Rishi Sunak recently became the latest cabinet minister to visit Scotland, as the Conservatives continue their urgent efforts to stem support for the SNP ahead of next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections. It is a battle not only to prevent an SNP majority but the mandate for another independence referendum that such a result would provide.
The case for the Chancellor’s visit was obvious. He is a rare asset for the Conservative and unionist cause north of the border as the most popular current politician in the UK, and one of the few members of the British government with positive approval ratings in Scotland.
Sunak is enjoying a (somewhat creepy) love-in across the UK: “Cheers Rishi!” declare the Instagram posts from people enjoying discounted meals under the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, while the BBC has styled the Chancellor as Superman (in a video subsequently deleted), and the Times (seemingly inadvertently) has depicted him with a halo above his head in a recent profile. (The less said about the coverage describing him as “dishy Rishi” the better.) Though Nicola Sturgeon enjoys strong approval ratings and the Boris Johnson/Dominic Cummings brand remains toxic for many Scots, it is unquestionably wise to exploit Suank’s appeal.
But more important than the Chancellor’s personal popularity is what he represents as the living embodiment of what the government believes is its best argument against Scottish independence.
Week after week at PMQs, Boris Johnson has underlined the extent of UK government support for Scotland throughout this crisis, always with new numbers to highlight the number of people on the furlough scheme in a particular SNP MP’s constituency, the amount of money spent propping up Scottish businesses, or the number of firms that have benefited.
Sunak’s trip was designed to hammer home this fact to voters in Scotland. In his morning broadcast round on 7 August he emphasised the numbers: £2.3bn has been given to more than 65,000 firms in Scotland since the pandemic began. By later visiting various Scottish businesses Sunak sought to demonstrate the human impact that his support scheme has had and, by extension, the economic case for the Union in times of crisis.
It is an argument that is visibly wearying for Sturgeon. She has argued that the extent of UK government support for Scotland is simply a function of where power lies: were her country independent, the Scottish government would have intervened.
Is she right? Until there is detailed modelling of a hypothetical scenario in which an independent Scotland introduced a job retention scheme, we have no way of knowing. But it doesn’t really matter: the government’s line of attack taps into a lingering fear among Scottish voters that independence would harm, rather than help, the country’s economy. It is a rerun of the 2014 debate: while the pro-Union side is still struggling to find an emotional argument to match the one made for independence, it is shoring up the economic case.
It’s an argument that narrowly prevailed last time, but the Brexit referendum demonstrated that economic factors are not always decisive. This, however, shouldn’t be the only cause for concern for the Conservatives. Their case rests on the success of the government’s economic response to the crisis to date. It is simple for now: the Sunak love-in continues, and there are impressive numbers to show the extent of government support for Scottish businesses. But as the furlough scheme is wound down, and ends entirely in October, the picture could change dramatically.
If the government is keen to claim credit for economic successes, it is, implicitly, taking responsibility for any future failures. Should the Scottish people begin to suffer mass unemployment and economic devastation once the furlough scheme ends, the Conservatives have positioned themselves to take the blame. An argument for the economic strength of the Union will, for the SNP, have become yet another against Conservative rule from Westminster.