Whenever a new poll on Scottish independence is published, my phone begins buzzing so frantically it starts to register on the Richter scale. London-based editors want to know what it means. London-based politicians want to know what can be done to stop it meaning what they fear it means. The polls are not great for the Union these days and Wednesday’s, showing support for Scexit at 58 per cent, is further proof of the threat facing the United Kingdom.
It’s only natural that this alarms instinctive Unionists but their Unionism could be a little more attentive. The United Kingdom has been under threat for years now, at least since the dawn of legislative devolution and especially after the SNP took control in Scotland in 2007. Meanwhile in Cardiff, Welsh Labour’s nationalism — far more electorally successful than the brand of ancient resentment and cloying self-pity offered by Plaid Cymru — has steadily come to find institutional expression in the Senedd, as documented here last month by Theo Davies-Lewis.
The ground around us is littered with flare gun shells. How could it have taken you so long to notice?
The Union will not expire through Nicola Sturgeon’s strategic nous or good fortune alone. It will die because Boris Johnson does not care about it and Sir Keir Starmer does not understand it; because English Tories have begun to pay attention to it only when the call has gone out to the family and the priest has been summoned for viaticum; because London Labour is more likely to swoon over Sturgeon than want to fight her; and because there is almost no one in parliament, in either major party, with the vision or the backbone to stand in the way of the march of the separatists.
There are many explanations for the Union’s dire polling but here are a few you won’t be familiar with:
- The flawed devolution settlement and its reckless expansion by the Tories has created a rival proto-state in Edinburgh. The SNP has used this to undermine the Union, including by ideological capture of institutions and civil society, the fostering of an exclusive Scottish identity at the expense of Britishness, and the development of a separate foreign policy. In 1999, independence was a leap into the unknown; in 2020, it has the chimeric air of a mere administrative change.
- The UK government passively colludes in this unravelling of the British state by failing to take remedial action. The devolution settlement needs reform but it will not get it because managing decline is less trouble. Neither the Treasury benches nor the alternative ministry across the way has the courage to govern the entire UK, terrified as they are of stepping on a constitutional landmine and giving succour to the Nationalists. Nothing gives them succour quite like a prime-minister-in-exile who daren’t set foot in Scotland and whose ministers plaintively hoik pots of gold northwards in the hope of buying legitimacy. Government by the consent of the SNP is not government. Scottish voters can hardly be chided for preferring bravehearts to fainthearts.
- Scotland’s Unionists — such as can bring themselves even to use the word — have no idea what they stand for. Or rather, they have a hundred ideas but none they can agree on. The SNP says Scotland should be independent. Its opponents say, variously, that Scotland should never be independent, or should not be independent yet; that it should wait longer for another independence referendum, or have another independence referendum soon but with a different question; that it should be offered ‘devo max’, or ‘devo ultra max’, or federalism, or home rule. Strangely enough, voters prefer strength and clarity to a quivering mass of fear and self-doubt.
- Unionism in Scotland lacks the political infrastructure of its rival. Organisations like These Islands and Scotland in Union are doing the Lord’s work but they are outmatched by a nationalist movement with superior grassroots and institutional firepower. There are any number of Union-minded philanthropists putting their coin into ideas and policy, but so little of it ever gets out of the capital. Instead of investing in London’s 79th centre-right think tank, how about investing in Glasgow’s first pro-Union think tank?
What the Union and its sympathisers need above all is confidence. So many who think of themselves as Unionists have internalised the logic of nationalism. They think Scexit is a matter for the Scots alone, as though we are already separate countries and secession a thing Scotland would do to itself rather than to the Union. Understand this: what we are talking about is the abolition of the United Kingdom.
English nationalists who cavalierly egg on the separatists to their north fail to grasp that. They see the Scots as ingrates and resent the Union for subsuming English national identity into this never-defined thing called Britishness. Yet Britishness has allowed England to punch above its global weight just as much as the Scots. Its demise would occasion a debate on national identity in which English nationalists would rudely discover that Englishness is as fractured and contested across England as Britishness is across the UK.
That debate will have to wait, of course. If the Union severs, there will be more immediate concerns. The political anvil dropped in the middle of post-Brexit trade talks. The negotiations with Brussels on its new border at Greta Green. The future of the nuclear deterrent, which the SNP intends to banish from the Clyde but for which there is no alternative base in the rest of the UK. Scotland’s departure will turbo boost Welsh nationalism and those who want to see Northern Ireland swallowed up by the Republic. Enemies who have longed to cut the old empire down to size in international bodies would seize their moment. For some in the SNP, independence is about more than restoring Scottish pride; it is about humiliating Britain.
The end of the United Kingdom is not inevitable. There are those still bitter about Brexit who think it would serve this ghastly country right and those who would welcome it as the winds of change finally rushing over the Cheviots. The UK long ago ceased to be the imperial villain its enemies still need it to be but it has failed to articulate a vision for this unique country with its long history in a changing world. That is a more philosophical task than the practical salvaging of the Union but without it that salvaging will not count for much. The Union has to be more than a fiscal transfer with a flag. It must be a moral covenant but first it will have to decide on the moral.
This country is a partnership and, quite honestly, Scottish Unionists are fed up fighting for it alone. If you want to give up and let the forces of history do their worst, fine — but have the integrity to admit it. If you still believe in this Union, then get off your backsides, stiffen your spines and come lend us a hand.