The Union is in crisis. Can anyone save it?

There is a crisis in Unionism. It did not begin with polls showing a majority for independence, or the arrival of Boris Johnson, or even Brexit, though the latter has sprayed accelerant on the flames. The unravelling of the United Kingdom began with legislative devolution in 1999.

Devolution was not a bad policy; in principle, local control is often more desirable than the remote diktats of centralised bureaucracy. The fault lay in the design of the settlement, which lacked safeguards against the misuse of devolved institutions to undermine devolution and replace it with independence. Devolution was a grand palace with the keys left under the plant pot. 

When the SNP took control of the Scottish Executive and immediately renamed it ‘the Scottish Government’, the direction of travel was clear. Instead of confronting the problem, successive UK governments adopted the time-honoured stance of the ostrich. And that was when they were being resolute; at other times, they favoured the composure of the headless chicken, fleeing this way and that, before clucking triumphantly about their latest transfer of powers to a demonstrably broken system.

Churchill said appeasement was feeding the crocodile in hope of being eaten last, but the Tories’ approach (and Labour’s is identical) is to plate up the Union limb-by-limb in hope the crocodile will eventually get indigestion and leave something behind.

David Cameron served the crocodile a referendum on its chosen terms and two tranches of new powers either side of it. In doing so, he tacitly endorsed the proposition that, although the constitution is reserved, the SNP can override this by sticking reserved matters in its Holyrood manifestos. Cameron effectively devolved devolution to its adversaries, putting the SNP in charge of the parameters of the settlement and withdrawing the UK Government from the enforcement of its terms. 

At the same time, he attempted to sate the Tory Right with English Votes for English Laws and an EU referendum. Politics is so fractured and tribal on the pro-Union side that there are Unionists adamant Cameron was wrong to cave in to Scottish nationalism and Unionists adamant he was wrong to cave into English nationalism but precious few who say he was wrong to cave into either. Concessions are statesmanship when you approve of them and appeasement when you don’t. 

A memo leaked earlier this week suggests Downing Street wants to chuck immigration and additional financial competencies into the crocodile’s jaws. All that will do is what it has done before: energise the separatists to go further. Come next May’s Holyrood election, the SNP manifesto will include a provision on another referendum and if (or rather when) the Nationalists win they will claim another mandate. 

One prime minister’s frail resolve and strategic myopia should not bind his successors. Boris Johnson ought to take the Theresa May approach and reject out of hand demands for another plebiscite. As he does, he should explicitly repudiate Cameron’s foolish stance and reassert both the original terms of the devolution settlement and the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. 

‘No’ is necessary but it is no longer sufficient. Unionism has to be about more than preventing independence. A life spent on the defensive is no life at all. Unionists need a vision for Scotland’s future as part of the United Kingdom. Why is the Union important? How can it be strengthened? Where does it go from here? 

I have long maintained that Scottish nationalism is philosophically barren, a spasm passing for an ideal. It is a theology of division with one hymn and one note: the Union is the original sin that created all of Scotland’s ills and national redemption requires that it be cast out. But Unionism, too, has grown empty and directionless, its doctrines loosed from conviction and hewing to whichever passing principle seems most likely to hold the nationalists at bay a while longer. 

Part of the problem is the calibre of political party representing the cause. One of them even bills itself the Conservative and Unionist Party, a description that should have given rise to a Trading Standards investigation years ago. The Tories lost the argument on devolution in 1997 and have yet to come up with another since. There is no Conservative theory of devolution, no wrestling with the constitutional consequences of Labour’s blueprint.

This is not helped by ineffective and unassertive policy advisors. Number 10 has its own ‘Union unit’, though I can’t discern whether it’s meant to be pro- or anti-. Given some of the decisions to come out of Downing Street of late, it is doing a better job recruiting Yes voters than Nicola Sturgeon ever has.

South of the Border, Conservatives have come to see the Union as a matter for Scotland alone, conveniently enough at the very point when their policy agenda is brimming with schemes organised around ideological self-indulgence rather than the interests of national unity. These Tories may rail against Sturgeon from the green benches but they are doing her work for her. 

Worse, there are some — including figures close to the Prime Minister — who do not want to defeat the SNP. They see Sturgeon as a convenient bogeywoman to scare Middle England out of voting Labour in 2024; a revival of the poster of Ed Miliband in the SNP leader’s pocket, with Sir Keir Starmer photoshopped over his predecessor.

It is a cynical and short-termist calculation and betrays a disregard for the future of the United Kingdom that ought to be incompatible with service in a Tory government. No Conservative should ever gamble with the Union to win an election, but then there are any number of characters in Downing Street who are not Conservatives. 

The UK Tories have to decide if they are still a Unionist party. Some already see Scotland as a fiscal millstone around England’s neck, rather than an integral part of the United Kingdom, and this tendency is gaining momentum. The canniest minds in the SNP have always understood that independence is as much about turning England against Scotland as Scotland against England. They are succeeding on both fronts. 

If the Conservatives’ problems lie mostly at Westminster and Number 10, the inverse is true for Labour.

Sir Keir has inherited a Scottish party going through an institutional nervous breakdown for a decade now. Scottish Labour’s problems began shortly after its greatest triumph: the formalisation of its fiefdom via a parliament and an executive. The man who helped convince Tony Blair that this was wise, Donald Dewar, died one year into the experiment. His untimely passing robbed devolution of its architect before the scaffolding was even down. 

