Boris Johnson is in Scotland to save the Union. This is not a sentence that will fill many Scottish unionists with joy. His ratings amongst Scottish voters are poor. His track record on the Union is patchy. His relations many Scots Tories are, to put it mildly, not great.
Nonetheless, this visit is a welcome sign that the Prime Minister has recognised an essential truth: that the battle for the Union will define his premiership. If he oversees the dissolution of our 300 year-old nation, he’ll be remembered for nothing else.
Johnson inherits an extremely difficult situation. For more than two decades, unionism has followed a strategy of continually conceding more and more powers to the Scottish Parliament and other devolved institutions in the belief that standing up for the centre would be counter-productive. The result – “foreseeable and foreseen, predictable and predicted”, as Tam Dalyell put it – is that the SNP is stronger than ever, whereas the pro-UK position is extremely threadbare and unionists are deeply demoralised.
For a man who courts comparisons to Churchill, Johnson has set himself a Churchillian task. After two decades of appeasement, unionism needs to organisationally re-mobilise and intellectually re-arm. Having come to power as the triumphant commanders of a political insurgency, his Vote Leave-based Downing Street operation now have to wage a counter-insurgency operation against perhaps the most effective campaigning machine in British politics.
How should they go about it? Splashing the cash is the obvious place to start, and on cue today’s headlines announce that the Government is ‘wooing’ Scotland with an extra £1.9 billion in funding. But having defeated a Remain campaign based on economics and a largely defensive attitude to the organisation it was defending, Johnson must know that he can’t win on this single, mercenary axis.
The first thing ministers should do is start putting some meat on the bones of their argument against granting a second independence referendum in the first place. Pointing out that the 2014 vote was supposed to be “once in a generation” only gets you so far, especially with the SNP pleading a change of circumstances.
But there are other, more substantial arguments for a moratorium on such a plebiscite, which I adumbrated on ConservativeHome a few years ago. Allowing the independence question to be relitigated so frequently undermines the core functions of the Union, making it difficult for the Government to make long-term investments in Scotland and much harder to morally justify fiscal transfers between the Home Nations. It isn’t really ‘pooling and sharing’ if one party reserves the right to walk out the moment they’re asked to pay in.
Britain is internationally unusual for how easy we make it to break-away. Many other countries, such as Germany and the United States, constitutionally prohibit secession. With this standard in mind, it is no betrayal of our liberalism to set restrictions on how frequently the SNP can try to break up our country.
Next, the Government needs to audit the structure of the State to make sure that it operates to buttress the Union. We have already seen some welcome signals that this is being done: replacing EU funding (which was always UK funding anyway, as we were a net-contributor nation) with a Westminster-controlled Shared Prosperity Fund will prevent the devolved administrations taking credit for projects the Union delivers.
More importantly, the battle over who maintains the rules of the British common market post-Brexit shows that ministers have belatedly woken up to the huge danger created by the May Government’s capitulation on this question back in 2017/18. It is also welcome that the Scottish Conservatives, some of whom were actually reinforcing the SNP’s ‘power grab’ narrative, now appear united in recognition that this is a fight Westminster absolutely has to win.
Johnson should build on this: permanently scrapping plans to abolish the British Transport Police in Scotland would be another very visible way of demonstrating his willingness to protect important national institutions against inappropriate devolved power-grabs.
The devocrats will kick up enormous fuss against such measures, and the Prime Minister will be criticised by those who think standing up to them is irresponsible and that the Union can be saved only by keeping them happy. Some will even push him to embrace a more radical version of it and pursue some kind of federal ‘solution’.
But Johnson should remember always that not one of his four predecessors who succumbed to that logic left the Union stronger than they inherited it. And recalling the EU campaign, remember too that it is impossible to mount an effective emotional case for an institution you’re simultaneously proposing to frustrate and diminish. Voters will not be persuaded to reject the separatists’ conclusions if even the unionist campaign accepts the bulk of their premises.
Finally, although the best result is avoiding a referendum altogether, it would be unwise not to hedge against the possibility and start preparing the pro-UK machine. A quiet effort to tap potential donors on the shoulder, identify key personnel and start stress-testing arguments should begin at once. The apparent re-activation of Conservative Friends of the Union, if it amounts to more than a Twitter account, is a good start.
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