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29 January 2021

The quiet collapse of Scottish unionism

How the distinctive creed of “standing up for Scotland” within the UK has been replaced by one-size Britishness.

By Scott Hames

BBC Scotland is currently airing The Years That Made Modern Scotland, a documentary series tracing the nation’s quiet transformation over the past five decades. Guided by Kirsty Wark, a jaunt through the archive shows us the advance of the SNP, the pain of factory closures and the rise of Scottish crime fiction, as the nation walked the road to devolution. The distance travelled is remarkable, but in tracing the rise of national identity and political confidence, an untold story lingers at the margin: the collapse of Scottish unionism as an outlook and a sensibility.

This is no fault of the programme makers. The story of how Scotland got to be this way is also the story of how it gradually stopped being something else, and the latter tale is almost impossible to tell. Even in the period of the Union’s sleepy pomp, from around 1850 to 1950, scholars find it challenging to pinpoint the Union’s meaning in Scottish culture. Today, its patterns of dual loyalty are largely illegible, overwritten by competing Scottish and British nationalisms. Few of the programme’s viewers can recall feeling British Scottishly (or vice versa, according to preference), and you cannot vox-pop sheer amnesia, or film a lingering absence.

Oddly, this absence changes little on the political surface. When acceptance of the British constitutional order went without saying in Scotland, quietude was the measure of its strength. Because assent to the Union was scarcely a question, writes Colin Kidd, “there was no need to make a vigorous case on its behalf”, and so a banal unionism functioned as a sort of wallpaper in Scottish political life, which only began to curl and fade in the 1960s.

Thus historians and TV writers face a curious problem, of showing how the inarticulacy of unchallenged dominance – the political scientist Richard Rose describes an “unthinking Union” governed by “unthinking unionism” – swiftly declined into tongue-tied eccentricity, without ever finding its own true voice (or leaving much of an archive to raid). This may explain the total occlusion of the tottering Anglo-Scots union from Netflix’s The Crown, in which the constitutional remaking of the United Kingdom – and the very existence of Scottish nationalism – pass unremarked in its portrayal of Britain through the second half of the 20th century.

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Simply deleting the SNP from history may please today’s Telegraph readers, but the unionist tradition involved a deep accommodation of nationalism within Britishness, or what the historian David Torrance terms “nationalist unionism”. As Torrance shows, the creed of “standing up for Scotland” within the Union, emphasising Scottish rights and distinctiveness within the UK, can be found in Liberal, Conservative and Labour traditions stretching back to the reign of Victoria, but the binary grammar of today’s constitutional debate renders it almost unintelligible. “Unionism has no new songs”, observed the poet Kathleen Jamie in 2014, nor a distinctive political language in which to sing them. The tunes and emblems nearest the hearts of Scotland’s No voters are strongly aligned with an Anglocentric British nationalism – the formation traditional unionism defined itself politely but firmly against insisting on a visibly Scottish way of being British.

So deep is nationalist “ownership” of Scottish national consciousness and its stories, firm opponents of independence are now drifting toward one-sized Britishness – a single nationality joining Nairn, Newport, Nottingham and Newry – as an equal and opposite counter-narrative. The Scots TV presenter Neil Oliver is an influential pro-Union voice who today espouses a romantic British nationalism with no room for Scottish distinctions (“[we are the] most blessed of all people. I am British. I will always be British”). Hard-line No campaign groups such as The Majority deliberately brand themselves as “anti-nationalist” rather than unionist, partly for tactical reasons, and partly out of honest indifference (organiser Mark Devlin admits that “like most people, I don’t care that much about ‘the Union’”).

Most intriguingly, some of the No hardcore view the traditional unionist story as a Scottish nationalist distortion: “reducing the complexity of Britain, from Devon to Dunfermline, from Birmingham to Bathgate” by viewing the UK national community through the prism of 1707. The very Union which produced Britishness is here denounced as treason against it; but as Kidd reminds us, “Scots themselves first developed the idea of unionism as an alternative to an English empire in these islands.” This amnesia is so thoroughgoing that the basic reflexes of an earlier unionist common-sense sound heretical to today’s anti-nationalists.

