There’s something fascinating about the writing of a former politician who’s left the stage for a cosier private sector afterlife.
On the one hand, they are much freer than their successors to speak candidly about the issues of the day. On the other, that candour seldom extends to their own time in office.
George Osborne’s latest foray back into politics is a case in point. His article for the Evening Standard on the future of the United Kingdom is at once brutally frank and self-servingly misleading.
On Northern Ireland, for example, he is broadly correct both about the dangers posed to its place in the Union by the Prime Minister’s new post-Brexit arrangements, and the fact that too few on the mainland are deeply invested in defending that place. I have said as much myself, when I wrote that: “Today, for too many on the mainland ‘Ulster’ is more an issue than a place.”
But he skates over the fact that Theresa May’s alternative arrangements were built on the exact same fundamental concessions, and ignores altogether the culpability that he and David Cameron have to accept for rushing into an EU referendum without clarifying the Province’s status.
Northern Irish voters were asked whether the United Kingdom, not Great Britain, should leave the EU. If pro-Brexit voters there were “short-sighted”, it was in taking their Government, and their ballot paper, at their word.
Osborne similarly distorts the history of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. To hear him tell it, this was a hugely successful gambit which appeared to have “put Scottish nationalism back in its box for a generation” until the Brexiteers whipped up ‘English nationalism’ and reopened the issue.
Where to start? Anyone interested in fleshing out the story of 2014 might mention the way Cameron made near-maximal concessions to the Scottish Nationalists on things like the timing and framing of the referendum, giving them the opportunity to build a ‘Yes’ movement over years of campaigning.
Or remember the panicky ‘Vow’, which changed the vote from one on the United Kingdom to one on an ill-defined set of proposals that allowed the SNP to wriggle out of a ‘No’ vote almost immediately.
Or even raise an eyebrow at the bleating about ‘English nationalism’ – a rather tired Remainer trope – from a man who so loyally served the Prime Minister who pulled the rug out from under distraught Better Together activists the morning after that ‘worst evening in Downing Street’ by making the first thing he said that “the voice of England must be heard”.
The truth is that we owe today’s turbo-charged Scottish separatist movement to the gross mishandling of the SNP majority government in Edinburgh by Cameron and Osborne after 2011, and the gross mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic by Boris Johnson.
Brexit has surely played a role, but Nicola Sturgeon beached herself for several years waiting for that tide to come in, and the practical difficulties it raises to separation remain hugely important to the unionist cause. It just suits the many, many people clawing for an I-told-you-so on the EU to downplay the other factors.
Yet for all that, Osborne does get one big thing right in his piece. The Prime Minister’s best course really is to simply deny the SNP a re-run of the independence referendum, at least for this Parliament.
Unfortunately, the former Chancellor presents this idea in the least-attractive possible light. Having previously mocked those historical statesmen who assumed “that doing nothing was an option”, he now advises Johnson to do nothing. His case rests on the same ignoble but ironclad logic set out by Tom Gordon, a Scottish commentator, that the easiest way to avoid being the Prime Minister who lost the Union is to kick that can onto your successor’s lawn.
So nakedly tactical is the reasoning that it is difficult to imagine that Osborne is offering it in good faith. But there is a much stronger case for refusal than he chooses to make.
When it comes to justifications, I have written before about how the Government could better sell such a decision to fair-minded voters. It is sensible to hold off on such a monumental decision until we have more clarity about the international political and economic situation a newly-independent Scotland would be stepping into.
Moreover, allowing the question of separation to be too-frequently litigated undermines the moral foundations for the ‘pooling and sharing’ of resources which forms so much of the case for the Union today.
There are also much greater tactical advantages to delay than sparing the Prime Minister’s blushes.
The prospect of an imminent campaign is one of the most powerful forces preventing the SNP breaking out into open warfare. Decisively ruling out a referendum in this Parliament will force the First Minister into an ugly confrontation with her fundamentalist wing. It also looks increasingly likely it would place a vote beyond Sturgeon’s time in office, and research from These Islands has shown that she is an irreplaceable asset to the separatist cause.
Pushing a referendum back into the late 2020s also hugely increases the range of options available to the pro-UK side. At present, those like Michael Gove who think a referendum must be granted soon are stuck scrambling for ways to bribe swing voters in deeply unfavourable circumstances. This ‘pyrrhic unionism’ is too fixated on winning that battle to realise that fighting it at all means losing the war.
The United Kingdom won’t be saved by unionists promising there will be less and less of it, let alone by balkanising British governance to give the devolved administrations the chance to foul up the gears of the Union even further.
It will take deep, structural measures such as the UK Internal Market Act to make our shared institutions more relevant and more powerful, as well as cultural programmes which expand the spheres in which we live our lives in their British dimension. All of this will take time only a firm refusal of a referendum can grant.
So no, the Prime Minister can’t ‘just say no’. But the problematic word isn’t ‘no’, it’s ‘just’. In fact, refusal really requires much more long-term thinking and proactive strategy than another feeble, capitulatory ‘yes’ would.
This reasoning will be unpopular with many. Devocrats will want the Government to return to the well-trodden path of giving them things and hoping for the best. Constitutional experts will cling to the idea of a grand institutional accommodation with Scottish nationalism that their cleverness will deliver. Journalists will clamour for something to write about. There will be much talk of ‘pressure’.
But pressure is useless if you can’t exert it, and it is very difficult to exert that sort of pressure on a government with a majority of 80. With a buffer that thick Cameron would probably have held out against the Eurosceptics. Johnson certainly can against the SNP.
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