Just when it seemed like the Tories had finally arrived at the fight for the Union, they go and take a detour up a dead end.
Michael Gove, head of the Cabinet sub-committee on the Union, hinted last week that a future Scexit referendum could give the vote to Scots living overseas.
He did so in response to a Twitter post from George Galloway, who has apparently decided that support for independence is still not high enough and could benefit from his becoming the face of Unionism in Scotland.
Galloway opined: ‘I’ll tell you this: IF there’s to be a second IndyRef, then 795,000 Scots living elsewhere in the UK MUST have a vote. If UK expats can vote in General Elections from Spain then an existential question like Separatism MUST be answered by all Scots.’
This prompted Gove to comment: ‘Interesting question.’ Gove knows how to use social media to set a hare racing among journalists and there duly appeared headlines about the dastardly Unionists trying to rig the franchise. The proposition that Scots living in the rest of the UK be given the vote is unlikely to be the victory-clincher its advocates hope but as ideas go it is respectable enough.
The same cannot be said of playing political footsie with George Galloway, who has reportedly been ‘sounded out’ by the Cabinet Office Minister on ‘strategy’. The fight to save the Union requires party politics and old enmities to be set aside but there are limits. If nothing else, a pro-Union movement that brings Russia Today host Galloway into the fold will have to tone down its criticism of Alex Salmond’s choice of broadcaster.
I’m all for UK Government ministers psyching out the Nationalists but every speech, every tweet, every word has consequences. John Swinney was first to oblige, pointing out that a senior UK minister speculating about the terms of a referendum conceded that a referendum was in the offing. Gove’s musings, he told the BBC, were ‘the UK Government accepting that there will have to be a referendum on independence’.
Gove is the smartest man in the government and he knows that a cardinal rule of politics is never to fight your opponents on their terms. Even to intimate the possibility of a forthcoming referendum is to do just that.
Unionist politicians stumble onto the SNP’s terms because they lack clear terms of their own. Not only are the pro-Union parties as divided on constitutional principles as on other areas of policy, the UK Government has no idea where it stands on these matters.
Should there be another referendum? Which parliament ought to decide? Is a pro-Scexit majority at Holyrood a mandate? Ask a different Unionist, get a different answer.
What the Union needs, more than clever wheezes and unlikely alliances, is a clear policy from the UK Government. A key strength of the No campaign and key weakness of the Yes campaign in 2014 was that everyone knew what continuing in the Union meant but independence was the great unknown. That dynamic has been reversed and today separation is easy to understand (we leave the UK) while the effects of remaining in the Union are harder to pin down.
This would be a major, time-consuming, political capital-draining endeavour but it is the best shot at saving the Union. It would build on the reforms set out in the internal market White Paper, which are reasonable but come nowhere close to addressing the structural flaws of devolution.
Even if ministers toss the idea of devolution reform into the ‘too hard’ basket, they should at least have the confidence to defend the current devolution settlement from SNP attempts to unilaterally rewrite it.
Rather than surrender to the Nationalist logic that an SNP majority at Holyrood is a mandate for another Scexit referendum, the UK Government should assert a simple but important fact: the constitution is reserved. It is impossible to obtain a mandate for the exercise of powers held by one parliament in an election to another.
It may be that David Cameron granted the 2014 referendum in response to the majority SNP victory in 2011 but Boris Johnson is under no obligation to do likewise. Sooner or later, the Scottish Government or a Nationalist campaigner will ask the Supreme Court to decide whether Cameron’s foolish concession created a precedent, but that is all the more reason for the UK Parliament to clarify this and other constitutional questions in an Act of Parliament.
Merely stating this basic precept of devolution would produce shrieks of indignation not only from the Nationalists but from devocrats in the non-nationalist parties and beyond. That they would be more offended by the upholding of devolution’s terms than they are by the SNP’s constant efforts to undermine them is revealing. Their investment is in the devolution industry, not devolution.
Downing Street should not be frightened by such voices into giving the SNP what it wants. Even if the pro-Union side won another plebiscite, a convention would have been established and the Scexiteers would have to be given a referendum every time they won a majority at Holyrood. We could be looking at a referendum every five years.
This is what happens when you let the other side choose the turf. New Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross is in danger of making a similar mistake. Last week, he told the BBC: ‘I will back the Prime Minister where I think it is right for Scotland. But if I think he has got something wrong, or where I think the Government has got something wrong, I’ll stand up and say that.’
This again. Every Scottish Tory leader makes the same pledge to ‘stand up’ to the Conservative government and defend Scotland from wicked Westminster. Scottish Tory strategists think this terribly clever and produce polling to show that, if only they gave Westminster more of a kicking, they would win the next general election, Holyrood election and the men’s doubles at Wimbledon.
It is also a long-standing tradition. Back when the Tories were still the Unionists, they sold themselves as protectors of Scotland from the encroachments of Westminster centralisation.
Casting Westminster as a bogeyman may bring Douglas Ross a few good headlines, and maybe even a vote or two in the short-term, but it only plays into the SNP’s hands. Of course the Scottish Tory leader needn’t always agree with a Tory-run Downing Street, but making a virtue of resisting Westminster is a fool’s errand. If those are the terms of debate, the SNP will always win because they will always be more anti-Westminster.
As Ross himself alludes to, voters already know he’s his own man thanks to quitting his ministerial job in protest over Dominic Cummings’s lockdown adventures. He doesn’t need to beat up on the Union to prove his political virility.
In politics, the strong set the terms of debate and the weak abide by them. When Michael Gove was put in charge of the new Cabinet subcommittee, I said that the future of the Union was in his hands. It truly is. If anyone can convince the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings of the need for devolution reform it is him.
But if he won’t do that he should, at a minimum, lobby for a clearer, firmer position on the Union. At its heart should be a policy statement that the only means of securing a legal and enforceable constitutional referendum is by convincing a majority in the House of Commons to vote for one in an Act of Parliament.
Show some strength. Change the terms of the debate.