By far the biggest Union-related story this week, at least as far as the Conservatives are concerned, is some new polling from YouGov.
It suggests that a majority of Tory members would consider the break-up of the United Kingdom a price worth paying for delivering Brexit.
According to the figures published by the Times Scotland, members they surveyed would choose Brexit over retaining either Scotland or Northern Ireland by margins close to two-to-one.
Now, there are questions we can ask about this finding. Matt Singh, the polling expert behind Number Cruncher Politics, suggests that a highly-engaged audience such as party activists may be more likely to consciously exaggerate their position to ‘send a message’.
But the headline figures are nonetheless troubling, and their significance is not diminished by opportunistic pearl-clutching from Remainer ‘unionists’ who are happy to pray in aid of the integrity of the UK… except when it contradicts their narrative.
Personally, the two people I think have got closest to the underlying drivers are Kevin Hague and Stephen Bush. Hague, probably rightly, chalked the findings up as a “big win for the SNP’s strategy of making Scotland’s voice in the UK sound like that of false-grievance mongering dicks”.
Bush, meanwhile, spotted this:
I think the revealing story here is that the thing that feels most tangible and believable to Conservative members is the one thing they wouldn’t sacrifice for Brexit. pic.twitter.com/pdpm3EvuME
— Stephen Bush (@stephenkb) June 18, 2019
I think this tangibility point is true in two senses. The first is that, yes, Conservative activists have good reason to doubt at this point that Brexit will dissolve the country. The ‘myth of the fragile Union’, wherein the break-up of Britain is threatened by politicians and commentators in pursuit of other things (usually “more powers”) remains busted. The ‘knife at the throat’ looks blunt and rubbery – not that this will stop the likes of Carwyn Jones pushing this line for all they’re worth.
But it is also the case that, after two decades of continual devolution, the Union simply feels less tangible in our day-to-day lives. A vast and still-growing sphere of national life is now siloed away, and the devocrats continue to strive to replace what British-level contact remains with wrangling between devolved administrations or parliamentary ‘blocs’.
This has always been one of the biggest problems with the whole ‘devo-max’ idea. If you tell one part of the country that maximal devolution plus full fiscal transfers represents “the best of both worlds”, your implicit argument is that the only good thing about the Union is the cash.
Such an approach has an obvious problem, in that it requires those parts of the Union from which said fiscal transfers currently flow either not to think about it or, if they do, to adopt a much more existential (and therefore, highly asymmetrical) attitude towards the UK. Quite why the transparently mercenary attitude of the devo-maxers should engender such depth of feeling is, shall we say, non-obvious.
These figures show that Scottish Conservative MPs are right to insist that the next Prime Minister must make a priority of saving the Union. But they also hint at the uncomfortable truth that doing so will involve slaughtering devolution’s sacred cows – a herd those same MPs have been only too keen to defend in the recent past.
Are they ready to do that? Perhaps Adams Tomkins is. The fact that Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservative MPs have not (as some hoped) walked out of the Party over the prospect of a Johnson premiership also suggests that old-fashioned devocrat politics is losing ground to the harder, but infinitely more valuable, challenge of making a genuinely British politics work. We live in hope.
News in Brief:
- Brecon and Radnorshire recall petition closes today – The Guardian
- Davidson warns against pact with the Brexit Party… – Daily Telegraph
- …as no Scottish MPs backed Javid despite her endorsement – New Statesman
- Bradley can’t get Stormont parties to turn up for free booze – BBC
- BBC’s new Scottish channel a dismal failure as some shows pull zero viewers – The Scotsman