UK should wrong-foot Scottish ultras

Delaying another independence referendum may prove fatal. Better for No. 10 to lance the boil now and re-think the Union

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A third of the pro-independence vote of 2014 also voted for Brexit. Which way will these voters turn in future? (©Ewan Bootman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On January 15 Scotland’s shrill pro-SNP tabloid, The National, published on its front page an open letter addressed to opponents of independence: “Dear No voters, You might not agree with us on independence (yet), but the Prime Minister is also denying YOU the right to choose your own future—whatever that might be.” This was because the previous day Boris Johnson had rejected Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for what is known as a Section 30 order, permitting Scotland to hold a second referendum on independence, something which is beyond the powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Yet superficial appearances can be deceptive. Some scene-setting is required to understand the bizarre ritual being enacted.

For a start, The National—a newspaper so rigid in its nationalist bias that George Foulkes, the Scottish Labour peer, has dubbed it “McPravda”—is not quite what it seems. Although the paper’s stance is firmly left-nationalist, it was founded in 2014 by Newsquest, the UK subsidiary of the American conglomerate Gannett. Newsquest also happened to own the pro-Union Herald newspaper in Glasgow, but set up the National in the wake of the independence referendum of the same year in order to exploit an untapped niche in a shrinking market.

Nor was Nicola Sturgeon’s ostensible demand remotely sincere. The last thing she wants is a referendum in the second half of 2020, which would come only a matter of months after Alex Salmond’s trial on 14 criminal charges relating to alleged sexual assaults. The trial, which is due to be held in March, is fraught with political danger for the SNP. Will it split the wider nationalist movement into rival Salmondite and Sturgeonite personality cults? There are other risks. Sturgeon, who pontificates on Twitter as Scotland’s dour virtue-signaller-in-chief, has no control over where the mud will spatter. 

‘Asking for something you do not want but know will be rejected provides maximum opportunity for stoking a grievance culture. Sturgeon has already complained that Scotland is being “imprisoned” in the Union against its will

Sturgeon made the request for a Section 30 order under the Scotland Act of 1998 partly to placate the hotheads in her party who have been calling for a re-run from the moment the 2014 referendum was lost—or, as some of them still contend, rigged by the so-called deep state. But, more importantly, Sturgeon made the demand as part of a shadow-boxing ploy, confident that it would be rejected. Indeed the demand—predicated on the SNP performance in the recent general election when it won a commanding 48 out of 59 seats—was formulated precisely in order that it be turned down by an intransigent pantomime villain in Downing Street.

Moreover, about a third of the pro-independence vote of 2014 also voted for Brexit. Which way will these voters turn in future? The SNP leadership knows that a second referendum defeat, however narrowly lost, would finish the cause of independence for a generation. Sturgeon is too cautious to risk such a catastrophe.

On the other hand, asking for something you do not want but know will be rejected provides maximum opportunity for stoking a grievance culture. Sturgeon has already complained that Scotland is being “imprisoned” in the Union against its will. Now, instead of focusing on independence, the SNP poses rather as a defender of Scottish democracy. The long-term strategy is to construct a whinging narrative: that the Tories are denying Scots of all stripes—unionists included—the right to have their say on Scotland’s future.

Yet most unionists regard the 2014 vote as a “once in a generation” event that they do not wish to see repeated, a point made by the prime minister in his rejection of Sturgeon’s Section 30 request. In response, the National has tortuously explained away the statements made by Salmond and Sturgeon during the referendum debate in 2014, when they described the referendum as a “once in a lifetime” or “once in a generation” opportunity. They had no intention, it seems, of precluding an early re-run.

In the short term, nationalism seems to have reached a dead end. Indeed, it is easy to imagine Boris Johnson’s amusement at the empty contortions of an SNP which garnered its recent landslide majority in Scotland on an all-too-significant 45 per cent vote share: the exact same percentage the losing independence side obtained in the referendum of 2014. Furthermore, Scottish nationalism is different in character from its Catalan cousin. Or indeed from Sinn Féin. Notwithstanding their evident disgruntlement with Westminster fol-de-rol, SNP MPs  go through the required constitutional motions. Johnson can certainly hold off SNP demands in the short term, without fear of an illegal referendum, mass civil disobedience or armalites on Sauchiehall Street.

