Jackson Carlaw’s hasty yet expected resignation as Leader of the Scottish Conservatives will come as a relief to Scottish Unionists who knew that he was not the man to deliver a decisive result in the Holyrood elections next May.
Douglas Ross, MP for Moray, seems prepared to take the lead, but the responsibility of preserving the Union will not rest solely on his shoulders. It has been over three hundred years since the Acts of Union, and preserving the United Kingdom will be Boris Johnson’s most formidable task following the pandemic.
Upon taking the top job, Boris appointed himself Minister for the Union, putting his head directly on the chopping block and solely responsible for the Union’s health.
Dismantling the economic, cultural and historical intertwining between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would break the heart of any Unionist, but for Boris this issue will be the defining issue in the 2024 general election once the pandemic has eased.
However, Boris is an oven-ready candidate to save the Union. He is loved by provincial Tories but was a successful mayor of urban London. He demonstrated that there was no contradiction between hanging on a zip wire waving Union flags and reaching out to ethnic and sexual minorities. However, saving the Union will be his most formidable post-pandemic, and this piece will address each nation’s challenges individually.
Labour’s assertion that ‘devolution will kill nationalism stone dead’ has proved completely false. To preserve Scotland’s membership of the Union, Boris must present an argument about the head and not the heart, with independently verified information on how independence will transpire.
The prospect of a second independence referendum would be imminent if the SNP reach the 35% lead in the most recent poll by The Sunday Times. If such an result were to transpire, the SNP must essentially make a formal petition to the UK Government for a referendum, placing Boris’ responsibilities as Minister for the Union in an impossible position: fight the referendum with all guns blazing now to secure a decisive victory in 2024, or throw the dice on support for Scottish independence dwindling in years to come.
Judging by the tone of recent PMQ’s, it seems that the Prime Minister will be following the second option, and until then he must bear the following in mind: it is not merely that you can be proud of being Scottish and British, it is that for many people being Scottish is more important than being British. However, Scotland is not owned by the SNP and one can be as patriotic a Scot by voting against independence as in favour.
The 2014 Better Together campaign was right to argue that an independent would be damaged economically but should not again allow the SNP to define its campaign as ‘project fear’.
Scotland is a natural leader of the UK, and its accomplishments within it should be placed front and centre. It has pooled and shared its resources to deliver the objectives of full employment, free healthcare and a welfare state. It can trace its origins of modern social provision to Scotland’s demands for the abolition of the Scottish Poor Law and its replacement by a British welfare state.
Sharing across the UK could well be seen as a Scottish invention rather than an English imposition.
Far from being a hangover from the twentieth century, cooperation between nations is the future for our increasingly interdependent world. The challenge is to build a modern constitution with as much autonomy as sought by the Scottish people through a strengthened Scottish Parliament.
Independence is a fringe issue in Wales, and before the pandemic there were certainly many who would struggle to name our Labour First Minister. Oddly, when questioned on the issue he seems to flirt with the possibility of Welsh independence, before saying that it simply lacks public support. However, Drakeford’s shortcomings, and those of the Welsh devolution system as a whole, have been starkly highlighted during the pandemic as the Welsh Government’s response trails slowly behind the policy responses of England with the ensuing endless confusion.
Astonishingly, a YouGov poll showed that the Welsh supported Scottish independence more than for themselves. A clear issue exists of Wales’ viability as an independent nation, lacking an obvious source of income unlike Scotland with its North Sea oil.
Despite this, governments of the past decade have plenty of which to be proud in preserving Wales’ place in the Union, such as by holding the 2014 NATO summit in Cardiff, and passing the 2015 St David’s Day agreement to protect funding from central government to Cardiff. Westminster has even acquiesced to accusations from an expert commission led by George Holtham that Wales is underfunded, now bringing funding up to parity with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
To cement Wales’ place in the Union the prime minister must, therefore, insist that Wales is not exclusively Cardiff and devolutional wrangling, and a focus on business, infrastructure, investment and apprenticeships will detract from woes blamed on Westminster.
Allowing Mark Drakeford to remain as First Minister may also prove to be strong disincentive for independence!
The Northern Irish Executive and its people have undertaken a momentous journey from conflict to cooperation after decades of violence and years of talks and stalemate; the future of Northern Ireland rests in a robust Executive post-Brexit.
With the larger mandate, the DUP have always been given the post of First Minister, while Sinn Féin have been given Deputy First Minister, but the two roles are effectively bear equal power and can only exist with the full support of the other. Therefore, Martin McGuiness’ resignation as Deputy First Minister in 2017 collapsed the Executive, leading to the imposition of direct rule by Westminster until last year when the Executive was reinstated. The precious nature of the Executive is, therefore, evident, and any prospect of a hastily constructed hard border in the Irish Sea post-Brexit will unearth fury from the DUP who seek a strengthened Union, not one riddled with border checks and differing regulations.
The Northern Ireland protocol removes the need for the backstop and Boris has insisted there will not be fresh controls on trade between Northern Ireland and Britain, saying repeatedly that there will be no checks on goods travelling in either direction; he must fulfil this pledge to prove that the United Kingdom is not simply a union of realpolitik.
The Conservatives’ commitment to the Union is enshrined in its official name, the Conservative and Unionist Party, and previous Conservative governments can also be proud of their record on Northern Ireland. Addressing the lingering wrong of Bloody Sunday through the Saville Enquiry, for example, and creating the former electoral alliance between with Ulster Unionists.
Previously, the Northern Irish could reach the heights of business, the armed forces and public services in the UK but not national politics, all changed by this alliance.
Then there is the economy. In the 2014 referendum, the UK government insisted that an independent Scotland assume responsibility for its share of UK public debt. Covering Northern Ireland’s fiscal deficit would be a tall order for the republic, suggesting that in a united Ireland the north would face spending cuts, as might the south, and the UK government should not be afraid of reiterating this.
The government must, therefore, in all circumstances, root our unionist identity in the shared values of all four nations and should not match independence campaigns with pugnacious English nationalism, or nationalism from any nation for that matte, not only nationalism in the form of impugning the contributions of the Union’s other nations, which only bolsters support for independence, but also in the form of ethnicic nationalism.
There is plenty to be encouraged about being patriotic, but if we base our sense of identity on ethnicity (such as by vehemently resisting multiculturalism at every stage) then we will soon revert to being English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, and that is no way to secure the future of the Union.
Jude Fabio D'Alesio, Unionist Lead at Blue Beyond and Law Student