12 February 2020

The cavalry are not coming to save Scotland’s unionists

By

If you were hankering after an appropriate illustration of the plight of Scotland’s embattled unionists, you could do worse than watch the last few minutes of the 1964 classic Zulu.

As Michael Caine and co resign themselves to certain death at the hands of the African hordes, someone starts to sing ‘Men of Harlech’, which soon grows into a mighty chorus of defiance, whereupon the noble savages decide to let the cornered Brits live to fight another day. Inspiring stuff.

It’s not quite that bleak among supporters of the UK north of the border. Not yet, anyway. But in a way, that’s part of the problem. While understanding the seriousness of the situation, perceiving themselves to be surrounded on all sides by “the enemy” in the shape of independence supporters, they nevertheless assume that events – in whatever form – are going to come to their aid.

We got a whiff of the kind of deux ex machina upon which Scottish unionists are relying for their salvation when Derek Mackay, the Scottish Government’s finance minister, was forced to resign in disgrace just hours before he was due to deliver the Scottish government’s budget statement to the Scottish Parliament. Mackay had unwisely sent hundreds of weird, creepy texts to a 16-year-old boy whose understandably angry parents tipped off the Scottish Sun newspaper.

To some (though not all) gleeful unionists, this is the kind of thing that turn people off political parties. They are wrong, I think: this is the kind of behaviour that turns people off individual politicians. There is no suggestion that Mackay’s stupidity has had any impact whatever on the SNP’s seemingly invincible poll lead – a lead they have now maintained, unbroken, at both Westminster and Holyrood level, for more than five years.

But all this is merely an appetizer for the main meal yet to come. Next month, former First Minister, Alex Salmond, appears in court charged with a series of serious sexual offences, all of which he strenuously denies. This is the proof that God is a unionist, declare the veterans of the Better Together campaign in 2014 as they meet to share battle stories and compare medals. Just a year before the start of the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, what better way finally to humble the triumphant nationalists than to expose their past and current leaders to judicial cross-examination?

Whatever the trial’s outcome, unionists hope that the SNP will emerge a more divided and damaged party. And this is where they are entirely and unquestionably wrong. The trial will hear serious allegations and listen to the testimony of alleged victims. Those testimonies need to be heard for their own sake and for the sake of justice. The notion that they can be leveraged as a partisan political project is obnoxious in the extreme.

What’s just as worrying is the unionists’ reliance on the trial to get them out of their current predicament. Frankly, if a trial of a former SNP leader is the key weapon in the armoury of the forces of unionism, then Scotland is already lost.

Scots considering voting to leave the UK (in the admittedly unlikely event that a second referendum on the issue is to be held: more on that later) are not stupid, or at least, no more stupid than those who oppose independence. Their enthusiasm for the separatist project (and the degree of enthusiasm is not uniformly felt across the electorate, which explains the still anaemic degree of support for independence in recent polls) will not be affected by the trial or by any developments or announcements affecting the private lives of any number of SNP leaders or ex-leaders. Nor should it.

If this reliance on judicial matters over which they have no control is not bad enough for unionists, the other straw at which they’re enthusiastically clutching is Boris Johnson’s refusal to countenance another independence referendum. Not that the PM stance is wrong – it is entirely correct and democratic and God bless ’im – but Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom can only be secured in the long term by the support of the people who live here, not by the prime minister in Downing Street.

Instead of hoping for the equivalent of the Seventh Cavalry to come over a nearby hill to their rescue, or for the forces ranged against them to have pity on them and to give up and go home, unionists need to start fighting battles they can control and might even be able to win.

First among these should be a merciless and uncompromising focus on the SNP’s failures on domestic policy. Thus far, voters’ desire to spurn the UK parties has outweighed their concern for the standard of education their children receive or the length of times they have to wait to be seen by a doctor or, indeed, their confidence that poor cleanliness standards in hospitals will not take the lives of their children.

And then they have to deal with Brexit. Many unionists, fearing exactly the kind of tail wind that Brexit has given the independence cause since 2016, voted and campaigned for Remain. That no longer matters. Political reality now forces them to understand and grasp the opportunities that will be made available to Scotland’s devolved parliament in the form of new powers previously wielded by Brussels on Scotland’s behalf. Those new powers – over fishing, the environment, agriculture and many other areas – could, used effectively, allow ministers to make a real, positive difference to Scots. So they have to be held to account to ensure they do just that.

And of course the other edge of the sword is that SNP ministers will have to spend all their time explaining to the country why they, why Holyrood itself, should not even have these powers, that they belong in Brussels, which is where they will dispatch them just as soon as independence is achieved. That’s a difficult argument to make for nationalists representing a party that claims to be Scotland’s voice.

In all of this, it would be helpful if the opposition parties, particularly Labour, could bring itself to oppose independence as vociferously as it did in the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014. Each time one of its UK leadership candidates or even one of its own MSPs concedes the case for a second independence referendum, the cause of unionism is undermined. How can focus be brought on other matters when those who should be unionism’s allies dance to the nationalists’ tune?

When Harold Macmillan coined the phrase, “Events, dear boy, events”, he was warning politicians against the unpredictability of the future. “Events”, however dramatic and unexpected, will not save Scotland from the agents of secession; a thought-through strategy for forcing the SNP to own their own mistakes and defend their ideological preference for Brussels over Edinburgh just might.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'