Jackson Carlaw’s hasty but 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 were passed, uniting England with Scotland. 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 making himself solely responsible for the union’s health. Dismantling the economic, cultural and historical intertwinement 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.
Boris is an oven-ready candidate to save the union. He is loved by provincial Tories but was a successful urban mayor of 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. But saving the union might well be his most formidable post-pandemic challenge.
Labour’s assertion in 1995 that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead” has proved completely false. To preserve Scotland’s membership of the union, Boris must present an argument aimed at the head, not the heart. He must effectively communicate the empirical case against Scottish independence.
A second independence referendum would become an imminent prospect if the SNP were to make its 35-point polling lead a reality in Holyrood in next year’s election. If such a result were to transpire, the SNP would make a formal petition to the Westminster government for a referendum, putting the prime minister – and minister for the union – in an impossible position. Fight the referendum with all guns blazing now to secure a decisive victory in 2024, or roll the dice on support for Scottish independence dwindling in years to come?
Judging by the tone of recent PMQs, it seems that the prime minister intends to pursue the second course of action. Until then he must bear in mind the fact that many Scottish people value their Scottish identity more highly than their British one. However, crucially, Scotland is not owned by the SNP. Supporting or opposing independence does not make you any more or less of a Scottish patriot. The 2014 Better Together campaign was right to argue that an independent Scotland would suffer economically. But unionists should not allow the SNP to define their cause as “project fear” again.
Independence remains a fringe issue in Wales. Unlike Scotland, which enjoys the benefits of the North Sea oil reserves, Wales would have almost nothing to fall back on as an independent nation. Oddly, when questioned on the issue, first minister Mark Drakeford seems to flirt with the possibility of Welsh independence, noting that it simply lacks public support. But the shortcomings of the current devolved system have been brought into sharp focus during the pandemic, as the Welsh government’s response trails slowly behind policy measures in England, always accompanied by a great deal of confusion.
Westminster governments of the past decade have plenty to celebrate when it comes to shoring up Wales’s place in the union. The 2014 NATO summit being held in Cardiff carried great significance, for instance, as did the passing of the 2015 St David’s Day agreement to protect funding from central government to Cardiff. When the Holtham Commission complained in 2010 that Wales was under-funded, the government with a significant cash boost.
To cement Wales’s place in the union beyond any doubt, the government should give more attention to Wales itself, rather than concentrating its efforts on bureaucrats in Cardiff. The prime minister must look beyond devolutional wrangling and renew its focus on business, infrastructure, investment and apprenticeships in Wales.
The Northern Irish executive and its people have undertaken a momentous journey from conflict to cooperation after decades of violence and years of fruitless talks and stalemate. The future of Northern Ireland rests on a robust executive after Brexit. With the larger mandate, the DUP has always been given the post of first minister, while Sinn Féin has been given deputy first minister. But the two roles effectively bear equal power. Each can only exist with the full support of the other.
So, Martin McGuiness’s 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. Any prospect of a hastily constructed hard border in the Irish sea post-Brexit would provoke 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. Boris has insisted there will be no fresh controls on trade between Northern Ireland and Britain. He has said repeatedly that there will be no checks on goods travelling in either direction. The prime minister 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. Previous Conservative governments can also be proud of their record on Northern Ireland. They addressed the lingering wrong of Bloody Sunday through the Saville inquiry, for example, and created a 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 that was changed by this alliance.
The same can be said of the economy. In the 2014 referendum, the government insisted that an independent Scotland would have to assume responsibility for its share of UK public debt. Covering Northern Ireland’s fiscal deficit in the same way would be a tall order for the republic, suggesting that a united Ireland would mean spending cuts for both the north and the south. The Westminster government should not be afraid of reiterating this fact.
In all circumstances, the government must root our unionist identity in the shared values of all four nations. It should not match independence campaigns with pugnacious English nationalism, or nationalism of any kind, in fact. There are plenty of reasons to encourage patriotism. But if we base our sense of identity on ethnicity, such as by resisting multiculturalism, we will soon find ourselves reverting to our separate English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities. That is no way to secure the future of the union.