Boris Johnson’s “muscular unionism” will only drive Scotland further towards independence

The instruction to British diplomats to stop referring to the UK as a union of four nations is a symptom of English arrogance.

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There are people for whom there is no step too far or too mad in their campaign to keep Scotland in the UK. A small, twitchy band of ultra-Unionists spend their time snuffling in the constitutional undergrowth for magic potions that might somehow cure the wicked urge to self-determination.

The best wheeze for ages came this week from a blogger called Effie Deans, who in a gloriously outrageous piece argued for the abolition of the Scottish national football team, to be replaced with a single UK side. Timing is everything, they say, and I’m sure the proposal will prove a solid-gold winner with fans of all political persuasions who are preparing to support the team in its first international finals for more than two decades. Who says Unionists have run out of arguments or lack understanding of what makes Scotland tick?

This is not so much muscular as crepuscular unionism. At least the British government hasn’t quite gone that far yet. It has, however, considerably upped the stakes in its efforts to head off the threat of a second independence referendum.

For the past few weeks Scotland’s newspapers have been reporting that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are being deployed north of the border to woo and win the hearts of rebellious Scots, no doubt at Downing Street’s behest. The assumption must be that a bit of youthful, good-looking royalty will act as a shop window for a British future. Scots will press their faces to the glass and beg to be let in. Again, this suggests a limited appreciation of modern, middle Scotland and its discontents. And, dangerously, it politicises the royals.

[See also: Can Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell continue to run the SNP between them?]

But muscular unionism is the order of the day. At the weekend it emerged that British diplomats have been told to stop referring to the UK as a union of four nations and instead assert its status as one country. The British government is planning to spend large amounts in devolved areas and to stick a great big Union Jack on its infrastructure projects. The Tories’ Internal Market Bill is a deliberate attempt to roll back some of the powers passed to the devolved parliaments.

This seems like an attempt to answer a question few Scots – other than the Effie Deanses of this world – are asking. I don’t hear many people wondering why the Westminster government doesn’t do more in Scotland and in devolved policy areas. I hear plenty of them wishing the Westminster government would do Westminster government things in ways that align more closely with Scottish values – foreign policy, welfare, defence, that kind of thing. For some reason, this seems to be the less attractive option in Downing Street.

In the end, similar to so much else these days, it all comes back to our departure from the EU. Brexit is an ongoing constitutional trauma for Scotland, not only because we didn’t want to leave the EU (62 per cent of Scottish voters backed Remain), but because of what it told us about power within the UK, and where Scotland stands in that structure.

At an event this week for my think tank Reform Scotland, two former senior mandarins provided a compelling insight into how Westminster and Whitehall view Scotland. Philip Rycroft was permanent secretary of the Brexit department and at the same time head of the UK Governance Group in the Cabinet Office, advising ministers on all aspects of the constitution and devolution. Ciaran Martin, as well as setting up the UK’s National Cyber Centre, was director of constitution in the Cabinet Office, where he oversaw the arrangements for the 2014 independence referendum.

Both have Rolls-Royce brains, and both are alarmed at the way the government is treating Scotland, and at the shockwaves reverberating from the Brexit decision. “Brexit stripped away the ambiguity of the devolution settlements,” said Rycroft. “The way that Brexit has happened has demonstrated just where power rests within this Union. There’s an argument that part of the reason the Union has subsisted over many centuries is because of that self-denying ordinance on the part of the English not to assert their view over other parts of the UK. Well, Brexit is an assertion of an English view. And of course that has had a huge impact on perceptions in Scotland.”

Martin agrees. “England has always had the electoral majority but has never really used it. Now it is saying ‘we want to define the state – if you want to stay in it you stay in it on our terms.’ It’s a take it or leave it choice.”

It’s not hard to see why this might lack appeal to a sizeable number of Scots, and why in this context “muscular unionism” only pours fuel on the flames. Should the centre treat the periphery with respect and reasonableness or should it seek to bend the devolved nations to its will? And if the latter, how can it end well?

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon has been lucky with her enemies – but trouble lies ahead]

“Frankly,” says Rycroft, “the respect word… has been missing from the equation over the last four or five years.” You don’t deal with rising support for independence “by asserting the symbols of the state that a lot of people are finding objectionable… [and] to do it over the heads of the democratically elected devolved government in Scotland, I think it appeals to far too narrow a band of opinion in Scotland.”

Martin calls this approach “know-your-place unionism”.

“When it comes to the choice between treating the devolved areas either with respect and reasonableness or with muscular enforcement, it comes down to “what kind of United Kingdom do we want to live in?” he said.

“The question I’ve got is what does the UK government want to achieve? Does it want to shore up a Union that’s different, messy, multinational, or does it say ‘let’s try over time to let this stuff atrophy – we can’t get rid of it but let’s minimise differences within the UK, let’s govern as one nation’.

“The clunky briefing about the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is one thing, the instruction to diplomats to stop talking about the four nations was actually quite significant in that respect. Are you campaigning for that sort of unitary-state British nationalism or are you campaigning to save the Union on the basis of respectful reasonableness? We don’t know yet.”

The big problem with all this is that it leaves little room for creative thinking and compromise, say both ex-mandarins. Instead, it forces people into binary positions, and offers them only binary choices. This makes finding a “third way” on Scotland’s position in the UK very difficult. Further, Rycroft detects “no appetite for broad constitutional reform” in Downing Street, including reform of the House of Lords, which blocks off another possible pathway.

There are decades of history that show the British government is not particularly good at constitutional statecraft, and this is probably just the latest example. But it threatens to be more consequential than most. “It’s either the status quo or it’s independence and there’s no alternative,” says Rycroft. “For those who worry about sustaining the UK long-term, that’s a fairly parlous place to be.”

[See also: If not now... never? Nicola Sturgeon on the battle for a second Scottish referendum]

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

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