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Mobilised and “de-banalised” opposition to independence has generated some curious arguments and alignments, including several difficult to square with traditional distaste for “narrow nationalism”. There is a creeping sense of entropy among those on the No side of Scotland’s constitutional divide, whose leading tendencies might be grouped in three loose strands: Best of Both Worlders (pragmatic unionists with a dual Scottish-British allegiance), Bulldogs (British nationalists in love with Britain and its blessings, who dumped Scoto-Britishness after 2014), and Nat-slayers (fierce anti-nationalists who despise the SNP but have no real attachment to the Union, or any other constitutional vision). There is of course considerable overlap between these groups, and some constructive ambiguity; George Galloway’s “Alliance for Unity” presents itself as “standing up for the Union” but its pitch and ethos centres on Nat-slaying.

[See also: Paul Mason on why the English left should not stand in the way of Scottish independence]

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The Best of Both Worlds camp – the dominant and official No position – has been squeezed since 2015 by the growing electoral dominance of the SNP, mirrored in England, after the 2016 Brexit vote, by tub-thumping visions of Britannia unchained. The energy and success of these competing nationalisms have eroded any residual appeal of the Both Worlds middle course. But the real strategic difficulty for UK parties, and Labour above all, is that the second and third camps – Scotland’s Bulldogs and Nat-slayers – are increasingly vocal in their opposition to devolution, which remains the only game in town for Best of Both Worlders.

In their devo-scepticism, these hard-line No voters chime with the younger intake of English Tory MPs and Conservative thinkers such as Henry Hill. Here, just possibly, could be the makings of a UK-wide movement against both devolution and Scottish independence, following the logic (most recently articulated by the journalist John Lloyd) that all of Britain should have a stronger say in the UK’s possible dissolution. Should this dynamic fully emerge, Labour will struggle to find a defensible Both Worlds patriotism within it.

But there are audible strains in Tory constitutional politics, too. Just as the leading edge of Brexit nationalism is increasingly hostile to the unionist project of devolution, Conservatives show growing impatience with Best of Both Worlds thinking. The fact things work differently and unevenly across the “four nations” was meant to be the happy point of devolution, though now it is increasingly seen as an insult to British unity and largesse.

This tetchiness is even voiced by the self-styled “Minister for the Union”. Only weeks after privately condemning devolution as a “disaster”, the Prime Minister was reported to claim “that there would not have been a single Covid-19 vaccine in Scotland if it were up to Nicola Sturgeon’s party”. His meaning, a surrogate explained, was that size matters: “the UK is a major country, we’ve got sufficient clout to get the vaccines rolled out”. A fair point, but it remains notable that Johnson’s disdain for the SNP is seldom expressed in a unionist vocabulary, even when finessed and glossed by more tactful communicators. Indeed, it’s difficult to name a leading UK politician who gives the impression of viewing Scotland’s democracy as a cherished part of the British constitutional order, rather than a tiresome subfolder of the “major” state-nation.

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When the bigness of the national unit is considered its clinching argument, a kind of moral defeat has already entered unionist thinking. When George Osborne openly boasts that the Union’s trump card is its imperviousness to Scottish public opinion, worries quite alien to the banal unionist tradition rise to the surface. What is the 1707 Union now holding together, other than its own governing interest, determined to maintain Britain’s clout and prestige? Scottish voters have noticed that the bigness of the UK government is having a very mixed pandemic, frequently coming apart like a cheap paper gown.

