A Union with a Purpose

March 11, 2021

In the autumn of 2020, something remarkable happened. For the first time in any of our lifetimes, opinion poll after opinion poll indicated that independence had become majority opinion in Scotland. As corruption, sleaze, and the endless attrition of the Salmond v Sturgeon saga engulf the SNP at Holyrood, support for the Union has grown again in 2021. But Unionists would be fools to take anything for granted—whether we sit at 48% or 52% it’s not enough. The Union needs to be far more secure than that.

In order to understand what to do about this, we need to understand how we got here. Conventional wisdom north of the border will tell you that there are three causes behind the rise in support for independence: Brexit, Boris and Covid. Scotland voted to remain in the EU, Scotland has a long history of antipathy towards radical blond right-wing political leaders from England, and the Prime Minister’s handling of the Covid pandemic was for a long time compared unfavourably with Nicola Sturgeon’s altogether more cautious approach. Boris and Nicola are the only household-name politicians in Scotland and the conventional wisdom holds that, for as long as every political question in Scotland is filtered through a Boris v Nicola prism, there is going to be only one outcome.

But, like most conventional wisdom, this is too simple. Scotland has not been readied to leave the UK by Brexit, Boris and Covid. Scotland has been readied to leave the UK by decades of patient campaigning and agitation by the formidable Nationalist machine, spearheaded by the UK’s supreme campaigning organisation, the SNP. They are a lousy government. They are a very odd political party. But they have been awesome campaigners. There is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the UK.

And there, in a nutshell, is much of the problem. London does not readily understand them. London politicians. The London media. The English political class. They tend not to get the SNP. To take just one example. Last year, it was said that operatives in Downing Street were of the view that Sturgeon is just like Corbyn: voters would take a close look as long as it was only a protest vote, but they’d never be so foolish as to give them what they actually want. This analysis worked for Corbyn—he came too close for comfort in the 2017 general election but was destroyed by the 2019 election—but to apply it to Sturgeon is catastrophically to misread Scottish politics. This is not the sort of storm that can just be ridden out by doing nothing and hoping that the people come to their senses (still less, hoping that Alex Salmond does our work for us, and brings Sturgeon down).

So, what to do? If we want to hold the Union together, what needs to change? Two things. First, the Union needs to assert itself; and secondly, the Union needs to reform itself. In short, the Union needs a purpose. The value the Union adds in Scotland is, at one and the same time, massive and almost invisible. Signs of Scottishness are everywhere—on our trains, our NHS, our public bodies, and our media. The Scottish Government never misses an opportunity to trumpet them. Every single day its Ministers ask themselves, what can we do today to make Scotland feel more Scottish? In this, they are shameless. To the polite, reserved, undemonstrative sentiment of old Unionists, it’s embarrassing. But Unionists—and most of all their Government in London—have got to lose their inhibitions. We have to be as proud and as voluble about celebrating the Union as the Nationalists are about celebrating the Nation.

Now, I absolutely do not mean that we have got to start painting the Union Jack on everything and march down Princes Street singing Rule Britannia. But I do mean that each and every thing the Union does for Scotland has got to be made visible. So much of what the Union does for us is taken for granted—not only by our political opponents, but by ourselves. Take furlough as a contemporary example. This scheme, designed by HM Treasury, delivered by HM Treasury, and paid for by the power and heft of the UK state, has saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in Scotland. Yet fully half of Scots think it’s the SNP that have done this. Even those who recognise that furlough is a British achievement merely shrug at this, and think that an independent Scotland could have done just the same.

If the Union is precious, we simply cannot afford to take it for granted in this way. That which is precious needs to be nurtured. Effort needs to be put into safeguarding it, not just every now and then but permanently, routinely, every single day. What goes for furlough goes also for security and defence, for pensions and mortgages, and for all the economic security and wellbeing that comes from being part of one of the world’s largest and most successful economies.

