Money won’t keep the Union together

Despite its name, Gers Day is not an annual celebration of the Ibrox side that makes up one half of Glasgow’s notorious Old Firm. If only it were that uncontentious. In fact, Gers stands for ‘Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland’, the Scottish government’s yearly report on public finances. In a normal country, the publication of 76 pages of data tables and accountancy prose would go largely unremarked upon, so naturally in Scotland we have to turn it into another front in the independence wars. Because we really have nothing better to do. This year’s figures, like last year’s, reflect the unprecedented Treasury interventions during the Covid pandemic. However, they paint

My Unionist faith is wearing thin

How does a believer lose the faith? It might begin with some quibble about a point of doctrine: the Virgin Birth, for instance. The believer struggles intellectually but cannot accept the dogma. What starts as a quibble then turns into an obstacle; as the doubt grows, the whole belief system starts to unravel. One day it dawns on them that they no longer believe. Reader, I am myself undergoing such a struggle to maintain my political faith in Unionism. I have been an instinctive, largely unquestioning Unionist ever since I became politically aware. The roots of my faith are simple enough: Scotland and England can do more together than individually.

To save the Union, ignore Gordon Brown

As he blasts his way through the remaining support beams of the UK constitution, Gordon Brown is doing more to deliver Scottish independence than the SNP. The former Prime Minister is reportedly poised to recommend that Labour adopt ‘devo max’ as a policy, which would see the SNP-run Scottish parliament handed yet another tranche of powers. Only defence and foreign policy would remain in the hands of Westminster: everything else would be at the whim of Nicola Sturgeon. The theory is that by increasing the powers of Holyrood, the Scots’ appetite for independence will be sated. But is no evidence for this, and 23 years of evidence against it. From

Sunak backs the Union with cash, not love-bombs

Devolution has done so much to fracture the UK that, in Scotland, Rishi Sunak’s Budget is an event of the second order. Scottish interest in Budget day is typically limited to whisky duty, support for North Sea industries and the Barnett formula: the additional spending Scotland gets when the Chancellor splurges on England. Today’s Budget was for all of Britain. Not just Scotland, but Wales and Northern Ireland were weaved throughout Rishi Sunak’s speech. Quite apart from the fiscal or economic merits of the policies announced, the Chancellor’s speech was good politics. Not long after Sunak was promoted to the Treasury, I was told Scotland was a weak spot for him

Boris could make devolution reform his legacy – if he has the ambition

Today marks two years since Boris Johnson accepted Her Majesty’s invitation to serve as her fourteenth Prime Minister. His tenure was meant to be all about Brexit but so far has mostly been about Covid, yet the invisible theme running under it all is the constitution. Britain is almost a quarter-century on from the legislative devolution experiments in Scotland, Wales and London, which leeched power away from Parliament and created rival seats of political authority to Westminster. Scotland is where devolution has taken its most aggressive form and where it has done the most to undermine the Union, parliamentary sovereignty and even the continued existence of the United Kingdom itself.

Prince William won’t save the Union

Can the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge save the Union? Officials at Buckingham Palace are reported to be drawing up plans for the Royal couple to spend more time north of the border. If so, it’s likely that Alex Salmond won’t be amused: the former first minister accused Prince William of ‘poor judgement’ for meeting Gordon Brown on a recent visit. Salmond, who is now the leader of the nationalist Alba party, also said it would be a ‘fatal error’ for the monarchy to allow the perception that they were taking sides in the debate He need not be concerned. Pictures of William in a kilt trying not to look bored as

More devolution won’t save the Union

Yesterday, Lord Dunlop – the author of the Dunlop Review into the British state and devolution – appeared before a joint meeting of four Select Committees. It was the first time the Public Accounts and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish committees had sat together, which was fitting given his remit. But the resultant Q&A only highlighted the ongoing tensions in the government’s approach to the Union. Dunlop is an advocate of what he calls a ‘cooperative Union’. His emphasis is on getting the various parts of the governments of the UK to work together, and building on the past two decades of devolution. He summarised his

The problem with ‘Devo-max’

A common failing of pro-Union politicians down the years has been the stubborn belief that there exists somewhere a tidy ‘solution’ to the problem of separatist nationalism. With new polling showing that ‘devo-max’ would comfortably win a three-way referendum, it appears to be silly season once again. The history of unionism’s efforts to engineer decisive solutions to the challenges of separatism is an unhappy one. Devolution was meant to be it, after all. As Labour’s manifesto said in 1997:  ‘A sovereign Westminster Parliament will devolve power to Scotland and Wales. The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.’ Talk about ‘not understanding how the United Kingdom works’.

What’s next for the Union?

