8 July 2020

To hold off the SNP, Unionists must combine hard facts with hard politics

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According to political logic, the 2014 independence referendum should have secured the Union for at least a generation, if not a lifetime. That was the promise made by Nicola Sturgeon at the time and who dares suggest the first minister was being economical with the truth?

But the reverse has happened. Support for the continuation of the United Kingdom has been gradually eroded since September 19, 2014, the day after the referendum took place, and also the point at which nationalists started agitating for a second referendum. The fruits of their efforts were seen in a Panelbase poll published at the weekend, showing support for a Yes vote now at 54%. This is not an outlier; rather it is in line with other recent polls which reflect the same direction of travel if not the same proportion of nationalist support.

The same survey pointed to a large SNP overall majority when Scots next elect the Scottish parliament in May 2021. As in 2011, this would be a remarkable result, given that the hybrid first-past-the-post and proportional list electoral system was specifically designed by the architects of devolution to prevent any party gaining an overall majority. So unless something truly remarkable and calamitous happens to Sturgeon or her party in the next nine months, we are at the very least heading towards another constitutional crisis, if not a full-blown second independence referendum.

Recent polling evidence also suggests that historically high numbers of English voters would be happy to see Scotland go its own way. This is perfectly understandable. As well as the windfall that would accrue to the UK exchequer as a result of no longer having to fund Scotland’s £10 billion budget black hole, the English can hardly be blamed for getting sick of constant grievance-mongering from SNP MPs at Westminster. Thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system, the dominance of nationalists among those who Scotland sends to the Commons gives the misleading impression that Ian Blackford represents a large majority of the country in his views.

What should those of us who still support the Union, who believe that the 2014 result should not be cast aside, do now that we are at best a large minority north of the border?

Clearly there are two strategies, though they should not be seen as entirely separate or an either/or choice. The first is to hope that Boris Johnson is not as fickle in his political principles as Sturgeon and that his commitment to refusing another referendum will hold, even in the face of commentators who will protest that an SNP majority must lead to its manifesto being implemented.

There are some very good reasons why the PM should ignore such voices, not least that no party can win a mandate for a policy that can, legally and constitutionally, only be enacted by a completely different legislature. Abraham Lincoln was prepared to go to war to defend the integrity of the United States; in Britain, using existing legislation to protect the Union is seen by faint hearts and nationalist fellow travellers as beyond the pale.

The other strategy, of course, would be to mount as strong a defence of the Union as has ever been mounted. This in itself is not as easy as you might think, not because the case isn’t there to be made, but because Unionists themselves too often hamper their own case. “We support the Union but it is failing and has to be changed” is the message, and was, even during the final days of the first referendum in 2014: remember The Vow?

When advocates of the Union cannot even bring themselves to stand wholeheartedly behind the status quo, it’s hardly surprising that their opponents gain in confidence. So the “defend the Union” strategy should be split into two strands: the first is to actually defend it, rather than to defend a future imaginary, hypothetical version of it. The second is to accentuate the positive.

While Nicola Sturgeon has won plaudits for her ability to read words and letters off a podium every night for the last four months while implementing a lockdown that is only microscopically different from that imposed elsewhere in the UK, we should remember that the largest government intervention – the policy that has allowed Scots to remain safely at home while looking after their children and retaining their jobs – has come from the Exchequer.

That’s right: our hated, evil Tory government has ploughed more cash into Scotland to preserve our way of life than could ever have been expected from even the most left-wing of governments. Whether that “investment” and the consequent explosion of our national debt have represented a good use of resources remains to be seen and will no doubt form the basis of questions to be asked when the Covid post-mortem takes place.

In the meantime, a majority of Scots regard Rishi Sunak’s largesse as unimportant; like the financial crash of 2008, coronavirus confirmed that an independent Scotland would have faced appalling, possibly insurmountable, difficulties when caught up in a global crisis. But instead of the furlough scheme and all the other interventions by London being put in the column headed “reasons for staying in the Union”, Scots are looking at events of recent months through the wrong end of the telescope.

Professor John Curtice, in surprisingly counter-intuitive comments, told the BBC that the Panelbase poll was a consequence of Scots learning to appreciate devolution: “The fact that Scotland has its own government, and that Scotland can do absolutely crucial things for everybody’s lives, has been more apparent in the last three months than it has been in the previous 20 years of devolution.”

In other words, because more Scots than ever before can at last see how well devolution works, they want to abandon it and replace it with independence.  Okay, then…

But even re-emphasising the economic benefits of the Union will have only limited effectiveness. Support for independence is as much a product of emotion as a rational political ideology. For every Unionist who explains that Scotland receives £10 billion more a year than its citizens raise in taxes, there will always be a nationalist who will find a receptive audience by shouting: “Look! A flag!”

A country where supermarkets know they can increase footfall by placing a St Andrew’s flag on its reusable shopping bags is not a country that is about to welcome a hard-hitting factual case for the economic benefits of Union. But we have to try anyway.

The fact is that the SNP have played a clever game. The Unionist parties know that they can make little headway unless they change the political narrative by focusing people’s concerns on something other than the constitution. That’s why Labour in particular have tried, with no success whatever, to talk about the economy and education.

But such agendas cannot be set by mere politicians when voters do not share their priorities. Each time such attempts look like they might achieve even a modicum of success, Sturgeon and her ministers say or do something to bring attention back to independence. For example, she could have dismissed out of hand any notion that border controls between Scotland and England might be introduced in order to fight the spread of coronavirus. Instead she deliberately allowed the option to remain on the table, despite knowing she has no authority to act on them. In doing so she immediately encouraged her opponents to complain about “petty nationalism”.

This, as we should know by now, never damages the SNP, as polls have repeatedly shown. The nation of David Hume, Adam Smith and Sir Walter Scott is in no mood to talk about standards in our schools or the loss of opportunity for poorer Scottish kids to attend university when instead it can indulge its (devolved) government’s obsession with identity and the politics of grievance.

There is an emotional and cultural case for the Union too, of course there is. And that must be prosecuted with as much – if not more – vigour than the economic case. But countries are saved from nationalism by a combination of hard politics and forceful debate. Losing Scotland from the Union would be a political tragedy for the UK and an economic one for Scots. At this crucial juncture, Unionists cannot afford to reject any strategy, popular or not with the commentariat, that will frustrate those who want to divide our nation.

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

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