Scottish unionism needs new voices and a new vision

Mark Johnson

August 17, 2020

The 300-year old union, uniting the nations of England and Scotland, which binds together our United Kingdom, has never been in greater peril.

So-called unionist politicians have failed to address the disquiet among swathes of the population north of the border and make a positive case for the union. For too long, this has been framed as a “Scotland versus England” debate. Instead, pro-UK politicians must reframe the debate as two distinctive Scottish visions for our future – separated, or as part of a bigger picture.

The last six months have demonstrated a convergence in the polls. Public opinion seems to be shifting in favour of Scottish independence.

Covid has cast doubt over the efficacy of markets and reaffirmed faith in the power of the state. The situation in the UK has exacerbated the differences between our four governments, all now run by different political parties, a situation very different from the inception of devolution in 1999.

Yet this period has also demonstrated the power of pooling resources and distributing social security. The furlough scheme, made available by the strength of the UK’s borrowing power, was used by over 700,000 Scots. Close to a million Scots made use of the UK government’s personal support measures.

Other facts also continue to ring true. The pound is still one of the world’s strongest currencies. The UK state pension is a resolute insurance for those in retirement. And our economy, the seventh-largest in the world, ensures the UK remains a great place to run a business. The social security guaranteed by this economic strength is valuable. But more importantly, it gives us the opportunity to do better and target social injustices with a wider pool of resources at our disposal, even once Covid has passed.

In the age of populist politics, where national identity so often trumps the old political cleavages, it is unclear whether focusing on “the economy, stupid” will be enough. A glaring error that luck left unpunished in 2014 was the centrality of the prime minister and surrounding UK government figures to the “better together” campaign. Scotland needs new voices who can champion its course within the UK without risking a campaign which solely pits the two governments at loggerheads with one another – an outcome which would suit the nationalists.

With Scottish Labour in the electoral wilderness and the Tories as unpopular as ever north of the border, Richard Leonard and Douglas Ross will have their work cut out if they want to provide such a voice. If a new generation of Scots is to come forward to make the case for interdependence and the nation’s place in a wider United Kingdom, they must do so now or forever hold their peace.

The nationalists have made clear that they have little appetite for constructing independent monetary policy and likely intend to retain the security umbrella guaranteed by the British armed forces. With this in mind, it seems that the independence that they seek bares a closer resemblance to a federal United Kingdom – which is short only of the symbolic severance of political ties with the rest of the UK, which they crave.

Converging on this territory, the concept of an empowered Scotland in a federal UK must be the vision that unionists pursue. One of security and fairness. A union which guarantees welfare, defence and a platform to achieve more through the UK’s single market. But importantly, one which is also promoted by a new generation of pro-UK Scots who believe in interdependence. Next year’s Holyrood elections will be vital for Scotland’s future and it is crucial that unionists seize the mantle and start to create a positive vision for that future within the UK, before it is too late.

Author

  • Mark Johnson is a senior public affairs executive. He was a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in the 2019 general election.

Written by Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson is a senior public affairs executive. He was a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in the 2019 general election.

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