There are signs that, twenty years late, the UK is finally beginning to wake up to the reality of this. The shared prosperity fund, which will replace EU structural funds, are to be delivered in Scotland directly from Whitehall to local authorities, without going through the Scottish Government. Likewise, the UK Internal Market Act contains a little-noticed but extremely important provision allowing HM Treasury to spend in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in areas that Westminster cannot legislate for. Infrastructure is largely devolved in Scotland, but infrastructure investment in Scotland is something which the UK state should be every bit as involved in as it is in Manchester or Teesside. Merely telling Scots that the Union is valuable to them is not good enough. We have to show them, and we cannot afford to be shy about it. This is how Canada held itself together after the Quebec secession referendums in the 1980s and 1990s, and it is what we must do, too.

This essential first step, however, will not on its own be enough. The devolved Union state is going to have to change if it is going to survive. Moreover, the change is going to have to be embraced, encouraged, welcomed—not conceded with weary reluctance. The Union is going to have to show that it is serious about delivering the kind of government, the kind of economy, and the kind of society that people in all four nations want. And, in doing so, the Union is going to have to be prepared to let go of the old ways if they are no longer fit for twenty-first century purpose.

I say this as a Conservative. Very little annoys me more than conservatives who do not conserve. But, as Disraeli knew one hundred and fifty years ago, conservatism and reform are not enemies, but handmaidens: “change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant; and the great question is not whether you still resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change shall be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or … in reference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines”. That was Disraeli in 1867.

Conservatives change things incrementally, starting from where they are rather than where they would ideally want to be. Conservatives embrace change when they see and understand that it is necessary to preserve something of value to them. And, when they see that change is inevitable, rather than resisting it (and making themselves redundant) they get out ahead of it, own it, and ensure that it is shaped not by the ideologues of Disraeli’s “abstract principles and general doctrines”, but by those who seek to engineer reform in deference to our traditions.

Our traditions should act as a beacon to guide us towards the sorts of change the Union needs in order to endure. Our traditions of freedom and responsibility; our insistence that power should be driven down to communities rather than hoarded by distant boards or commissions, departments or directorates-general; and our scepticism that Whitehall-knows-best. My sense is that Scots want for their government the same as folk anywhere else in these islands—a government that is nimble and fleet of foot; a government that works tirelessly for a safe, dynamic, and ever-greener economy; a government that sees and harnesses opportunity and enterprise; a government that picks people up and carries them along with it. What people plainly do not want is a government that is distant, disconnected, uncaring or remote.

Here’s just one example, drawn from my experience as a Glasgow MSP—and it’s an example that might appeal to the current Prime Minister, former mayor that he is. Let’s imagine the United Kingdom not only as a union of nations but also as a league of cities. Cities and their regional economies power economic growth—this is the insight that drove the City Deals agenda, a decade ago. Likewise, cities should drive the post-Covid recovery, with its unique opportunity to reset and to build back greener. Government’s role should be to harness this, to incentivise cities in all four nations to work together to deliver the changes in people’s working lives, public spaces and clean transport that they are yearning for. The less that Whitehall thinks of itself as being in the driving seat, and the more it thinks of itself as facilitating those who really are close enough to the communities they serve to understand their needs and deliver on them, the better.

The post-Covid recovery presents a golden opportunity for giving the Union the renewed sense of purpose it needs. We all know we need to build back greener. We all know that tackling climate change is a top priority for voters under 40 (precisely the demographic, in Scotland, who are currently most enthusiastic about independence). Britain should lead the way, making the Green Recovery its first priority as we emerge from lockdown and move away from the public health restrictions of the last twelve months. Let’s be unabashed about this. Britain needs a project—not a backward-looking one that harks back to the last, but a forward-looking one that harnesses the aspirations of the young. Glasgow, Britain’s third-biggest city, hosts the UN COP-26 this November. Let that be the starting-gun for a relentless charge to transform our country so that it is the greenest in Europe. It can be done and, done well, it is precisely the sort of project that will genuinely unite the kingdom.

That’s the challenge for the Union. It’s up to us. If we rise to it, we can change forever the road we were on as 2020 drew to a close. Let’s put independence back where it belongs—as the minority preoccupation of a small hardcore of Nationalists—and allow it never again even to get close to being majority opinion in Scotland.

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