16 December 2019

Victory for Unionists means refusing to play Sturgeon’s game at all


These are heady times for Conservatives. It is as though a great lowness of spirit which had previously been sore afflicting Tory spirits has, seemingly miraculously, been lifted. It is not just the thumping of Jeremy Corbyn and removing the doleful shadow cast by the thought of a Corbyn government which explains this, though of course that is a big part of it.

It is also that, at last, the party will be possible to escape the Brexit mire and begin thinking about other things, even if Brexit will always be with us in one way or another during the Johnson years. It is also that, for the first time in what feels like many years, there is the possibility that the Tories can enjoy being in government again. Happy, or at least happier, times are here.

Yet even victory comes with clouds, and none should be darker for even true believers than events in the north of the kingdom. The Tory writ stops, abruptly, at the Tweed and the Solway. Scotland is a different place where just one in four voters backed Conservative candidates and 45% endorse the separatists of the SNP. Victory in Europe for Johnson will not be worth very much if it comes as the cost of defeat in the north.

This is, it should be remembered, a long game and we are still only exploring the introductory rhetorical skirmishes. Sturgeon demands a second independence referendum; Johnson says no. Then what?

Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon says, “cannot be imprisoned in the United Kingdom against its will”. This is true and it would indeed be noteworthy if Scotland were actually being incarcerated in the manner Sturgeon suggests.

But, however inconvenient this may be for her, plenty of Scots – perhaps even as many as half of them – do not feel themselves imprisoned. There is no Babylonian captivity for them. The United Kingdom is their country too and not something to be sacrificed simply because Nicola Sturgeon demands it or because it may – or may not – have a government they consider less than agreeable.

In the short term, the Unionist line opposing a referendum will hold. Sturgeon knows there is little prospect of an independence  vote next year and nor, crucially, is there yet majority support for one on her terms and timetable.

In any case, other events will soon take centre stage. Chief of these is the trial of Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor, on charges of sexual assault and attempted rape. No-one can predict what the impact of this will be, save to suspect it is likely to have one.

Even if that were not the case, however, the Unionist mantra that now is not the time for Indyref2 is a reasonable one. The shape and meaning of Brexit remains unclear – though it is likely to be a Brexit harder and cleaner than most people in Scotland would prefer – but it would be folly in any case to ask the Scottish people to consider anew their own future until the relationship between the UK and the EU is clear. Only then will it be possible to hazard some guess as to the arrangements possible, desirable, or probable between an independent Scotland and the shattered remnants of the UK it had left behind.

So there are no right answers to the question of whether or not there should be another referendum soon, just as there are no wrong answers either. How you feel about this question is determined less by the issue itself than by your constitutional preferences.

Be that as it may, it is also the case that the further we are from 2014 the stronger the nationalist argument for revisiting the national question becomes. There is already a majority in favour of independence in the Scottish Parliament, but there is not, according to all the polling data we have, a majority for another referendum in the timetable notionally demanded by the First Minister.

I say notionally because I do not think she truly believes she can force another plebiscite before the next Holyrood election in 2021. Better instead to chip away at the British government’s moral legitimacy; better instead to play a longer-game. Such a timescale may be required in any event, pending the outcome of and fall-out from the Salmond trial.

In any case, the SNP and the nationalist movement can afford to wait. As the party’s former deputy leader Jim Sillars has observed, a few years is as nothing in the life of a nation. An independence referendum delayed but won convincingly is a markedly better proposition than one delivered sooner but won by a hair’ s breadth. If, of course, it is won at all.

There is a temptation, then, for Unionists to wonder if it might be best to go sooner rather than later. If the SNP does not expect a referendum on their preferred timetable and if, as Unionists would aver, the facts of life are against them, why not take the gamble and call the nationalists’ bet?

This, though, is only superficially tempting. The only way Unionism can be sure of victory is by refusing to play the game at all. The risks of losing are greater than the benefits that flow from victory. So caution is imposed upon Unionism, whether it wants to be cautious or not, because it cannot afford to lose. For there would be no coming back from defeat.

This is still the phoney war, then, which at the very least gives the UK government some time to think of a new approach. Saying “No” will suffice for now but loses its vitality if or when the people of Scotland actually do demand the right to consider their future again.

The best way for that to be avoided may yet be for Johnson to govern as the “One Nation” Conservative he has promised. So long as he recalls that the nation in question has to be the United Kingdom and not merely England.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator