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The twilight of the Union

The pandemic has accelerated the fragmentation of the United Kingdom and made a second Scottish independence referendum inevitable.

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As spring came the Scottish Question seemed destined –one way or another – for prolonged hibernation. The SNP’s popularity seemed likely to be dented by the trial of the party’s former leader Alex Salmond, on charges of sexual assault against nine different women (he denied all counts, and was acquitted). Would Salmond wash the SNP’s dirty linen in public? Possibly. Would the party and the wider national movement split into rival Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon fan clubs? It seemed to be happening already, with Joanna Cherry MP emerging as the leading Salmondite within the SNP.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic overshadowed the trial, and made the constitutional debate about Scotland’s future seem trivial. Suddenly there were other more pressing issues to think about, a lethal and mysterious plague that threatened to overwhelm the NHS and devastate the economy. Although, technically speaking, NHS Scotland is a distinct entity, founded on separate Scottish legislation, this fact belongs to the arcane lore of policy wonks: the NHS is widely regarded in Scotland as a UK institution. During lockdown Scots banged pots and pans on a Thursday night for the NHS, not specifically for the NHS in Scotland. And everybody knew that the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s generous furlough scheme came courtesy of the deep pockets of the UK Treasury.

Yet, bizarrely, the Scottish Question did not hibernate. Instead, opinion about Scottish independence shifted significantly during the Covid lockdown. At the start of the year, the pro- and anti-independence camps were running neck and neck in the opinion polls, and remained tied as late as May. But more recent polls demonstrate a marked rise in support for independence, which is now running at 54 per cent, once the don’t knows are excluded.

How are we to explain the mysterious alchemy by which the conspicuous absence of overt nationalist campaigning yielded a boost for the independence cause? In some degree it’s because the Sturgeon administration is trusted and seen to have handled the crisis well. Scotland has a high mortality rate by international standards, not least in its care homes, but the more obvious comparison is with the shambles – PPE, testing, the Cummings affair – presided over by Boris Johnson. Partly, too, the First Minister is reaping some political benefit from her studiously non-political daily lunchtime broadcasts on the Covid crisis. But there is, I suspect, something more fundamental in play than airtime and exposure.  

The unexpected rise in support for independence brings into focus a neglected factor in Scottish political culture: the phenomenon of denialism. Confusingly for those who casually assume a binary division in Scottish politics between unionism and nationalism, many supporters of independence deny being nationalists. Indeed, they are allergic to the very idea of nationalism.

Yet if nationalism is a dirty word, then the corollary is not unionism, but rather the desire to belong to a properly modern state, something very different from a fossilised semi-feudal UK with its unelected House of Lords. Dreams of a better Scotland or the modest desire to live in a normal European country, these progressives insist, are not to be confused with nationalism, which has pejorative if not toxic associations.

The novelist James Robertson, author of a panoramic condition of Scotland novel, And the Land Lay Still (2010), which traces the country’s gradual intricate shift from postwar socialism to a growing sense of nationhood, is reluctant to align his public support for independence with nationalist allegiance. Robertson has stated that he does “not subscribe to nationalism as an ideology”, but believes in a less overtly drum-beating way in “the right of peoples and nations, if that is how they perceive themselves, to determine their own political futures”.

Stranger still, reticence of this sort can also be found in the SNP itself. Mhairi Black – who was the youngest MP for 200 years when she was elected member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South at the age of 20 in the 2015 SNP landslide – announced in her maiden speech that “nationalism” had “nothing to do with what’s happened in Scotland”. Rather, she claimed, the SNP had “triumphed on a wave of hope, hope that there was something different” from neo-liberal austerity. Even Nicola Sturgeon has been coy about identifying too closely with nationalism. In 2012 she proclaimed her not-quite-nationalist credo: “My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.” In 2017, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Sturgeon expressed regret at the inclusion of “National” in the SNP’s name.

To be sure, nationalism plays a significant part in the independence cause. But in the broad miscellaneous coalition of voters that supports independence, flag-waving nationalists, though the most obviously visible cohort, rub shoulders with a range of other social types. There are the voters, often middle-aged, who think independence is the best way of preserving what remains of Britain’s cherished welfare state; those who want to live in a normal northern European country – like Denmark or Norway – with a Nordic model of egalitarian social democracy; those who despair of the Brexity delusions of Britain’s post-imperial nostalgia; and a radical younger generation that identifies with Rise, the alternative movement for “Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism”.

The more Boris Johnson resorts to vacuous boosterism – “world-beating” virus contact-tracing apps, and the like – the more Scots relish the idea of belonging to a modern, non-world-beating social democracy. And that is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon has presented during the Covid crisis: the face of competent, sensible government. She has acknowledged mistakes, and conceded the limits of any government in the face of this novel threat, but she has also displayed a determination to do what it takes to keep her people safe. The contrast with Johnson’s empty bombast – and his hugely disproportionate expenditure of effort in defence of his chief aide Dominic Cummings – has been obvious, and not only to nationalists. Dismayed friends of the Union can see it too, normally loyal Conservatives among them.     

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Denialism is not limited to the pro-independence side of politics. It is also a factor among unionists, some of whom reject the unionist label. Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader in 2014-15 and as such the leader of Scotland’s largest pro-Union party, publicly declared: “I am not a unionist.” By which, he meant, the term unionist was so loaded with Ulster Protestant associations that Murphy, a Scot of Irish Catholic descent, was unwilling to describe himself as a unionist despite supporting the cause.

There are other forms of denialism on the pro-Union side. Some supporters of the Union become irritated when their opponents describe them as “Brit nats”. These unionists, just like their pro-independence rivals, reject the charge that they are British nationalists; rather, they insist, they oppose all forms of nationalism, whether English, British or Scottish. A substantial grouping of double unionists, pro-UK and pro-EU and with a liberal distaste, in varying degrees, for chauvinistic prejudice, amounted until recently to about 30 per cent of the Scots electorate. Although these voters feel unappreciated by both layers of government, by the SNP in Edinburgh as much as by the Tories in London, they are able to discriminate between different kinds of nationalism. Some disenchanted anti-nationalist, small-l liberals are drifting over to Scottish independence as the lesser of two evils, the jingoism of Brexiteers being more audibly obnoxious than the SNP’s restrained civic nationalism.

The SNP has in recent decades strenuously wooed the various different ethnic groups in Scottish society. Previously the SNP was a party of middle-class Presbyterians, and had a spiky relationship with the working-class Catholic community of Scotland’s industrial belt, who were overwhelmingly of Irish descent. Early nationalists of the 1930s perceived Scotland’s Catholics as an alien migrant presence. As late as 1982 the SNP’s former leader William Wolfe denounced the visit of Pope John Paul II to Scotland, much to the consternation of the rest of the party. But the damage was done. Matters came to a head at the notorious Monklands East by-election of 1994, in the former seat of the deceased Labour leader John Smith. The by-election was overshadowed by the Monklandsgate scandal – allegations that of the two main towns within its jurisdiction, the Labour council had disproportionately favoured Catholic Coatbridge over Protestant Airdrie. In the course of a bad-tempered and vicious by-election campaign, Labour accused the SNP of flirting with Orange bigotry.

After the Monklands debacle, Salmond went out of his way to court the Catholic Church in Scotland, and other minority groups, Scottish Asians especially. This outreach was not mere window-dressing – it was sincere and sustained over several decades. Salmond repeatedly emphasised that the SNP’s nationalism was civic and institutional, not ethnic: all residents of Scotland were Scots. Thus even the most anti-nationalist of Scots can see clear daylight between Scottish nationalism and its beery Anglo-Brexiteer counterpart.

The SNP stresses Scotland’s historic continental links, and presents itself, plausibly enough, as a cosmopolitan force. While the national movement does have a shouty, xenophobic tail – which was much in evidence on the streets in the run-up to the referendum of 2014 – the tail does not conspicuously wag the dog. Sturgeon’s nationalism seems much more palatable than the populism of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, which drives so many of Scotland’s instinctive anti-nationalists, however reluctantly, into the independence camp.  

At the 2015 general election the Tory charge that Ed Miliband would be an SNP puppet had an unpalatably Scotophobic aftertaste. From the 2015 general election, by the way of the Irish border issue and pollsters’ findings that many English Brexiteers were unconcerned that Brexit would end the Union, Scots of all political persuasions – but most significantly the anti-Brexit unionists – can see that England’s populist nationalism is not only anti-European, but anti-Irish and anti- Scottish. Why would any Scot want to be a part of all that? 


Unpalatably Scotophobic: Tory campaign vehicles, depicting Ed Miliband in the pockets of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, during the 2015 election. Credit: Paul Thomas/Bloomberg via Getty​

If the pro-independence camp seems ever more variegated in its composition, the opposite is true of the pro-Union side. Since the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland – or rather its siphoning off to the SNP under Sturgeon, who posed as a non-nationalist leader of a social democratic Scottish Labour Party mark II – the Conservatives have become the dominant party of the Union. But across the UK Conservatism is narrowing. ­Having successfully squashed liberal Europhile Conservatism, the hard right seems ­determined to confine a pluralist multi-­national unionism within the limits of British nationalism.

The first two decades of devolution were surprisingly harmonious, notwithstanding the independence referendum of 2014. In Scotland the anti-devolutionist Tories of the Thatcher-Major era quickly came to terms with Holyrood. For a start, the proportional list element in Scotland’s Additional Member voting system allowed a handful of Conservatives to establish careers in the new devolved parliament at a time when they held no constituencies, either at Westminster or in Edinburgh.

While some Conservatives engaged pragmatically with devolved institutions, others – in Wales as well as Scotland – saw the need for a federal overhaul of the UK in the longer-term interests of the Union. The key thinker was David Melding, a Conservative member in the Welsh Assembly, who published a couple of imaginatively far-sighted books on the future of the UK: Will Britain Survive beyond 2020? (2009) and The Reformed Union: the UK as a Federation (2013). His closest counterpart in Scotland has been Murdo Fraser, Ruth Davidson’s main rival in the Scottish Tory leadership contest of 2011, who ran on a platform of disbanding the Scottish Conservatives and establishing a new independent centre-right party, with its own policies and identity. Instead of a branch-office relationship between the Scottish right and Westminster Conservatives, there would be something no closer than the arm’s length relationship between Bavaria’s Christian Social Union and Germany’s Christian Democrats.

Instead of pursuing the radical option favoured by Fraser, the Scottish Tories opted for Davidson, the seeming continuity candidate. But things did not stand still. Instead of Fraser’s formal rebranding, what the party got was a different kind of makeover. Davidson – pithy, media-friendly, lesbian and progressive – managed, after a slow start, to rehabilitate the Conservatives as a party for whom Scots could respectably vote without the risk of social ostracism. Tory election literature featured Ruth Davidson to the exclusion of her party. The 13 seats won by the Scottish Tories at the 2017 general election – a remarkable increase of 12 on the previous result – saved Theresa May’s government. It also gave Davidson a certain amount of leverage at Westminster and a rare licence to tweak the prime minister’s tail.

When May was forced to cut a deal with the unwoke Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, Davidson cheekily tweeted a link to the Amnesty Pride lecture she had given in Belfast. Was Davidson on the verge of defining a new kind of unionism, that was happily rather than grudgingly devolutionist, mirthful not dour, and youthful in spirit? Possibly. But it was not to be. Brexit was the stumbling block. Although Davidson, formerly a loud and principled anti-Brexiter, managed to sound plausibly enthusiastic about an “open Brexit”, the Conservative right at Westminster had descended into frothing Europhobia.

As May’s administration toiled over Brexit and visibly tottered, Davidson could see all too vividly the dangers that lay ahead. In the autumn of 2018 she launched manoeuvres to prevent a Johnson coup, under the unbreakable codename Operation Arse. But in due course this plotting backfired, and Davidson found herself a collateral victim of Johnson’s triumphant purge of the party at Westminster. The media reported that Davidson was pressing Johnson to retain David Mundell at the Scotland Office, so Johnson sacked him; and shortly afterwards Davidson – stripped of influence – resigned from the leadership at the end of August 2019.

The stodgily bourgeois Jackson Carlaw – first Davidson’s stand-in and later elected the new leader of the Scottish Tories in February – proved incapable of reaching those parts of the electorate responsive to Davidson’s demotic charm. He was ushered out of the leadership in late July only five dismal months after his formal appointment to the job. Davidson has returned, but as interim parliamentary leader until Douglas Ross, a Westminster MP, returns to the Scottish parliament. But changing the leader scarcely disguises the fact that Conservatism, and with it Scottish unionism, has shrivelled.

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The mood music around devolution has changed. The European Withdrawal Act of 2018 and future Conservative plans for repatriated powers offend against the core principle of Scottish devolution: namely, that whatever is not reserved to Westminster is automatically devolved to Holyrood. Tory plans to preserve the integrity of the UK as a single market necessarily trespass on areas of devolved competence – such as food manufacturing, animal welfare, the environment – and meet SNP resistance. Is SNP talk of a Westminster “power grab” grievance-mongering or a genuine concern?

A bit of both, I fear. A worrying proportion of Conservative movers and shakers I have come across since the December election victory seem to me false friends of the Union. They have scant sympathy for devolution, or any properly unionist appreciation for our decentralised union-state. They fail to see that Scottish unionism is not the antithesis of nationalism, but rather its unacknowledged twin. Historically, a negotiated Anglo-Scottish Union was the most realistic means of checking the imperial arrogance of the larger power on this island and thus preserving intact many of the key attributes of Scottish nationhood. Scottish unionism is a very different beast from British nationalism. Or at least it was. 

Something worryingly similar is afoot in Wales. An Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party was launched in 2015, and is attracting support from the Brexit Party in Wales and from the Conservative right. In response, Mark Reckless, leader of the Brexit Party in the renamed Welsh Senedd, has suggested the direct popular election of the Welsh first minister and the abolition of the parliament in which he sits. The Welsh Conservatives too are rattled, some becoming more openly devo-sceptic. This turn is compounded more generally across the UK by the Covid crisis, as variations in lockdown regulations and their phased lifting across the four nations have brought home as never before the reality of devolved governance. For some diehards on the right the very fact that Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh and Mark Drakeford in Wales dared to diverge from the policies of the UK government constitutes an affront to the idea of a single united British nation.

Mundell, the Scottish secretary deposed in 2019, has described next year’s Holyrood elections as “a referendum on a referendum”. A former SNP MSP, Dave Thompson, is launching a new nationalist party, Alliance for Independence, in order to “max the vote”. Under the arithmetic formula for Scotland’s Additional Member system, the more constituency seats the SNP wins, the harder it is for the party to gain seats on the regional list corrective to the first-past-the-post constituency vote. Therefore, Thompson argues, a vote for the SNP on the regional list is often wasted, but would not be if cast for an alternative nationalist party which is not contesting any constituency seats. Will this new party really “max the vote” and lead to total dominance of the Scots parliament by two complementary pro-independence parties? Or is it a proxy for Salmondite disillusion, another portent of splits?

Greater attention to the range of opinion that exists on either side of Scotland’s unionist-nationalist divide might shape a future debate in Scotland that was less crudely binary than the uninformative wrangle we saw at the referendum in 2014. Alas, that seems like wishful thinking, especially when the Brexiteering right seems determined to shepherd a diverse anti-independence flock – comprising Labour supporters, Lib Dems, Tory devolutionists, even some SNP voters – towards a “Brit nat” cul-de-sac. If Scottish unionism has any future in the medium term, it lies not in shrill assertions of British unity, but in bold positive moves towards the federal reconstruction of the United Kingdom.

This article appears in the 02 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union