Last week’s mini-row over Boris Johnson turning down an invitation to meet Nicola Sturgeon was both rather silly and instructive about the state of relations between Westminster and Holyrood.
Clearly, the First Minister misjudges her constitutional position and forgets that the Prime Minister needs no invitation to visit a part of the country over which he presides. Nonetheless, with both governments agreed on the need to work together on the pandemic response, this ‘War of the Niceties’ is likely to continue for some time.
But the larger narrative that the UK Government is trying to address with the increased visibility of Cabinet Ministers north of the border, is that not everything in Scotland is, or should be, wrapped in an independence narrative.
Nor, however, should everything about strengthening the Union be wrapped up in a narrative about Scotland. One of the big issues facing the Johnson government is the apathy of voters in the other three nations of the UK. As the Daily Telegraph reported in May, only one fifth of English voters oppose Scottish independence. That erosion of solidarity between the four nations of the UK has been a PR masterstroke from the SNP over the last decade or so. As the Conservative Union Resources Group (CURG) of Tory MPs quite rightly stated, ‘the Union is bound up in the stories of each of our lives‘. Historically, that has certainly been the case – the question now is what practical measures Westminster can take to make sure those stories don’t diverge any further.
First of these is education. Although this is rightly a devolved matter, for young Scots, to experience the history and culture of Wales, say, there needs to be an incentive to study there. The simplest way to make that happen would be to reconcile tuition fees across the UK. This would give students the freedom to choose where to study based on factors other than cost – it’s no surprise this is often the overriding factor for applicants, particularly when fees to study outside your home nation can be more than double what you pay if you stay put.
Clearly, Scotland is the odd one out here, with significantly lower tuition fees for Scottish students. Any programme would most benefit England and Scotland student flows where students are more likely to stay in their home nations. The value of such an incentive to national cohesion is obvious, as it allows young people to experience living and working in another Home Nation at a formative stage of their lives.
The next thing the UK Government should consider is tax incentives for companies who encourage both cross-border working and spending outside the country where they are headquartered. The ‘super deduction’ announced at the last Budget is an excellent way of spurring capital investment, but the Government should go further to encourage firms to invest outside their usual areas, and for employees to move around as well. The post-pandemic recovery may well be the ideal time for such an approach to take root.
The third, and potentially most immediate step is to improve cross-border infrastructure. Forget the size and scale of HS2, we should be upgrading the East and West coast mainlines, expanding out ports in the north-east (which, to be fair, we are already doing) and creating regions of scientific endeavour, taking advantage of fantastic universities in Scotland and the north of England, but also the border regions of Wales and the West Country, with top-class institutions in Cardiff, Bath and Bristol.
I know well from personal experience just how valuable our Union is, and why it is so worth defending. After growing up in the colourful, passionate political culture of Northern Ireland, I then fell in love with Scottish culture at university before going on to serve in the British military all over the world, living in the shadow of Stonehenge and, now, working in exciting, internationalist London. The breadth of that experience drove home both the practical and emotional bonds of the Union which some of our compatriots perhaps don’t see. Creating more stories like mine should be at the heart of the Government’s Union policy.
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