The Union Is Safe For Now, But What’s The Government’s Plan For The Future? | Andrew Trovalusci
The Sturgeon-Salmond debacle has come at a crucial time. At the eleventh hour, when the collapse of the Union looked inevitable, the Scottish National Party decided to devour itself and set fire to its public image. In short: Alex Salmond, old leader of the SNP, has accused current SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of corruption and, more specifically, of breaking the Ministerial Code by meddling in his sexual misconduct trial. The trial exposes more and more grisly details of Sturgeon’s mafia-like regime in Holyrood with every passing day. Importantly for Unionists though, is that support for Scottish independence polled in the minority last week for the first time in 21 consecutive polls. It seems that the combined effect of Salmond’s accusations and the slowly increasing awareness of Sturgeon’s poor handling of the Coronavirus pandemic has tipped the scales of Scottish public opinion against the idea of an independent Scotland. It looks like the Union is safe… for now.
Scottish separatism won’t disappear in a puff of smoke, however. Even if Mrs Sturgeon and Mr Salmond are both chased from politics, the ideas that underpin Scottish nationalism won’t go with them. Besides, Sturgeon might even be replaced by someone new, more charismatic, and more competent. Scottish nationalism is a ticking time bomb and, although the clock might be turned back by a scandal here and there, the clock is only ticking in one direction.
At its core, the Scottish question is one of identity. In 2014 the Scots narrowly voted to stay, but what tipped the balance was the promise that remaining in the UK would protect Scotland’s lucrative membership of the EU. Of course, two years later the UK overall voted to leave the EU, and Scotland was dragged kicking and screaming out with it. As we all know, this breathed new life into the defeated independence campaign, and calls for a second referendum (or ‘Indyref2’) have been growing in strength ever since. For the last four years the weary Unionist consensus has been that, if a second referendum were to come, EU membership would no longer stand between the Scots and independence, and they would likely make a break for it.
This is because the Union as it exists is fundamentally unstable, and it was devolution under Tony Blair that destabilised it. The central principle of the unwritten British constitution is that of Parliamentary sovereignty, but devolution muddied the waters by creating regional governments whose authority conflicts with that of Parliament’s. Parliament’s website states, on the subject of devolved powers, that ‘the government has made clear it will not normally legislate on a devolved matter without the consent of the devolved legislature’. Far from undermining the SNP like it was supposed to, New Labour’s devolution settlement energised it by creating a tangled and contradictory situation where Parliament retains sovereignty in principle but is prevented from enacting that sovereignty without the consent of the devolved government.
Such a state of affairs has downgraded our Union from a natural one borne our of centuries of coexistence between neighbours, down to a Union of convenience where each constituent ‘country’ has its own native executive authority. It’s no surprise then, that as soon as Westminster’s will clashed with Holyrood’s, a constitutional crisis nearly erupted. Unfortunately, thanks to the fractured devolutionary settlement created by New Labour, this sequence of events is set to repeat itself over and over again every time Scotland’s will appears to clash with that of Britain’s, until Scotland is cut loose. What then, can the nominally ‘Conservative and Unionist’ government of the United Kingdom do to avert the dissection of the nation it is tasked to preserve?
The political editor of the Telegraph, in fact, outlined the government’s new anti-separatist battle plan. Firstly, Westminster will refuse to grant the SNP an independence referendum whatever the result of the Holyrood elections in May. Secondly, the government will inject over a billion pounds into Scotland and an enormous assault will be launched by independent pro-Union organisations, in order to demonstrate that – in the words of an anonymous Parliamentary source – ‘Westminster can deliver for Scottish people and businesses’.
PM Johnson’s stance has always been that the 2014 referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ event. Crucially, the government plan involves the PM making this point again when he addresses the Scottish Tory conference this Sunday. This sentiment will be loudly expressed, with the reasoning being that if the government message is clear and firm in the weeks running up to May elections, and the SNP win, then it’s easier for the government to deny an SNP mandate for Indyref2 if they are holding a well-established line (with the mantra being ‘no, for reasons previously stated’) than it would be if the government appeared to be taken by surprise.
However, in predictably disappointing fashion, the Tories are likely to push a message of ‘not now’ on a second referendum rather than ‘never’. The aim will be to stave off Indyref2 in the short term, while allowing the threat of it to linger because, as the top Unionist party in Scotland, fear of it benefits the Tories electorally by uniting the Unionist vote. Instead of arguing against the idea of an independence referendum, Tory MPs are going to (rather cack-handedly) argue that it would be ‘reckless’ to hold such a vote during the Coronavirus pandemic. The rest of the government’s argument will rest on pointing out areas where the plan for independence is unclear, such as what currency an independent Scotland would take.
Instead of campaigning outright in a fashion similar to the 2014 ‘Better Together’ campaign, the government will leave it up to the loose alliance of Unionist organisations to counter SNP narratives. The government is taking this approach rather than launching an all-out pro-Unionist assault because top government officials believe that to do so would be to effectively admit that Indyref2 is on its way. Central to the plan, too, is investment targeted at Scotland which will bypass the SNP and for which the UK government will receive the credit. This funding will be used for ambitious projects such as a ‘trade and investment hub’ in Edinburgh as well as a much-rumoured tunnel under the Irish Sea.
The government’s strategy seems to resemble a kind of hybrid warfare, allowing extra-governmental organisations to do the work on the ground while the government takes a passive role doing the bare minimum to stave off immediate disaster. This plan will no doubt be aided by the collapse in support for the SNP that’s come in the wake of the Alex Salmond trial. One must question, though, whether PM Johnson’s plan was formulated with the long-term integrity of the Union in mind or whether it’s chief objective is to secure electoral success for the Conservative party. With the reviled Tories in power and with Brexit fresh in peoples’ minds, these next few years could’ve been the SNP’s chance of a lifetime – which they might’ve just squandered by completely imploding. Of both of these things, no-one is sure. Only time will tell.