Since then, the building has been squatted in by its foes, who present as the guardians of a settlement they daily work to undermine. Labour’s response has mostly broken off in two directions. The first are those motivated by tribal hatred of the SNP rather than a substantive argument against its goal. Their ‘No’ is a dead No, lacking ideas, or even curiosity, for reforming devolution or making the Union work better for Scotland.

The second group are those who cringe before the SNP’s frown and accept that independence is inevitable, or even a welcome development that would allow Scottish Labour to escape the constitution and become once more a viable party of government.

Unfortunately, for the pro-Union movement to return to strength, these two parties will have to get their houses in order.

The UK Tories have to reacquaint themselves with the Union they claim to revere. The appearance of the word ‘Unionist’ in the party’s name is a reference to Irish home rule, not Scottish, but it is also an admonition that this party is not an English nationalist party. It is meant to stand for broader values and a greater number of people than the population of the Home Counties. The Prime Minister, let us not forget, styles himself ‘Minister for the Union’ and occasionally even visits the parts that lie outwith SW1. 

To rediscover their Unionism, Conservatives must become conservatives again. A populist or nationalist party cannot hope to govern the UK because its appeal will always be to the values and instincts of the largest population. A narrow and insular politics of English identity is as incompatible with Unionism as the mean-spirited parochialism of the SNP.

The changes Scottish Labour needs to undergo will be a more personal grief. Two decades after his death, Donald Dewar enjoys a sainthood of sorts within this party, a deference that holds Labour back from taking a more open-minded — and more politically useful — assessment of his legacy. Instead of standing him on a pedestal, Scottish Labour should critically examine his legacy to learn from both his qualities and his flaws. 

Dewar was a patriot, a hard worker, a canny strategist, and someone who knew how to keep the Nationalists at bay. But he was also arrogant, aloof, and made fundamental errors in the structuring of devolution. Because his motivation was as much the forging of a power base for himself as it was the founding of a new way of governing Scotland, Dewar was the framer of a settlement heavy on executive power and light on checks and balances, a system that drastically empowered Holyrood at the expense of Westminster under the assumption that the former would always be run by parties sympathetic towards, or willing to tolerate, the latter. 

These arrangements were the practical outgrowth of Dewar’s theory that the United Kingdom would be strengthened (or at least not fatally undermined) by giving institutional structure to its regional political differences. With hindsight, this was historic folly but it was not Dewar’s alone. His theory was shared by almost every Labour and Liberal Democrat politician as well as academia, the civil service and the mainstream media. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was scarcely a more widely held shibboleth. 

Yet, respect for Dewar’s memory cannot occlude the fact that his grand project, in the form it took, is why we are where we are today. His devolution is why the SNP has been in power for 13 years and may well be for 13 years more and another 13 after that. It is why Nicola Sturgeon can dominate a minority parliament in a way that Boris Johnson could only dream of with his landslide majority. It is why the SNP has been able to weaponise a faultily drafted settlement against the very letter and purpose of that settlement. 

Donald Dewar was a fine politician but a terrible founding father, one whose founding did not survive his death by even a decade. There are Labour veterans involved in the Holyrood project who concede behind closed doors that they failed to take seriously the threat of the SNP capturing the institutions of devolution. Private admissions are all well and good but integrity demands these grandees make their remorse public and help to right their wrongs.

If Scottish Labour wants to become relevant again, it need not abandon the Union on the wishful assumption that the voters will be waiting with open arms on the other side of independence. Instead, it should learn from the best of Donald Dewar while unlearning the worst of his legacy. Scottish Labour should be a party that expresses patriotism through values and vision, not constitutional policy. Labour ought to be the champion of a return to hard work and excellence in Scottish public life, to integrity in government, to the accountability of the powerful. 

It should confront the full-time independence campaign and occasional government in St Andrew’s House and tell it to get its finger out or get out of office. Scottish Labour cannot be more Scottish than the SNP but it can be more Labour. That does not mean a lurch to the fringe left but rather a revival of the sensible, social democratic Scottish Labour that, though drab and managerial, actually got things done.  

Even with these two parties back on sounder footing, Unionists would have to think hard about what they believe, why and how they hope to achieve it. A great deal of laziness has crept into how opponents of independence talk about the Union. On this side of the Border, we must stop framing the case as a financial transaction by hymning the glories of the unfair and outdated Barnett formula. Subsidy unionism irritates the English and is more likely to push Scots in the direction of nationalism. Pride is a pittance in the pocket but a bounty in the soul. 

Down south, believers in the Union will have to do more than believe and start to practically support it. The Union is a shared endeavour and it cannot be maintained by one side alone. The UK Government must think as such — a government for all of the UK, not just the south-east and the more affluent parts of London. 

A fundamental question underlies all this: what exactly is the Union? We know it cannot be constitutional structures and fiscal subvention alone, but what else is there that unites the people of our four nations? The first order of business is forging a shared sense of identity, a passport of the head and the heart that draws on history but appeals to the future and reflects our evolution into a multi-racial society.

We need a common culture of belonging, shared reference points that remind us who we are and how we are connected to one another. The SNP has been effective at enlarging its version of Scottishness at the expense of a more fluid identity and so the Union requires a broad and easy UK identity that is more appealing than mono-nationalism. 

There is a crisis in Unionism and it is a crisis of confidence. Voters like confidence and nationalists have it because they know what they believe. There must be an end to defensive unionism, the hand-wringing angst and compulsive concession-making that has only emboldened the separatists. Unionists must believe in the Union and give the people a Union they can believe in too.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay.

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