State of the unionists: new test for pro-UK Scots

State of the unionists: new test for pro-UK Scots
Politico, by David Torrance


In the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster are four large mosaic panels depicting the patron saints of the United Kingdom’s four constituent nations — David (Wales), George (England), Andrew (Scotland) and Patrick (Ireland). Their installation was controversial, mainly on grounds of expense, and it took until the early 1920s — by which time most of Ireland seceded from the U.K. — for the quartet to be completed.


But when the mosaics first began to take shape (St George came first in 1870) the union between England and Scotland, which dates back to 1707, was unthreatened by the sort of Home Rule movement then active in Ireland. The nationalism that swept most of the European Continent in the mid-19th century did not reach Westminster, and certainly not as far north as Hadrian’s Wall.


Today, Central Lobby and the rest of the U.K. Parliament building is either under repair or in dire need of a costly and time-consuming refurbishment. The symbolism is inescapable, particularly now that Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced she will seek parliamentary approval for another independence referendum, just two and a half years after the last one was held.


During the long campaign of 2012-14, the British government and Scottish proponents of staying in the U.K. opted for a carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot was a (largely honored) promise of more powers for the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the stick was a threat that an independent Scotland couldn’t use the British pound or expect a generous independence settlement.


That approach worked well enough. The pro-U.K. camp won 55 percent of the vote and opinion polls indicate it still commands a majority. But there are serious question marks over the likely organization, arguments and personnel of another “save the union” campaign.


Strengthening unionist hands second time round is the economic backdrop. During the first referendum, nationalists painted an over-optimistic picture of likely North Sea oil revenue, but that — according to the U.K. Office of Budget Responsibility — has trickled to almost nothing. Furthermore, the Scottish Government’s own figures show an annual gap of £9 billion between what Scotland raises through taxation and what it spends on public services — a gap currently filled by the U.K. Treasury.


But a major disadvantage for the pro-U.K. side this time around is, of course, Brexit. In 2014, unionists warned that if Scotland voted “Yes” then it would find itself outside the European Union, an argument now thrown back at them with justifiable frequency. Not only that, but a caricatured image of Britain painted by many nationalists — that it’s run by right-wing Tories who don’t like immigrants — now looks much closer to reality. Unionists, in other words, have an image problem.


Divided unionists


Organization is another challenge. In 2012-14, the Better Together campaign was an umbrella group encompassing the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. That looks unlikely to be replicated, not least because the Scottish Labour Party is convinced it lost support by being seen to “prop up” the Tories (who remain unpopular with many left-leaning Scots). Instead, each party will probably run its own autonomous campaign, each making its own distinctive case for the union. That allows a range of views, certainly, but it’ll also make the three pro-U.K. parties look as if they’re fighting one another rather than the Yes camp.


Money, however, looks to be no problem. A recent report suggested business leaders were “queuing up” to donate six-figure sums to a nascent No campaign via the Constitutional Research Council, which was recently accused of funneling “dark money” to the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland to support last year’s Brexit campaign.


During the first Scottish referendum campaign, Ruth Davidson, the charismatic leader of the Scottish Conservatives, emerged as perhaps the unionist camp’s most articulate voice. She’s on record, however, as saying she won’t lead a second No campaign, conscious that the SNP would relish portraying the vote as a choice between them and the Tories.


Davidson’s stance might prove unrealistic. In the absence of anyone else, the media may well identify her as the de facto face of the anti-independence campaign anyway.


Scottish Labour has even more profound problems. Although its leader, Kezia Dugdale, is also an energetic performer, support for the party that dominated Scottish politics for decades is in steep decline (just 14 per cent according to one recent opinion poll) and, more importantly, has lost credibility with the electorate. It also has a dysfunctional relationship with the U.K. Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. On a recent campaigning visit to Scotland, for example, Corbyn said he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum. The Scottish party, which is formally opposed, was furious.


That leaves the Liberal Democrats, a party still recovering from its decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives at U.K. level following the 2010 general election. It is now a minor player in Scottish politics, although its leader, Willie Rennie, recently attempted to fashion what he called a more “positive” case for the United Kingdom at his spring conference in Perth.


Britain, he told delegates, was “full of people who care,” citing Oxfam and Save the Children, “charities born in the heart of Britain — showing compassion to the world.” Rennie also invoked the National Health Service, the welfare state and historical “figures of progress” such as Emmeline Pankhurst, William Wilberforce and William Beveridge. Liberal Democrats, he concluded, would not just campaign “with numbers on a spreadsheet” but with “smiles in our hearts.”


And there’s the rub: if saving the union rested upon a straightforward cost-benefit analysis of Scotland’s place in the U.K., then the No camp would win easily. But then Remainers followed the same rationale in the Brexit referendum of June 2016 — when a majority of Britons (although not Scots) voted to leave the European Union. And in the United States, Democrats believed voters would see through Donald Trump’s simplistic economics and install Hillary Clinton in the White House.


It’s no longer just the economy, stupid; narrative now trumps conventional expectations of voter self-interest. Like it or not, identity is important. And if anyone is perceived as guardians of 21st century Scottish identity, it’s the SNP. So, whenever unionists make perfectly reasonable points about oil, the deficit or currency, nationalists accuse them of “talking Scotland down.” As Europhiles across the Continent will well understand, defending a multi-national Union that often appears harsh and remote is challenging, and becoming more so.


Polls currently show support for independence at around 45 per cent, as it was in 2014 (although one recent poll put it nearer 50 per cent.) But other surveys also indicate that a significant number of people who voted one way last time may make a different choice next time.


By demanding a second referendum now, Sturgeon is gambling that she can change enough minds as the Brexit negotiations unfold to win independence at the second time of asking. If that happens, then those in charge of restoring the Houses of Parliament in London might find themselves removing that old Victorian mosaic of St Andrew.