30 July 2019

Unionists must finally stop capitulating to Scottish Nationalists


Leaving by the back door is not a new phenomenon in Scottish politics. A few weeks into the job of press officer for Labour in Scotland, I was advised by local police that in order to guarantee the safety of our two successful candidates in the dual Paisley by-elections in November 1990, we should take them out of the count via the back door. The reason for the officers’ concern was a huge mob of SNP supporters who had blockaded Paisley Town Hall and whose aggression towards – and hatred for – the Labour Party was loud and obvious.

And on that occasion, Labour had actually won. But still we were told that discretion was the better part of valour.

It’s been the same ever since. Nationalists are outraged whenever their opponents try to speak from a public place. During the 2014 independence referendum I never attended a single open-air event at which nationalists did not try to shout us down, or trespass on our photo opportunities – taunting, jeering, goading us to react.

When the former Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, was invited to officially open a local food bank, he was physically prevented from doing so by nationalist protesters who felt personally insulted that a democratically-elected politician felt he had any right to go wherever he wanted in his own constituency.

And of course, yesterday, to the delight of the inevitable attention-seeking protesters outside Bute House, Scotland’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, wisely chose to deny his critics the opportunity to gather any more publicity by leaving via the back door.

It all now reads like a metaphor for the subsequent, craven retreat of Unionism in Scotland. Rather than face the baying mob and put our case directly to the people, we start by apologising for being Unionists and promote only the palest and most watered down versions of Unionism. It started with devolution, but picked up pace with every demand that the Scottish Parliament be given more powers, then even more powers, and so on.

The blueprint for devolution that was painstakingly put together by the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the early 1990s – led by Donald Dewar and with the participation of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the churches, the trade unions, business interests and civil society – was dismissed and devalued as soon as Prime Minister Gordon Brown acquiesced to demands from the then Scottish Labour leader, Wendy Alexander, for substantial new powers. And that was before even Holyrood’s tenth anniversary was reached.

Dewar was hopelessly wrong, it turns out. His vision of devolution was far too weak and powerless. If only he’d lived long enough to see that “the settled will of the people”, as John Smith described it, was nothing of the sort. It was just the start, a mere appetizer to be enjoyed before the never-ending main course.

And then Theresa May.

She has her detractors, for sure, and no one will envy her her legacy, once we finally agree what it is. But in at least one respect, she paved the way for a new form of robust Unionism. She said No to the SNP.

To understand what a shock to the system this was for Scotland, you have to understand that no one ever says No to the SNP. At least, no one had for a very, very long time. It had become the received wisdom that the natural order of things was an ever-growing list of devolved areas of policy. And where a policy was reserved – the right to hold a constitutional referendum, for example – this would also be conceded by the UK government.

After all the participants in the 2014 independence referendum agreed in advance that they would recognise and respect the final outcome, even when nationalist leaders reassured voters during the campaign that this would be a one-off, a “once in a lifetime opportunity”, it was fully expected that in a very few years, when the SNP decided it wanted another go, the UK government would do what it has always done: capitulate.

But Mrs May was made of sterner stuff. She said no, and it looks very much as if Boris Johnson will have the same approach.

But lo! Over the hill to the rescue of confused and indignant nationalists, came the Scottish Unionists. “We can’t be seen to be refusing the right of the Scottish Government to hold another referendum,” they say, their hands clasped in sweaty anguish. “What will Scotland think? That’s too arrogant. By all means delay and obfuscate, but don’t refuse outright to consider a second referendum – people will get upset!”

Now, American civil war metaphors must be used only rarely and wisely.

It doesn’t take long for some smart alec to start accusing you of invoking slavery and of making unjustified comparisons of your opponents with the Confederacy. But what the United Kingdom needs is less a Churchill and more a Lincoln. The 16th president was prepared to go to any lengths, including force of arms, in order to hold together his own precious Union. And no, I do not believe the British Army should be called in to crush rebellious Scots.

But why are Unionists so precious and cautious about losing something they claim to value so dearly? More importantly, look at the state of the Union today, and ask yourself: in what way has the traditional apologetic, cautious approach of Unionism strengthened the bond between Scotland and the rest of the UK?

Jack Straw, the former Home and Foreign Secretary, once suggested following the United States’ example by enshrining the UK in law as “indissoluble” on the fairly logical basis that independence, had Scots voted for it, would be permanent, so why not make the status quo the same, if that’s what people voted for? The speed at which Unionists disavowed this radicalism was startling and depressing.

We need more of this kind of thinking and less pussy-footing around the nationalists. We need to worry less about upsetting Scotland’s civil society (which is largely nationalist) and its media, and stop having an attack of the vapours every time Nicola Sturgeon predicts that [insert latest grievance] will definitely result in independence this time.

We need to be every bit as proud and eager to defend Unionism as the SNP are to defend nationalism, and we need to look closely at their own attitude towards campaigning. When did you last see a nationalist demand change half-heartedly or apologetically? When did any nationalist settle for more devolved powers and then not demand any more?

Unionism needs a Lincoln. Someone prepared to defend the Union with the same passion and bloody-mindedness the SNP have made their trademark.

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