What has happened to unionism?
6 years after a decisive win in the first independence referendum its prospects have never been so grim and its uncertainty and lack of confidence so apparent. There are very few good options available to it anymore and unionism now looks to the future with a mixture of resigned resignation and a sense of being completely overwhelmed.
Immediately following the referendum it must have thought its prospects were good. Scotland had decided to stay in the union and, for them, the argument was settled. The Smith Commission was hastily set up to ensure that the post referendum landscape moved the referendum debate on. They even had an all party buy in to ensure that the work was carried out relatively consensually and rancour free. Perhaps there was even a belief that Scotland would move on from the referendum and there would be a return to a sort of unionist ‘business as usual’.
If there was that belief it was short lived. The 45% of Scots who had voted Yes and had become politically active during the referendum campaign had almost collectively decided that they weren’t going anywhere soon. Membership of the SNP and the Greens almost increased 10 fold and a defiance was starting to assert itself in an independence movement that had decided that the fight wasn’t over yet. Then there was the reckoning. Scotland had decided to collectively punish the Labour Party for siding with the Conservatives in the referendum and Labour had absolutely nothing to offer the working class areas that they had represented for decades who had just voted for independence.
Then there was the behaviour of the UK Government. Instead of behaving like the gracious victor it started to immediately antagonise the losing independence side. Within hours of the close of polls David Cameron had started his plans for EVEL and the plans of ‘near federalism’ and of ‘leading the UK’ were never to be mentioned again. The result was that in the 2015 General Election the SNP won 56 out of the 59 available Scottish constituencies.
Then almost by accident came their real opportunity. Brexit was the new constitutional game in town and all the attention returned to this decades old Tory debate. Scotland overwhelmingly decided to vote to remain in the EU but there was a sense of constitutional fatigue and the post referendum edge seemed to go out of the independence debate. There was also the realignment in unionism. With the disappearance of Scottish Labour the Conservatives became the exclusive voice of unionism.
A more user friendly, dynamic leadership was offered combined with a clear unionist unifying ‘no more referendums’ slogan and the Tories started what was, for them, their post referendum happy times. Progress was first noticed in the 2016 Scottish election where they overtook a Labour Party in terminal decline then it went almost stratospheric in the 2017 election when they went from 1 MP to 13. Support for independence simultaneously declined and it seemed for a moment that the forces of unionism just might be over the worst of their post referendum malaise.
It was in this period that the policy of ‘aggressive unionism’ was forged and became the staple of the Conservative approach to the constitution. It involved saying an emphatic ’No’ to any further possible referendums whilst looking at various ways to diminish what they saw as the ‘nationalist power base’ of the Scottish Parliament. For a while it looked like it might just gain some traction.
Then came the Brexit reckoning. The sheer political carnage of the Brexit fall out was just about to hit home and in Scotland 2 constitutional issues were set to combine and unite in a way that would transform the constitutional debate forever. Aggressive Brexit-ism joined aggressive unionism under the new leadership of Boris Johnson and Scotland looked on in horror. Unionists who had voted ‘No’ to Scottish independence but voted remain suddenly found themselves conflicted. They quickly came to the conclusion that any risks associated with independence were as nothing to the no deal/hard deal Britain that was in store under a chaotic UK Government led by Boris Johnson.
Unionism in 2020 is then unprepared for the challenges of this new political environment. Anchored in their policy of ‘aggressive unionism’ it seems paralysed by the increasing support for independence and singularly incapable of responding to the new dynamic in the constitutional debate. Every month sees a new high in the support for independence and the only response seems to be an increasing belligerence to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish democracy.
In order to try and respond to their precarious situation they have commissioned former Number 10 SPAD, Andrew Dunlop, to see what could be done to ‘strengthen the union’. In a briefing I attended as Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee the only recommendations I seemed to hear were to somehow ‘union proof’ Whitehall decision making (whatever that means) and put more resource into the Scotland Office. The main innovation, though, is the policy of ‘slap a jack on it’. With the prosperity funding arrangements and the direct funding provisions in the Internal Market bill the Tories hope to demonstrate to the people of Scotland their generosity and largesse by branding a huge number of funding projects with the Union Jack and an accompanying message of ‘funded by the UK’.
Somehow, they believe that this will be enough to get the Scottish people to love them again and have them see just how beneficial their union is. I couldn’t think of anything that would irritate the Scottish people more! ‘Slap a jack on it’ will only demonstrate that the UK is increasingly becoming a distant, imposing power unrelated to Scots everyday experiences.
And this is the crux of the problem for the Tories. They are so wedded to ‘fighting’ independence and ‘resisting’ the possibility of a referendum that they seem incapable of recalibrating to the situation of being behind. Aggressively saying ‘No’ could just about hold when you speak on behalf of a majority but now that there is a sustained majority in favour of independence it is now just anti democratic. The Tories are no longer ‘opposing’ a referendum they are now opposing Scottish democracy itself. That is a tough place to be.
They have also seriously underestimated the attachment the Scottish people have to our national Parliament and the view that an attack on it is an attack on them. They have nothing to say to win back the hundred of thousands of Scots who have deserted the cause of unionism because of Brexit. They are also stuck with Boris Johnson whose every action simply seems to provoke the people of Scotland.
The smarter unionists know that this is no longer working for them and that simply saying No is simply unsustainable. They desperately call for a more consensual approach to Scotland that recognises the reality of their current situation. Their calls are so far going unheeded. If current standings in opinion polls are realised and there is a clear majority for a referendum, backed with a majority, there will be a major battle in the forces of unionism between the pragmatists and those who will want to tough out the ‘No’ message and continue with the ‘aggressive unionism’ policy.
The real choice for the unionists is do they want to resolve the issue of Scotland’s constitutional demands in partnership with us or in opposition to us? I still don’t know whether pragmatism will prevail or whether there will be a futile battle with us which they must know can only be lost.
I only know, that whatever they chose, we win.
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