Devolving more powers – or launching union-focussed parties – offer no solution to the nationalist threat

Devolving more powers – or launching union-focussed parties – offer no solution to the nationalist threat

by Henry Hill
article from Thursday 29, October, 2020

ONE OF THE REASONS for the deep and debilitating incoherence of the unionist response to the SNP’s Covid-fuelled resurgence is that different parts of it seem to be trapped at different, equally useless stages of grief. 

There are famously seven of these, but only three need detain us here. First is denial, for which see the preponderance of politicians, strategists, and commentators who don’t seem to grasp just how close to dissolution this kingdom might really be.  

Second is acceptance, or the self-indulgent fatalism so rightly called out by Douglas Ross in speech to this month’s Conservative Conference. 

Yet it is perhaps the third which has been most corrosive to the unionist cause. This is bargaining. 

This takes many forms. The most common is endlessly conceding ‘more powers’ to the Scottish Parliament in the hope that this will make the separatist threat go away. Another is ‘nationalist unionism’, which counsels pro-UK politicians to support nationalist attacks on British institutions and symbols in order to render those attacks, in Alex Massie’s words, “irrelevant or, better still, unnecessary”. 

Fuse both of these strands of thought into a single policy and you get Linda Holt’s recent article for this site about splitting the Scottish Conservatives. 

Such a split is not a new idea. It has been ‘current’ at least since Murdo Fraser’s challenge for the Tory leadership north of the border in 2011, which was fought on the basis of just such a split. Whilst the man himself insisted that any new party would remain formally linked to the Tories, a senior member of his campaign team took a very different view: 

“Not a new version of the Conservatives; not a replacement for the Conservatives; not a club for former Conservative members, but a new party, with new people, advocating new policies. It would be a Scottish party taking the London whip at its own discretion; not a London party cracking the whip in Scotland without knowledge or consideration.” 

Setting aside the obvious questions this raises about which version of Fraser’s plan was the real one, the language about ‘cracking the whip’ seems to be in about the same spirit as Holt’s call for “an Independent Scottish Conservative party that can fight wholeheartedly for Scottish interests”, free from the arduous chore of “defending mothership UK-wide policies”. 

It isn’t difficult to see why this is a tempting proposition. Being a nationalist is, in many ways, a much easier job. You get to exploit the public’s hazy understanding of the devolution settlement to blame Westminster for anything and everything, wrap yourselves and your record in the flag, and limit your forays into national affairs to demands for money and other bids to ‘stand up for Scotland’. It’s practically politics with stabilisers. 

But whilst it might be electorally potent in the short term, we have no reason to think that it would be good for the Union in the long run. What holt is proposing is in fact the model of unionism which has dominated Northern Ireland in the century since Stormont was first established. First the Official Unionists, and latterly the Democratic Unionists, built up a hegemonic position on their side of that divided society by selling local nationalism in Union Jack packaging. Many comfortable sinecures and a lot of public treasure was undoubtedly secured. 

Both parties buttressed this approach with another policy staunchly advocated by the Alliance for Unity, for which Holt is a Holyrood candidate: ‘unionist unity’. In order to avoid splitting the vote and letting the nationalists through, Northern Ireland’s unionist vote has tended to consolidate behind a dominant party. Again, this is obviously very beneficial to the party on top.  

But Northern Ireland’s experience suggests that such an approach is deeply corrosive to the Union itself. 

On the electoral side, ‘unionist unity’ has the counter-productive result of forcing unionism into political stagnation. If you’re trying to cobble together a coalition of voters who are deeply divided on economic and social issues, it is extremely difficult to adopt bold or imaginative policies on such issues. Far from being able to ‘make the most of devolution’, the logic of such an alliance seems to militate towards making the very least of it (even whilst demanding more of it). 

This in turn places obvious limits on the ability of any ‘united’ unionist party or alliance to win voters back from the other side, because the only thing holding their own vote together are the symbols and issues right at the heart of what Holt dubs “indy/unionist antagonism”. Instead of several parties, each able to reach into different parts of the ‘soft’ nationalist electorate on their own issues, you have one with no reach at all. 

In Northern Ireland, this manifests in the so-called ‘garden centre prods’, i.e. theoretically pro-UK voters who either stay at home or back the Alliance because the capital-U Unionist parties have nothing to offer.  

But it is just as evident in Scotland that the combined vote of the pro-UK parties is not a fungible ‘unionist vote’. Just look at the recent Aberdeenshire by-election where the Conservatives couldn’t win enough transfers from Labour and the Liberal Democrats to close a 25-vote first-round deficit with the SNP candidate. Or recall that Jo Swinson lost her seat because not even Tory voters were prepared to vote tactically to save their local pro-UK MP. 

(This is why the Alliance for Unity’s proposal for a pact is a complete non-starter, even if the major parties were to both agree to cede A4U the lists where they win nearly all of their seats and negotiate a three-way division of the constituencies without it devolving into an acrimonious, SDP-Liberal-style farce.) 

But the rot is not just electoral. It shouldn’t need stating, but if the unionist parties opt out of the hard graft of defending and maintaining Scotland’s links with the greater whole of the United Kingdom, there will be nobody left to do it. Decades of sitting alone with Parliament’s ‘Others’ and running the ‘England’s difficulty is Ulster’s opportunity’ playbook has left Northern Irish unionists running perhaps fatally short of both political allies and general goodwill both at home and on the mainland. The ‘standing up for Scotland’ playbook will not yield different results. 

Holt claimed that I don’t have an answer. In fact, I do: devolution delenda est. A long shot, from here, but for now it means defending the British dimensions of political and cultural life, because we recognise that there can be no long-term future for the British State without the British nation. A Union which is not “politically meaningful on an everyday level” will not be saved, and that unionists who accept such arrangements – let alone exacerbate them –  will not save it.  

Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome, having been Home Nations correspondent since 2013 and latterly Assistant editor. 

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