The Union faces two simultaneous challenges in Northern Ireland and Scotland that both look set to worsen in the coming years. In Northern Ireland, the immediate problem is that Brexit has disturbed the fragile balance there. (A more persistent problem is the fact that after the Good Friday agreement, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein replaced the more moderate Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour party as the main Unionist and Nationalist parties.) The debate over where various borders should go has turned into a question of identity. Unionists argue that the UK government’s agreement to create half a border in the Irish Sea threatens Northern Ireland’s

The economic case for the Union isn’t enough

There is a certain kind of critic of independence who hears the news that public funding for Scotland is 30 per cent higher than for England and sits back thinking: ‘Job done’. The latest analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies does indeed confirm that the Union is a bargain for Scotland. It finds that, while real-terms resource funding for the Scottish Government is two per cent lower per capita than in 2010 (the beginning of the Tories’ austerity experiment), the spending drop is lower north of the border than in England. Scotland gets more than £1.30 per person for public services for every £1 spent in England. Almost all

How Unionists can battle against devocrats

This week, the government published its first Union Connectivity Review report. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for another boring sounding Whitehall transport initiative that inevitably fails to get off the ground. But this seemingly inoffensive review has triggered the latest round of allegations from the devolved administrations that Westminster is engaging in a ‘power grab’. Doesn’t the Prime Minister know that transport is devolved, they cry? If the Treasury has extra money to spend, it should simply hand it over to the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast to spend as they see fit. But there is an obvious problem with the ‘transport is devolved’ mantra. One can see

Is Sturgeon losing support for Scottish independence?

Every politician likes to say that they don’t pay attention to opinion polls. In my experience, this is almost universally untrue. Those who sail in an ocean of public opinion want to know which way the wind is blowing. The most recent polls show the wind is in the Tories’ sails at the moment: the YouGov post-Budget survey indicated a 13-point Tory lead. But in Scotland for the past year, polls have consistently shown majority support for independence. That’s now changing. Nicola Sturgeon can’t claim she doesn’t pay attention to the polls; she has too often commented on ones showing independence ahead. After roughly 20 polls in a row put

Will Boris Johnson’s Scotland trip backfire?

The pandemic may still be in full swing but that hasn’t stopped the SNP opting to push the case for an independence referendum sooner rather than later. Nicola Sturgeon claimed over the weekend that should the SNP win a majority (as expected) in the Scottish parliament elections, she will hold an advisory referendum on independence, whether or not Boris Johnson consents to the move.  Not everyone in government is convinced the First Minister would go ahead with this should push come to shove. But the fact it’s even on the table points to the problem Johnson has on Scottish independence – his insistence that now is not the time for a second

Patrick O'Flynn

Gordon Brown’s plan to save the Union won’t wash

Back in 2006, when he was close to executing his masterplan to chase Tony Blair out of Downing Street, Gordon Brown sought to address something that worried many voters: his Scottishness. ‘My wife is from Middle England, so I can relate to it,’ he pronounced, as if Middle England were a town somewhere off the M40. In fact, though Sarah Brown was born in Buckinghamshire, she spent most of her early childhood in Tanzania and her family moved to North London when she was seven. By mistaking a term denoting the provincial English psyche for a geographical area, Brown merely demonstrated that he was indeed all at sea. He has

A British state of mind

I was born British and as a British citizen I will live out my days. My nationality is a state of mind and I have no intention of changing either. I know who I am and what I love – and what I love is Britain, the whole place, every nook and cranny. This is my island. No pronouncement by any politician – here today and gone tomorrow – and no referendum on this or that issue of the day will have any effect on my understanding of myself and where I belong. It makes me feel better just to put those words down on the page. The Canadian anthropologist

Universities are not going to be ‘care homes of the second wave’

According to Jo Grady of the University and College Union, universities risk becoming the ‘care homes of the second wave’ unless students defy the government’s attempt to get them back in face-to-face education. She went on to claim that a return to campus ‘risks doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes’ and could lead to a ‘silent avalanche of infections’. Are these fears justified, or are they an attempt by the union to get its members out of having to do any work (while presumably collecting their salaries)? Any large number of people getting together and mixing from across the country

The SNP’s next battle against Westminster

The greatest danger to the current government is the state of the Union, I say in this week’s edition of the magazine. Prime Ministers can survive many things but not the break up of the country they lead. Number 10’s position is that there won’t accept a Scottish independence referendum in this Parliament. Given that no legal referendum can take place without Westminster’s consent, this means there won’t be one. But this position will come under huge pressure if the SNP win an outright majority on a pro-IndyRef2 platform in next year’s Holyrood elections. The next skirmish between Westminster and Holyrood will be over the internal market bill. The SNP