The Fantasies of Muscular Unionism

As we come out of this phase of lockdown with a mix of cabin fever, alienation from social norms and 70s hair dos, attention has turned to next years Holyrood elections. The combination of enforced isolation and watching the horror show of Boris Johnson’s government has accelerated frustration at the Scottish Government’s seeming inertia on constitutional matters. The plans for multitudes of flourishing new parties started well – from blogger-polls fantasising 28 seats for an imaginary party – to Dave Thompson asking us to “imagine a parliament with 16 or 20 Margo McDonalds”. But this week all of the new (and old) indy parties said they wouldn’t take part in an Alliance for Independence, and Colette Walker’s enthusiasm for Angel Therapy was opened to ridicule. Up like a rocket and down like a stick. But as the independence movement threatens to eat itself a more tangible real-world threat looms.

The reality that we have long known – that Brexit and devolution cannot co-exist – is coming into being. It’s now, it’s not next year. The threat and the problem isn’t “how do we get independence” it is “how do we defend devolution”. And if that is thought of as a “retreat” it should be remembered that a retreat is often an advance. Because despite the internal dramas and egotism of the Yes movement, the reality is that the latest show of “Muscular Unionism” is a sign of desperate weakness as Britain careers out of lockdown and into a No Deal.

The official web page for the self-styled, self-appointed Minister for the Union (current role holder The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP) is completely blank. Where other portfolios exist there is usually a ton of information explaining the Ministers plans and power and remit. Boris has none. The Conservatives plans to “save the union” are not subtle. In response to sky-high polling for the SNP and for Yes Johnson, Gove and Rishi Sunak (the Boggis Bunce and Bean of the new cabinet sub-committee on the union) plan a combination of enforcing the ‘Internal market’ power grab and building stuff.

As Ben Jackson, author of The Case for Scottish Independence: A History of Nationalist Political Thought in Modern Scotland (2020) writes:

“Alongside Boris Johnson’s adoption of the title “Minister for the Union,” the strategy seems to be to rein in the centrifugal tendencies of devolution by asserting a more muscular British state, which will deliver British-badged infrastructure projects to Scotland and extend a stronger sense of British identity across government. Everything is figuratively to be wrapped in a union flag, with a disconcerting lurch from a red, white and blue Brexit to—as it were—red, white and blue bridges and public buildings.

Inspired by the think tank Policy Exchange, this “muscular unionism” is set to be driven forward by a new Cabinet Union Policy Implementation Committee chaired by Michael Gove. Apparently without irony, the government’s plan is to copy the EU by ensuring that any transport improvements or new buildings funded by the Treasury carry signs that credit the British state for its largesse.”

“This noisy new unionism bears testament to how poorly the British right understands Scottish nationalism. Despite their own leading roles in the famously anti-technocratic Vote Leave campaign, Gove and Johnson are now staking everything on the imagined soothing properties of infrastructure investment, rather than summoning up anything of comparable emotional power to the ideas about democratic self-government articulated by Scottish nationalists.”

It’s a cunning plan but it has flaws.

Firstly the idea that the Union flag is a symbol which evokes unity and patriotism is one which, is how to put this politely, a little outdated. Second, while the record of the Scottish Government is up to increasing critical scrutiny, some of the things that have been achieved – Scotland-only initiatives such as free university tuition, minimum unit pricing for alcohol or the introduction of a smoking ban before the rest of the UK – would not be possible under future restrictions. These are hardly earth-shattering initiatives but they are symbolic and important and crucially they are now unifying cross-party ideas. They are examples of divergence that speak to Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. If they lack the grist and flames of constitutional warfare they also speak to the reason for devolution. Gove, Sunak and Johnson think they are attacking “nationalism” or “independence” when they are in fact undermining devolution, and, apart from a few outlying Tory zealots there are precious few who are against devolution. Thirdly, they’re skint. Post-covid / No Deal Britain will be an economic basket-case. The idea of significant infrastructure investment seems slim, and if it is predicated on the notion of winning round a recalcitrant Scottish public with baubles wrapped in the Union Jack anticipating endless gratitude, I think they have misread the room. Finally creating more and more friction to the already over-heated constitutional crisis as we enter a new phase of the Brexit fever-dream is a mistake.  As Mike Russell put it in his letter of response: “we’re not going along with it. If it’s a voluntary code we won’t observe it, if it’s legislation we’ll challenge it every inch of the way”.

