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As with Russia, the Union with Scotland is never as strong as it looks; the Union with Scotland is never as weak as it looks.  Here are some parts that may add up to a whole.

  • The union with Scotland is not as weak as it looks.  A poll showing a lead for independence is a single snapshot of a moving picture.  Debate in Scotland has not begun in earnest about the economic restructuring, with its higher taxes and lower spending, that leaving the UK as well as leaving the EU would provoke.
  • The union with Scotland is not as strong as it looks.  The unionist side fought the 2014 independence referendum on the economy.  It won – but not overwhelmingly, and the EU referendum two years later proved that short-term economic arguments don’t necessarily prevail over longer-term cultural change.
  • The Government insists that there will be no second independence referendum if the SNP sweeps the board in Scotland’s elections next year.  It would, wouldn’t it?  But there will be no good solution in such an event.  Allowing a referendum would put the Union at risk.  But so would denying one if the SNP can then cast itself as a victim, and ratchet up its support during the run-up to the next general election.
  • It is hard for those of us writing outside Scotland to understand fully the change that devolution has brought over more than 20 years – including a media focus there on Holyrood rather than Westminster, which can therefore feel a very long away away for Scottish voters.
  • This distance is psychological as well as political, because these two factors are inextricably linked – magnified by the way in which the SNP has succeeded over a long period in projecting itself as a neither-left-nor-right national party.  The effect on the civil service, the press and civil society is pervasive.
  • To give a single graphic and tellling example: Alex Salmond’s private life would have been public long ago if Scotland’s media had the same oppositional attitude to the SNP that the British media has to UK governments.  Its longstanding silence spoke eloquently.
  • The UK’s political culture as whole is shaped by first-past-the-post, which usually offers winner-takes-all outcomes at Westminster.  Its establishments have consequently not grasped the profound change that devolution has brought with it – for example, the devolved administrations will arguably have a major role in future trade deals and state aid decisions.
  • This casts the question of how Boris Johnson’s Government will deal with them in an exacting light.  It can opt for co-operation – as with most pre-Brexit dealings with the EU, in which the devolved administrations participated, though at one remove, in discussions in the Council of Ministers and the Commission.
  • Or it can opt for confrontation – for example, by seeking to cut the Scottish Government out of post-Brexit UK decisions on trade, state aid, and the powers that will flow back to Britain when the UK leaves transition with or without a deal at the end of this year.  And minimise discussion with it about non-devolved competences and powers.
  • The man leading for the Government as whole is Michael Gove, who chairs its Cabinet committee on Union policy implementation – as well as chairing those that deal with Covid-19 operations and EU exit operations.  This is a colossal burden even for the Government’s most dexterous administrator.
  • ConservativeHome wanted Gove to be Secretary of State for the Union, and this role is the next best thing.  To date, he has opted for a more confrontational posture though with continuing co-operative substance – a graphic example of the former being the Government’s decision to badge the new Shared Prosperity Fund in red, white and blue.
  • A long-standing complaint among Unionists is the UK has failed to project its spending in Scotland in the way that the EU used to project its own in the UK.  The Shared Prosperity Fund is a child of Brexit: our replacement for EU social funds.  Gove intends to let Scottish voters know that the money for it coming from Westminster.
  • However, the fight for the Union with Scotland must be lead by Unionists in Scotland.  And no single figure has emerged on the Conservative side to fill the gap that Ruth Davidson has left.  She isn’t standing for Holyrood next year, and though she remains highly politically aware she is not directly politically engaged.
  • Senior Conservatives like to say that this Achilles will re-rampage from her tent in the event of a second referendum.  But her home is one thing and the Lords is another – and she is to go there if reports are correct.  We find it hard to see how it would provide a workable campaigning base for leadership in the event of a second referendum.
  • Elsewhere, Alister Jack, the pro-Brexit Scottish Secretary, is relatively new to Westminster.  Jackson Carlaw isn’t Davidson (a statement of the obvious).  Douglas Ross resigned as a Minister over Dominic Cummings.  Luke Graham, who lost his Ochil and South Perthshire seat last December, has gone to the Number Ten policy unit.
  • But the Conservative problems in Scotland look fewer than Labour’s – at least in terms of visible leadership at Westminster.  Ian Murray, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State, is an engaged Unionist.  But the most senior pro-Union Labour force in Scotland remains the federalism-obsessed and committedly partisan figure of Gordon Brown.
  • Keir Starmer must confront – or be confronted by – the same question that stumped Ed Miliband and menaced Jeremy Corbyn.  Namely, how to angle for SNP support at a general election if there is a hung Parliament without seeming to lash himself to Nicola Sturgeon’s coat-tails.
  • Boris Johnson isn’t governing from Scotland and can’t compete with Sturgeon’s access to its voters.  But his recent visit was reported almost as though he were, say, a new govenor of Imperial India arriving to tour the north-west frontier.  Despite the fearsome burden of the Coronavirus crisis, he and other UK Ministers who have a role there should be there more often: for example, Rishi Sunak could help to showcase UK spending.
  • In the aftermath of the election, we floated 15 ways to Strengthen the Union, parts of which derived from the work of Policy Exchange, Jonathan Caine and David Shiels.  Gove is running with some of them, and the Government seems to understand the key point: that UK Ministers must be actively engaged there.
  • Finally, Unionists, especially pro-Brexit ones, won’t win by arguing that Scotland couldn’t hack it as an independent country.  The question here isn’t whether it could – but whether it is really up for the economic readjustment involved.  Elsewhere, an independent Scotland would have a sting in the tail for English nationalists.
  • Namely, that a largely Conservative England would have to find new ways of accomodating its non-Tory voting parts.  That implies confronting the problem of how to devolve power in a centralised country with little political sense of regional identities – plus the additional knock-on issues for Wales and, particularly, Northern Ireland.

146 comments for: The Union with Scotland is neither as weak nor as strong as it looks

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