Is this really the best Tory case for the union?
Bella Caledonia, 10 October 2021
Strength in Union: The Case for the United Kingdom, edited by Andrew Bowie, Centre for Policy Studies.
The Tory Party are seeking a coherent strategy to deal with Scotland and the threat of independence – one that twin-tracks between looking at iconic infrastructure projects they can fund and wrap a Union Jack around, and the ‘wheesht on independence’ mindset – that entails not talking about the issue to avoid making it more real.
If the latter is more than a passing Downing Street fad, it is clear that those behind the publication this week of Strength in Union: The Case for the United Kingdom edited by Scots Tory MP Andrew Bowie and published by the Centre for Policy Studies (set up by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph in the 1970s) didn’t get the memo.
This collection brings together sixteen Tory politicians – including two former party leaders, current Cabinet ministers and a host of high-profile Tory politicians – to address the future of the UK and the union. Scotland takes centrestage – but it also covers Wales and Northern Ireland. Tellingly despite fourteen chapters there are none specifically about England and none about the political centre of the UK – as if the future of the union is about reconvincing those far-off restive territories and not about the nature of the UK and how it is run.
Michael Gove and Theresa May provide the opening scene-setting contributions – the former stating that the UK has been based for over 300 years on ‘three pillars’ – ‘shared prosperity, security and solidarity’ – and concludes that ‘the Union is a family of nations, and a nation of families.’ May acknowledges some more complex truths in observing that the Scottish debate is about more than economics: ‘As I look to the reasons why polls in Scotland recently showed a majority in favour of independence, I sense that they do not lie in debates about economic strength.’ This statement isn’t followed up and examined by any of the other contributors.
One recurring theme is how bad Scottish independence would be for the status of the UK. Former Tory leader William Hague writes: ‘Scottish independence would be perceived across the world as a sign of the UK’s decline. The loss of territory and population, and the impact on our economy, would be met with delight by autocratic regimes who would relish the diminished power of our country to do good globally.’
Former Defence minister Michael Fallon invokes the traditional version of the UK: ‘Britain has the strongest defence forces in Europe and is the fifth biggest defence power in the world. That strength and power, second only to the United States among the democracies, is for the common good. Scotland plays a central part in the defence of the British Isles’ – a slack statement which includes the Republic of Ireland.
Fallon gets into his stride about the spectre of independence: ‘Small-scale Scottish-only forces would have to be constructed from among those who were willing to transfer from each of the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Army and UK Strategic Command.’ He dares to invoke the dreaded threat of outsourcing in defence – something successive Tory and Labour UK Governments have undertaken to key parts of the UK military: ‘To keep Scotland safe such a small force would necessarily have to contract out key defence functions such as air policing, cyber-security, and the use of enablers such as helicopters, just as the Irish Republic relies on the RAF to police its own airspace.’
Fallon continues in this vein: ‘A separate Scotland would also be retreating from the world. Through the UK, Scotland shares one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council and one of the seven seats at the annual G7 economic summit.’ Hague goes further with Cold War smearing and invoking the Red Scare of China and Putin’s authoritarianism being aided by independence:
Regardless as to whether an independent Scotland would be allowed to join NATO, the break-up of the UK will be a godsend to our enemies. As much as the architects of independence seek to distance themselves from Russia – with Alex Salmond trying in vain to do so from his television show on the Kremlin-funded channel RT – there are few results that would delight Vladimir Putin more than Scottish independence.
Hague continues on UK membership of UN Security Council big five: ‘any action that weakens our country will be leapt upon by Russia and China as an excuse for revisiting the UK’s P5 membership, in the event that reform does come.’ He trundles out the mythology that Scotland exerts influence on the international stage through the UK: ‘While Scotland enjoys a formidable reputation around the world, it is far from certain that an independent Scotland, with a dramatically smaller diplomatic service and Foreign Office, would be able to achieve such effective diplomatic wins for the Scottish people.‘
The 2014 indyref is seen as proof that the question of independence has been settled if not once and for all, then for decades to come, with Brexit, pro-independence Holyrood majorities and mandates, and successive elections, ignored. Hague goes further than the ‘once in a generation’ mantra used to dish calls for a second vote, invoking a ‘once in a lifetime’ vote:
Despite the SNP losing its ‘once in a lifetime’ vote just seven years ago, the party again went into this year’s Holyrood elections seeking a mandate to subject Scotland to another bitter and divisive referendum. Although the Scottish people denied the SNP a majority and this mandate, Nicola Sturgeon ploughs ahead regardless.
