ON FRIDAY I delivered All For Unity and Scotland Matters placards to two farmers, who displayed them in their fields facing main roads. Both happen to be former chairs of my local Conservative association. This was remarkable for two reasons.
First, most obviously, is their support for All For Unity despite the unrelenting campaign that Scottish Tory HQ has waged against the party since it began to impact the polls. The second striking element is the activism of grassroots groups like Scotland Matters and The Majority, and individuals such as guerrilla filmmakers, fighting to oust the SNP outside the traditional party structures.
Indeed, campaigning by these groups and individuals via billboards, newspaper ads, bridge protests and social media has been far more prominent than that of the official opposition parties – the Scottish Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems.
Both extra-party campaigning and support for All For Unity are driven by an identical impulse: the palpable frustration of unionists of all stripes with the political status quo.
The Tories and Labour have been content merely to vie for second place. With the SNP again retaining pole position as largest party a foregone conclusion, the opposition parties are solely focussed on hanging on to what they have got – which are the list seats they won in 2016. This is why, for the first time I can remember, their messaging is all about the “peach ballot” – variously known as the second, party, list or regional vote.
All three opposition parties also accept the current constitutional impasse, what George Galloway calls the hamster wheel or neverendum. The only difference is that the Tories pretend a vote for them can stop a second independence referendum, while Labour and the LibDems pretend the constitutional question can be put to one side.
Both are lying. The power to grant a referendum or not lies solely with the UK Government, and it is pure fantasy that the constitutional fault line running through Scottish politics can be erased in the interests of focussing on “recovery” or anything else. Indeed, both Alba and All For Unity have emerged precisely because of the apparent intractability of that fault line. Both have put forward prospectuses to end the neverendum: Alba by a determined push for a referendum outside the bounds set by Nicola Sturgeon, and All For Unity by a Clarity Act.
The latter proposal – which has now spawned a Clarity Pledge – has not received the attention it deserves. It takes its cue from Canada, which in 2000 passed its Clarity Act in response to the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence and ongoing independence movement. The Act sought to lay down the conditions under which the Government of Canada would enter into negotiations that might lead to secession following such a vote by one of the provinces.
It is precisely the lack of such an act which fuels the neverendum. Instead, we have a huge political void which nationalists incessantly fill with their demands for when and how a second referendum should take place. Every election is thus branded as a “mandate” for a second independence referendum, and every UK government policy they disagree with – pre-eminently Brexit – mobilised as an argument for “Scotland’s right to choose”. The nationalists have, in effect, saturated this space with their own self-serving discourse about democracy. They have done it with such success that neither the UK Government nor the unionist parties in Scotland dare to challenge it; if they do, they will be accused of trampling on “the will of the Scottish people”.
But the responsibility for the neverendum, and indeed the monopolising discourse of the nationalists, lies as much with the UK Government as it does with the SNP. It has persistently refused even to contemplate acting with the constitutional powers it has over Scotland to clarify the terms and conditions for Scottish secession. So the discursive stage has been left entirely clear for nationalists to perform on. Possession, after all, is nine-tenths of the law, if not ten-tenths, if no law has actually been made.
Of course, there will be howls of outrage at such “hardline unionism” being “imposed on Scotland against its will” if the UK Government proceeds with a Clarity Act. It is, I assume, fear of poking the nationalist bear that has prevented the UK Government taking action beyond its prime minister saying “now is not the time”. Yet that – a prime minister’s word, or autocratic whim, as the nationalists see it, which might very well change – is petrol to the nationalist fire, and offers no solid reassurance to nervous unionists north of the border.
We have robust democratic processes for creating legislation, and the UK Government should take the initiative here and do its job. It should have confidence in its own legislative procedures as open, fair and democratic, instead of burying its head in the sand and hoping the Scottish problem will go away.
What will not go away is the grassroots Scottish backlash against the nationalists. The rise of All For Unity has inspired a certain panic in conservative circles. The National reported Scottish Tories feared losing up to six seats to George Galloway’s party. As an independent, entirely Scottish unionist party, it is regarded as an incipient DUP-type challenger to the hegemony enjoyed hitherto by the Westminster parties in Scotland.
In thinly-veiled attempts to protect sitting Conservative MSPs, George Galloway has been painted as Sturgeon’s little helper for splitting the vote and reducing the overall number of unionist MSPs. Such attacks are what every challenger to established power attracts. They are based on highly selective analyses; 4500 projections of swings on the 2016 election results show an overall gain in unionist seats in 63% of scenarios and no change in 20%.
Moreover, vote-splitting attacks ignore the impact of tactical voting – which, if it produces more unionist MSPs in constituencies, will automatically reduce the number of wins by these parties on the list. For the first time, in large part thanks to All For Unity and again reflecting the frustration of ordinary unionist voters, tactical voting has become a major topic in this election. The Daily Mail ran a week’s worth of articles setting out who to vote for to beat the SNP for every constituency in Scotland. Douglas Ross even told a caller to Kaye Adams on BBC Radio Scotland to vote for the strongest pro-UK candidate, which in his case was unequivocally Labour. Sadly, though, he has not followed through on his own advice and withdrawn no-hope Conservative candidates, which might have garnered him some respect from those that can see that tactical voting is the only way to dent the SNP’s majority.
Whatever happens on May 6th – and the lacklustre campaign on all sides suggests turnout may well be dismally low – the Scottish political landscape is changing. Grassroots cross-party unionist opposition to the SNP and calls to the UK government for a Clarity Act will only grow. It is high time that both the Westminster parties and their Holyrood offshoots started listening.