Nevertheless, the underlying situation is dire, with a clear generational divide in Scotland between older voters who favour the status quo, and younger voters attracted to the idea of independence. The longer a referendum is postponed, the longer the facts of birth and death serve to usher in SNP goals. Nothing would unsettle the SNP more than a snap referendum now. They cannot be sure to win in 2020; but in the longer run, they sense that independence is demographically predestined.

It would be a huge miscalculation to assume that it is only nationalists who are disaffected. Johnson needs  to  assuage the sorely affronted plurality of Middle Scotland, that has little time for independence, but feels let down by the way the Union has operated since 2014. Scotland holds twin unionist majorities for membership of both the UK (55 per cent in 2014) and the EU (62 per cent in the 2016 EU referendum). This double-unionist majority is not, of course, composed of the same voters. Many nationalists voted to Remain, and there were many unionists who voted Leave. Nevertheless, the substantial subset of double-unionist voters has not been properly recognised by either level of government: not by the SNP at Holyrood, and not by Westminster Conservatives who have shown scant sensitivity for those Scottish unionists who made continued membership of the EU a central plank of the case for remaining in the UK.

Both the SNP and English Conservatives share a fundamental misunderstanding of Scottish unionists. We are not the lickspittle of an English ascendancy. Rather Scottish unionism has a long history dating back to the 16th century—long before the Union of 1707, or even the Union of the Crowns of 1603—as an indigenous element in Scottish political culture. Scots themselves first developed the idea of unionism as an alternative to an English empire in these islands. Union was envisaged as a means of preserving Scotland’s interests within a larger entity designed to constrain England’s territorial, economic and demographic preponderance.

Nor do the supposed friends of the Union in England really grasp what happened in 2014. The Edinburgh Agreement of 2012 between David Cameron and Alex Salmond was tantamount to an acknowledgement of Scottish popular sovereignty. On September 18, 2014, the sovereign Scottish nation opted to remain within the Union, and to spurn the dubious economic prospects of a fossil fuel-based independent future. But since 2014, the London government has not treated this sovereign Scottish nation as an equal partner in the Union. At no stage—in Cameron’s arrangements for the conduct of the Euro-referendum or in Theresa May’s disregard of the principles of devolution when it came to the repatriation of powers from Brussels—has there been the slightest recognition that the Scottish nation is anything more than a vassal province.

The prime minister cannot withstand SNP demands indefinitely. Just postponing the day of reckoning with the Scottish electorate is not in itself a coherent, long-term policy. There are lessons from the most subtle and poignant of conservative novels, Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Set during the Risorgimento era in mid-19th-century Sicily, its hero, the Prince of Salina, realises that “everything must change, so that everything can stay the same”.

If Boris Johnson really wants to conserve the Union, he must overhaul the British constitution on unionist terms; that is, he needs to redesign it in such a way that it accommodates the dignity of Scotland as an equal partner in the Union. The most obvious way is to transform the House of Lords into a revamped House of Nations; a counter-majoritarian check on the English nation’s numerical predominance within the Commons. A similar proposal has emerged from Lord Salisbury’s Constitutional Reform Group. But so far the noise generated by Brexit has drowned out voices advocating constitutional reform of the Union. The most suggestive of these voices belongs to David Melding, who sits as a Conservative Member in the Welsh Assembly. Notwithstanding his Oakeshottian preference for traditional practice over panacea-mongering, Melding advances a daring federal solution to the British Question. Federation is, he argues, a respectable unionist option of long standing that would acknowledge the messy constitutional fact of divided sovereignty while cooling separatist urges.

As early as 2009 Melding asked the prescient question: “Will Britain survive beyond 2020?” It looks as though it will—just; but in the longer term a dramatic coup de théâtre is required to renovate the Union. In order to conserve, conservatism needs to be more nuanced than a blanket defence of the status quo.