Though the SNP has launched a charm offensive on unionist voters as it seeks to persuade more of them to switch to supporting independence, it seems that ambition doesn’t stretch as far as one particular unionist voter.
Since Ruth Davidson returned from maternity leave earlier this month, Nicola Sturgeon has been more offensive than charming. The First Minister tweeted a link to a leaked version of Davidson’s keynote party conference speech, a day before it was due to be delivered, citing its “bad jokes, tired lines and ample evidence that the Tories are way out of touch with Scottish opinion on Brexit”. “Not much principle or strategic nous on display”, read another tweet. “A policy, ideas and principles vacuum. A one trick pony that is now really limping”, said a third.
Fair enough. Davidson has returned to the fray with the declaration that she intends to eject Sturgeon from Bute House at the next devolved election in 2021, and become Scotland’s first Conservative First Minister. The FM is showing that she, too, is willing to play the woman and not the ball. The next two years promise to give the lie to the suggestion that politics conducted by women is in any way a gentler sport: these two will take lumps out of each other. Nor will Davidson mind: Sturgeon’s venom suggests she views the Tory as a threat worth taking seriously.
For the rest of us, the SNP’s love-in continues apace. Sturgeon has asked the union-supporting opposition parties to work across the barricades with her to find “common ground” and make Holyrood a more effective parliament. The cybernats, the internet trolls who hunt unionist heresy and dump vitriolic daily doses of abuse on those with whom they disagree, have been publicly disowned by a number of senior SNP politicians. Angus Robertson, the former SNP leader at Westminster, has set up a polling organisation looking at the best ways to persuade wavering unionists to make the leap to a pro-indy stance.
The zen tone behind all of this stuff is new. Shouting at No voters got the SNP to 45 per cent in 2014, but it won’t get them any further. The new, cuddly, post-Salmond SNP has listened and learned. It wants to understand, soothe, reassure and persuade. Or at least the leadership does – the cybernats show little sign of going quietly.
It’s easy to scorn this sudden change of disposition, but there is a genuine strategic shift behind it which began with last year’s Growth Commission, which admitted the economics of independence are perhaps not as straightforward as presented by Salmond in 2014. Sturgeon may have talked recently about holding a second Indyref before 2021, but the chances of that happening are vanishingly small. First, Westminster wouldn’t give consent for another vote; second, the polls suggest she’d lose it. Watch the actions, not the words: the Nats are playing a longer, more thoughtful game. Don’t count on them losing it.
It confronts unionist politicians with a legitimate question: what’s their response to the love-bombing? If Davidson wants to be FM, who does she intend governing for – the 55 per cent of No voters alone, or a broader constituency? What is her offer to those who want independence? How does she deliver any sense of national solidarity? It’s worth noting that support for the SNP in Edinburgh and Westminster has relied at least a little on unionists, who have viewed them as either the most competent governing option available or most likely to stand up for Scotland’s interests.
Does Davidson have anything to say to those soft Yes voters who might be persuaded to return to unionism, or at least to support a change of government at Holyrood after what will have been 14 years of SNP rule? It’s a harder ask, given Brexit, the disintegration of the Conservative Party in London, the rise of the ERG ultras, the return of Nigel Farage and the lamentable performance of the Corbyn project. Westminster politics has never seemed so England-dominated as it does at present.
But if Sturgeon has a duty to find ways to knit divided Scots back together, her opposite number, who is after all a likeable, liberal, One Nation politician, does too. It befits any wannabe FM to find a language that speaks to voters as Scots, rather than as Yes or No voters. It’s certainly healthier that any national leader is elected across boundaries rather than by one side in a brutal and prolonged culture war.
Davidson’s team are developing what they say will be serious and original ideas in areas such as the economy and education, and this will surely do them no harm among policy-minded Scots. But it remains a fact that the case for the union is still being made in the same arid way that it was by the Better Together campaign in 2014. The future of the UK is still largely presented as a numbers game – “Scotland simply can’t afford to go it alone” – which may not have the same compelling pull it did five years ago.
Twenty years into devolution there is a case for Davidson to lead the argument for a reformed UK – the replacement of the Lords with a chamber of the regions, improvements to Holyrood such as greater independence for committee chairs, and radical devolution of power from Edinburgh to local authorities. This would at least show the Scottish Tories aren’t constitutional stick-in-the-muds. And she should find a form of words that shows she understands why so many Scots have either had enough of being part of the UK, or are at least feeling uncertain about the future.
In reality, though, she has so far shown limited appetite for standing up to her own party at Westminster. She will also be aware that a good chunk of her electoral support comes from the more ardent unionist voters in Scotland. In that respect, she is playing the constitutional odds every bit as hard as Sturgeon and the SNP are.
It would be nice to predict otherwise, but the depressing truth is that the next two years will probably be every bit as binary and brutal and independence-obsessed on both sides as the past decade has been.