8 March 2021

The forward march of Scottish nationalism has stalled


Baroness Kingsmill ought not to be easily fooled. A deputy chairwoman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission from 1996-2003, in receipt of five honorary doctorates from British universities, she was made a Labour peer in 2006, for services to competition and the common law.

Yet she’s been fooled by Nicola Sturgeon, or NS, as she styles the Scottish First Minister. In tweets over the past weekend, she asked (in why oh why? mode) “why this intense focus on NS? Another example of a woman carrying can (sic) for man’s shortcomings? Compare focus on this to lack of scrutiny of judgement against PM? Compare focus on Meghan with ignoring Andrew? Could these examples be misogyny?”

In a later tweet, she re-heats the trope of Sturgeon against Johnson – “8 hours of questioning (during a committee inquiry into the Salmond affair last Wednesday) and she comes across as empathetic and accepting of mistakes. Can you imagine Johnson doing the same?”

We should hope that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would not do the same as the First Minister of Scotland: that is, protest repeatedly that he could not remember crucial meetings and events, constantly refer to his own good faith as evidence of good governance and face an inquiry to which he had for weeks denied necessary information.

It is not only a matter of differing approaches to questioning. Johnson operates in a political and legal environment in which Members of Parliament (including Tory MPs), journalists and independent institutions hold him to sometimes severe account. One of the many facts we have learned of SNP governance is that holding to account has been weak in the Scottish Parliament, especially the parliamentary committees, dominated by the SNP. Weak too in a starved media’s ability to probe and investigate, and weak in institutions and NGOs, many headed by SNP supporters. Scottish politics have become less democratic than those in the rest of the UK: an irony, for a political class which has convinced itself and others that it has left Westminster, ravaged and elitist, far behind as a model for the world.

The beguiling quality of Sturgeon – her mix of sternness, humour, astute political intelligence and self-serving references to her own decency (she certainly beats Salmond in that department) – lured Baroness Kingsmill into a willingness to cheapen the nobility of feminism. Sturgeon is not carrying the can for a man: she has carried it for herself for five years, and no-one thinks otherwise. She has been trying to bring Salmond to some kind of accountability for past attitudes to female staff, and messing up the attempt. The arguments against her are directed at her actions and alleged actions, her policies, her leadership. Alex Salmond and his can are another day’s work.

The larger issue, which must haunt the First Minister, is that nationalism’s forward march has been halted, and that Boris Johnson thus faces a much reduced moral pressure to concede a second referendum

For nationalism has failed. It has failed to produce an adequate or even credible economic plan for Scotland’s independent future: the determination to continue using sterling for the foreseeable future means retaining a currency over which the Scots government can have no control, at a time of inevitable turbulence. It has no central bank, must expect a hard border between it and the rest of the UK and will lose the considerable funding it receives from the Treasury each year, covering what, were it an independent state, would be an unsustainable budget deficit.

It has failed to maintain standards in education where attainment, especially in mathematics and science, have fallen sharply. In most areas, England now leads: a report by the OECD on Scotland’s education, originally timed for release in February, will not now be released by the Scottish government till June – the month after 6 May elections for the Scottish Parliament.

It has failed, spectacularly, to handle the charges made by Mr Salmond that the investigation into his conduct was improperly conducted. The former First Minister won, in 2019, a payment of £512,350 to pay his fees for the case he brought against the Scottish government. The government was forced to admit it had breached its own guidelines, and that it had continued to pursue the investigation for months after its legal team had advised the government that its case could not win in court.

So it’s no surprise that the latest poll, published by the Daily Record yesterday, shows a majority of 52% to 48% of Scots intending to vote No to independence; or that, on 4 March, Sturgeon refused to confirm that a referendum could take place early in 2022 – even though the leader of the SNP group in Westminster, Ian Blackford, had claimed it could be as early as this year.

If this disillusionment remains, and grows, it would be a good day for Scotland, and the UK – delivered by the unlikely medium of Alex Salmond, whose adult life has been dedicated to achieving an independent Scotland, which he may have put beyond his successor’s grasp. But the SNP has suffered setbacks before, both in the 2014 referendum, and when, in the 2017 general election, it lost 21 Westminster seats. This time, however, looks different. A split within has been revealed, and is unlikely to close, or even be amenable to being papered over.

Yet, and more importantly, if the forward march does remain halted, the UK government cannot declare union as usual. Gordon Brown, never strapped for solutions, has convinced the Labour Party he once led to call for a national convention to address options for a truly devolved Britain – which, in effect, means a more devolved England.

“Devolution’, he wrote last October, “will not bring unity unless each region and nation’s voice can also be represented at the centre of UK government. Most of all, we need to understand that the enduring unity of our country depends not on a nostalgic deference to ancient institutions that are not working but on forging a new story about what it is to be British.”

Brown tried forging a new British story when Prime Minister – and it seemed to alienate rather than enthuse the English. But he is right that deference to ancient institutions is no fall-back position. If there is a convention – and there are advocates for it in Downing Street – its first task is to discover what people really, really want: the English, first of all, but also the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, whose peoples are not uniformly content with the devolution they have.

The hoped-for ending of Covid by summer could give space for a tacit agreement between the Conservative and Labour Parties that a national convention is necessary and a determination on all sides to listen to people in the localities. That exercise, complex as it will be, could also be exhilarating, open to ordinary citizens to think through how far they wish national unity to endure. For if they do not, then this union is deceased.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

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