The political economist Will Davies writes of the waning “state effect” exposed by Whitehall’s response to Covid-19: the revelation that many core government functions are only weakly anchored in accountable public institutions, and are in fact “delivered” through arrangements more footloose and fungible than citizens might expect. “It’s not the size of the state that is shrinking,” Davies writes, “but its integrity and credibility in the eyes of the public. And a state that no longer appears like a single unified entity, but rather a set of private contractors, anonymous briefings and political strategies, is no longer an effective modern state at all.”

State effect is a telling prism through which to observe the contrasting fortunes of the UK and Scottish governments – and their attendant nationalisms – during the Covid crisis. Just as the outsourcing debacle of England’s £20bn track-and-trace system came to light, along with its embarrassing financial links to the ruling coterie, the Holyrood administration was looking more like a responsible and effective state than ever before. In the absence of Treasury firepower (and its temptations), the growing state effect in Scotland is centred on the moral seriousness of devolved leadership, and highly skilled public relations.

Edinburgh’s divergence from Westminster Covid policies has been modest, but deviations arise in a cultural context in which anything distinctly Scottish and home-grown is viewed warmly. Add the floppy-haired contrast in governing style in Downing Street, and the First Minister’s soaring popularity becomes easier to grasp, reflecting near-universal recognition of the diligence, sobriety and clarity Sturgeon brings to the task. The SNP administration has made painful mistakes, but has acknowledged them with due public contrition, and even those who question Sturgeon’s decisions generally accept the model of compassionate governing rationality from which they issue. At time of writing, Sturgeon has the highest approval rating of any politician in England.

In 2007, Alex Salmond – Sturgeon’s mentor and now her nemesis – struck a more audacious pose in renaming the Scottish Executive the Scottish Government, because there was no law saying he couldn’t. Here is the ultimate state-effect “hack”, and there has been no comparable feat of the unionist imagination during the course of devolution. The bleak equivalent today is Osborne’s argument that Johnson should “just say no” to a second referendum, indefinitely: because he might lose, and because there is no legal recourse to a permanent stonewall.

The absence of ideas over the past two decades is now matched by the twitchy radicalism of grass-roots No politics, less firmly attached to the Both-Worlds Union than in 2014, and hungry for combat with the nationalists. This poses special difficulties for Labour, the party most deeply wedded to the traditional framing of official unionism, and with most riding on its electoral salience across the UK.

[See also: Why Richard Leonard’s resignation won’t end Scottish Labour’s woes]

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A second official No campaign would need strong input from Labour to avoid an SNP/Tory dynamic that strongly favours the Yes side, but Keir Starmer – like Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband before him – faces a pitiless dilemma. The Labour leader has no realistic prospect of taking power at Westminster without a major revival in Scotland (or, more likely, a deal with the SNP), and no room to make the necessary overtures to ex-Labour Yes voters without gifting the Conservatives a powerful attack line (of meekness in the defence of Britain, or being Sturgeon’s useful idiot).

In the event of a second referendum on Scottish independence, Labour could find itself leading a No campaign whose most ardent foot-soldiers – revanchist Bulldogs and Nat-slayers – feel scorn for Scottish-British hybridities. Not only have passionate anti-SNP voters already switched to the Scottish Conservatives, but Labour making a dogged last stand for the 1707 settlement – which would likely include promises of enhanced devolution – would risk alienating English Labour voters already fed up of Scottish special pleading.

There is no realistic Labour pathway to Westminster government that does not involve a peaceable accommodation with Scottish nationalism, and little to recommend a second helping of the Better Together ordeal. In 2014, joining with the Tories to campaign for the Best of Both Worlds all but destroyed the party in Scotland. Next time around, the fight against Scottish independence will not find much utility in the nationalist-unionist tradition that Labour has inherited. It is a sensibility halfway down the memory hole, omitted from the stories modern Scotland and modern Britain tell about themselves, and it may be time to learn a different song.

Scott Hames teaches at the University of Stirling and is the author of “The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation” (2019).

[See also: Will Scotland vote for independence? Our poll tracker]