A low point in Hague’s argument is trying to tar the SNP with Trumpian anti-democratic credentials and the brutal overturning of the popular will attempted in the US: ‘While quick to condemn Donald Trump’s refusal to respect the result of the 2020 US election, the First Minister and her party have never sought to honour the verdict of the 2014 vote.’
Tory MP for Wrexham Sarah Atherton maybe doesn’t know much about Scottish politics in arguing that the 1979 devolution vote was rejected because ‘turnout was too low to give the vote credibility’ (it was 63.7%). She then compares 1979 to the 2014 indyref: ‘The big difference was the turnout: more than double what it was in 1979, indicating the awakening of the Scottish public to the issue of independence’ – completely inaccurate when turnout in 2014 at 84.6% was a record in a Scottish contest, but nowhere double 1979.
Andrew Bowie celebrates the supposed glorious tapestry of the British constitution: ‘The unwritten constitution of our UK is not some museum piece – stuck in aspic, incapable of flexibility and radical thought. From its earliest days it has proven, quite simply because it is by its nature unwritten, to be able to adapt, flex and change …’
Then it is onto the mood music of Boris Johnson’s Tories for the moment – optimism without detail or plans: ‘Unlike the nationalists, I am an optimist’, Bowie states: ‘I believe we can do it. With imagination, with courage, with determination, we can build that better Union. We can complete the experiment. This kingdom is united. And, working together, we can unite it still further.’
Scottish Secretary of State Alister Jack’s contribution should have more detail but contains the same vague platitudes and petty swipes, telling us: ‘I am no fan of the ‘four nations’ expression, for the Union gives us one great nation.’ As anyone who cares about facts will know – and even Gordon Brown recently recognised – the UK is not a nation and talking about it as ‘one great nation’ is just inaccurate history and bad politics.
This is not an isolated episode and Tory MP for Vale of Clwyd James Davies makes a similar point, showing how riled Westminster unionist politicians became of the high profile of the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments during COVID. ‘Early on in the pandemic, he states, ‘it became convenient parlance for nationalist-leaning politicians to refer to the UK as ‘the four nations’ – a divisive term which pretends to equate our single nation state with an association of sovereign states. The term successfully found its way into common usage, including via the BBC and wider media.’
Jack also takes a swipe at the Scottish Parliament: ‘Shabbily, the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood is used less for the betterment of Scots than as a battering ram to hammer ‘Westmonster’. It means we in Scotland are still embroiled in a hot war for the very survival of the United Kingdom.’
Karen Bradley tells us that greater devolution, flags and federalism are not the answer to securing the future of the UK, but doesn’t tell us what is – a common sentiment running through Strength in Union. Instead, we are repeatedly told that an independent Scotland is a threat to the UK on the international stage, and such disruption would be a terrible thing.
Scottish aspirations to be part of the European Union are belittled and the influence of small nations in the EU depreciated. This is done without ever acknowledging the democratic wish of the majority of Scots to remain in the EU; and also leads to numerous swipes at the EU – Andrew Mangnall calling it a ‘bureaucratic behemoth’; which Scottish membership would ‘prevent Scottish businesses from benefiting from the trade opportunities of the 2020s.’
Strength in Union is a revealing publication, bringing together a cluster of high-profile Tories whom Bowie and the CPS must have hoped would provide convincing, knock-out arguments for the union. That they don’t do that on any level is revealing and indicates the deep crisis of the unionist argument and that it cannot decide what ground to make its case on.
This collection views the union from Westminster on high, and from the vantage point of Tory political elites. From this follows the mindset that ‘Great British Powerism’ is a good thing and that the projection of it on the international stage with all its grandeur and delusions should be maintained at all cost. It tries to reach out for emotional resonance – drawing from a rich tapestry of history and memories and steering clear of the transactional nationalism of going on about Barnett, but mostly this just comes across as not dealing with current challenges.
What is missing is manifold: the case for the UK as an entity which looks after the wellbeing of its citizens. This has been called ‘welfare nationalism’ and has a long lineage, and until recently it was how Labour made its case for the union – a kind of pre-‘levelling up’ sort of ‘levelling up’.
In a publication about the UK – apart from the missing English dimension – there is nothing substantial about the political centre and how the UK misunderstands and misgoverns the UK. This should not be surprising because the current indefensible status quo – constitutionally and democratically – aids Tory self-interest and dominance, something Labour have to this day struggled to recognise.
If Strength in Union is the best Tories can do in making the case for the union then it underlines the scale of crisis at the heart of the unionist argument. That doesn’t mean any independence supporters should get complacent or lazy – merely to point out that this state of affairs has been laid bare by one of the key Thatcherite think-tanks.