to the hopes of the separatist movement, and advocate for full fiscal autonomy. The end of fiscal transfers, which devo-max would make logically irresistible, might be painful for lots of Scots – but it would knock a lot of items off Barnes’ list.

Which brings us back to the lessons to draw from it. What seems clear is that the Union is popular (in parts, as Barnes puts it, if not in sum) where it delivers tangible benefits. (We might suppose that the importance laid on free movement, diplomacy, defence, and other features of ‘institutional sovereignty’ suggest an underlying cultural affinity, but all also offer clear, hard benefits.)

Given that, it seems all the more ridiculous to pursue a model of unionism that tries to reduce most of the most tangible of those benefits – such as the NHS, pensions, and welfare – into mere cash transfers, to say nothing of then putting most of that cash in the hands of the Scottish Government (allowing it to brand it and claim credit for any successes) and demolishing the long-term foundations of the transfers (by repudiating their basis in British nationhood).

It looks instead like strong supporting evidence for a Union which ‘actually does things’: an active programme to ensure both that the British state delivers tangible benefits to people throughout the country, and that it is made consistently, systematically clear that the UK is the font of those benefits. 

This doesn’t just mean pointing at what currently works and going “See?” until we’re red-white-and-blue in the face, nor just whacking the Union Jack on things. But crucially, it doesn’t not mean that either. There’s a reason the SNP have taken pains to sand Britain off every institution they have laid their hands on, and Westminster needs to be more pro-active both at combating that process and building new ones.

We might even call it, for wont of a better phrase, muscular unionism.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.