Boris needs Avengers for his Union fightback

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There is a frisson in the air around constitutional matters, an abrupt zing of urgency at Westminster about the future of the Union.

After years of indolence, ministers have suddenly awoken to the scale and immediacy of the threat to the United Kingdom. The ‘resignation’ of Jackson Carlaw, the candidacy of Douglas Ross and the ennoblement and impending return to the barricades of Ruth Davidson are signs that something is afoot. 

However, ascertaining the existence of a problem isn’t the same as solving it. For that, you need ideas, alternatives, political nous and institutional experience. You need to subject assumptions to rigorous scrutiny and scope out policies for pitfalls and unintended consequences. Above all, you need this process to be orderly and streamlined, with clear responsibilities and lines of communication. Right now, Union policy has more cooks than the Cordon Bleu. Among those feeding into it are the Scotland and Wales Offices, the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove’s Cabinet subcommittee, the devolved parties and backbenchers. There is too much chatter and good ideas risk becoming lost in all the noise. 

This is why Boris Johnson should appoint a Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on the Union, a panel of independent but broadly pro-Union grandees from the worlds of politics, business, academia and beyond. Their remit should be to provide the PM counsel on three main topics: 1) public opinion on secession and Scottish Government agitation for another referendum, 2) the devolution settlement, its impact on the Union and the potential for reform, 3) strategies to strengthen the Union in political, economic and cultural terms. To be confident that their advice would be listened to, the Council would need to deal directly with either Michael Gove or Dominic Cummings. 

Their overriding task would be to counter the vast chugging engine of separatist mischief-making that roars inside St Andrew’s House and is fuelled by political, academic, cultural and civil society elites. The council would be a small team pitted against a potent enemy, different talents and viewpoints united in their mission to rescue the Union from its foes. Imagine the Avengers, only with Adam Tomkins instead of Iron Man and Mike Russell standing in for Loki. Unionists, Assemble! 

What might be the composition of such a council? The obvious candidate for chairperson is Ruth Davidson. No one has her up-close experience of nationalism nor her success in frustrating its ambitions. The Edinburgh Central MSP is also a pragmatist and would keep the council grounded in the political possibilities (though this can be a bad thing as well as a good thing). Davidson would contribute leadership to the group but also an understanding of how the SNP operates, the traps it lays for the UK Government and the ways in which it surreptitiously pushes its agenda. 

Adam Tomkins is standing down at the next election and returning to academia but that is no reason to let his talents go to waste. His legal expertise and merciless analysis of both his own side and his opponents could prove invaluable in weighing up legislative amendments to the status quo. Any advisory council would be wise to keep a seat for him.

Also deserving of consideration is Vernon Bogdanor, perhaps the UK’s foremost professor of government. Few have studied and written as extensively about the UK constitution and he would bring a grasp of its history, the nooks and crannies where quiet reforms can pay off, and the prospect for more fundamental change. 

Oxford-educated advocate turned MSP Donald Cameron is the Scottish Tories’ policy maven. He has moderate, devolutionist instincts and a liberal’s suspicion of both inertia and overreach. He would credit the council an open mind, a gradualist instinct and a conciliatory manner, all vital qualities for facing the challenges ahead.

Somewhat less conciliatory would be Lord Forsyth. He was a divisive figure in his days as Secretary of State for Scotland, yet he was one of the few senior figures in politics to oppose devolution. He warned that it would progressively enfeeble the Union and give nationalism the opening it needed to finish the job. At the time, this view was treated not only as unfashionable but slightly mad, but two decades of the Scottish Parliament has vindicated his scepticism. His foresight then warrants giving him a seat at the table now.

Jack Straw is a Labour elder statesman with significant and useful experience. The council should not be a Tory echo chamber and Straw could bring an acute understanding of international relations and global institutions and how the loss of the Union would damage the UK on these fronts. He also takes an interest in the constitution, having chaired the Constitutional Affairs Cabinet Committee under Tony Blair. Following the No vote in the independence referendum, Straw proposed passing a law to define the Union as ‘indissoluble’.

The economics of the Union are often spoken about but not always understood, mandating the inclusion of an economist. There is surely no more respected scholar of Scottish economics today than Professor Ronald MacDonald of Glasgow University, whose analysis played a substantial role in the 2014 referendum campaign. He is, as far as I am aware, politically unaligned and his counsel would be all the more precious for it. Likewise, economist John McLaren, without having to sign up to any political prospectus, could advise on using the Union to promote a more socially and economically just UK. Former CBI Scotland director Sir Iain McMillan would bring an unparalleled grip of business while the celebrated composer Sir James MacMillan could contribute much-needed pointers on the cultural dimensions of the Union.

In the short term, the council would be focused on Scotland but if the Prime Minister decided to do more than tinker with the devolution settlement and embrace an agenda of UK-wide constitutional reform, the council would have have to be reconfigured. 

However, even in its original calibration, it ought to contain one representative each from Wales and Northern Ireland. Lord Bourne, the former leader of the Welsh Conservatives, and Lord Trimble, the first First Minister of Northern Ireland, would be ideal candidates. 

While Lord Trimble is a Unionist, the consociational nature of politics in Northern Ireland would make it prudent to invite cross-community contributions from outwith the council. Former SDLP leader Baroness Ritchie and past Alliance head John Cushnahan, although they hold different views about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, could supply valuable insight. 

Provide this body with enough resources and it could commission advice from relevant authorities on constitutional law, politics, business, economics and defence. 

Lord Robertson would be one such example. As former Secretary General of NATO, he would be able to sketch the importance of the Union to national security, the fate of Trident in the event of separation and the likely impact on the UK’s standing in institutional bodies if Scotland were to secede. There might also be a morbid curiosity for the reflections of the man who famously trumpeted devolution as a means to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. 

Input might also be sought from around the world. Jean Chrétien, the Canadian Prime Minister who narrowly defeated the sovereigntists in Quebec’s 1995 referendum, ought to be surveyed on his response to the near-loss of a united Canada. 

Chrétien adopted a policy called ‘Plan B’, sometimes dubbed ‘tough love’, which promoted Canada directly to Quebecers while tightening the law to make any future attempt at secession more difficult. Twenty-five years on, opposition to separation enjoys a comfortable majority among Quebec voters. 

Similarly, Kerry Jones could be consulted on her tenure as director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, in which role she headed up the No campaign in the 1999 republic referendum. Going into the campaign, polls showed a majority of Australians backed a breakaway from the British monarchy in favour of an independent head of state; however, when referendum day came No triumphed over Yes — 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

It seems at times as though nationalists have all the ideas but that is only because believers in the UK are disorganised and unmotivated. Establishing a Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on the Union could change that and revitalise the intellectual case for the United Kingdom while setting out practical steps for making it more united still. If the PM is serious about a pro-Union fightback, it’s time he hired some generals. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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