There’s a deep irony to all of this. As the Yes movement tears its hair out, and as the Tories blunder from one catastrophic mismanagement to another – it’s the Unionists themselves who are most fearful. “Our Union has never been in greater peril” opines Iain Martin in The Times: “What has catalysed this coming crisis is Covid-19. Poor handling of the pandemic by No 10 has altered the dynamics dramatically, supercharging the SNP and obscuring its appalling domestic policy record. Although many of the mistakes that the British government has made were replicated in Edinburgh by Ms Sturgeon, her confident handling of the public relations side of the crisis has impressed voters. She faces little challenge from a browbeaten media and every day her press conference is beamed live to the nation.

It sounds like Cuba under Castro.

There is clearly panic.

Martin concludes: “If the unionists had a leader they might be able to fight back. They do not. The charismatic Ruth Davidson walked away from the leadership of the Scottish Tories last year, and the other demoralised parties are nowhere. This vacuum is highly dangerous. It means that Mr Johnson, and the key figure of Michael Gove, a Scot, need to find allies quickly who can work up an argument for Britain that blends emotional appeal with geopolitical reality and blunt economics. Mr Johnson and Mr Gove need to be ready for a referendum that, unless they somehow get lucky, history is going to force them to fight. Figures from other parties will be needed. Mr Johnson’s deepening unpopularity in Scotland in the wake of the coronavirus means he cannot conceivably front a campaign.”

Quite the pickle.

But the newly formed ‘Union Unit’ has plans. The committee is expected to discuss how the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which replaces funding controlled by the EU, will be used to “bind” the UK nations. We’re told there are “twenty officials” working on policies. So far these include such dazzling prospects as an upgrade of the A75.

One report even suggested that this group would be tasked with paving the way for ministers to explore Mr Johnson’s proposed bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

This is truly the stuff of fantasists, but then we knew that. The entire Brexit process has been characterised by fantasy lies and propaganda. But at some point reality bites you on the bum.

Scotland isn’t very good at being unified. We are often split and splintered, argumentative bastards the whole lot of us. But the Conservatives have chosen a bad time, when their precious union is at its most vulnerable, to attack devolution. As a previously No voting friend of mine said: “They can’t do that, we all voted for that … it took ages to bring that into being”. It’s easy to slip into the trap of seeing your opponents as fiendishly clever and powerful, particularly when they occupy the offices of state. This is a mistake. By attacking devolution the Conservatives are attacking Scottish democracy. By undermining Holyrood they are undermining an institution that doesn’t belong to the SNP but was voted for by the Scottish people. There s nothing more likely to unite Scotland than the blundering efforts of this discredited regime. There may be sunny uplands after all.





Comments (19)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Isabel Cooney says:

    Very good read. But Ruth Davidson charismatic?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Isabel, bafflingly, she is for many of the self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ chatterers in the Guardian, Observer, New Statesman, Prospect, Left Foot Forward, sections of the Labour Party. Mainly, it because she is ‘not-that-Nicola-Sturgeon’ and because, having been trained by BBC Scotland, Ms Davidson is one of them.

      1. Anna says:

        You’re dead right, Alasdair. She’s such a media creation with little or no political substance to her but dangerous with it. She got an easy time of it from the Scottish media because they are, as you say, her old pals and now she’s clearly trying for a media career again. She used to giggle at her own ‘jokes’ when a presenter on Radio Scotland and clearly thought she could just breenge into politics in the same casual way. Good riddance, I hope, because now we can just switch her off.

    2. Not my view – but the obsession of a small group of commentators …

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        No criticism of you was implied, MrSmall. I agree with your views expressed in the article and also on the specific point of whom the Davidson cheerleaders are. They are a small group, but, they reach a fairly wide audience.

  2. Alistair Taylor says:

    I haven’t been in Scotland for a wee while. Over a year now. Spring 2020 trip scuppered by the Covid.
    What is there to look forward to in Glasgow airport? Increasing amounts of Union Jacks plastered everywhere? Aye, right,
    Get your British shortbread here. Jesus wept.
    It’s coming down to the wire. A region of North Britain, or an actual country? To be or not to be, Scotland? Aye, that is the question.

  3. kate macleod says:

    The SNPs Covid response is about the only nation building they have done – in that they have shown why devolution can be important in peoples daily lives , why a Scottish national government potentially matters in life and death situations and that the closing borders of state or national borders might be quite useful during pandemics when trying to protect local elimination gains. As a comparison , try entering South Australia, Queensland or Western Australia from Victoria (or NSW) after the recent resurgence of outbreaks, much less overseas- those internal borders are still closed or re closed.

    i would agree with the commentator derided in the article that the covid response is where the SNPs relative popularity is coming from and not their domestic record, which unless you are comfortably middle or upper class is solidly ‘we are not about you’ , and even the covid response was not especially good, especially at first, unless compared to england or the US. although the SNP Covid response was not good for old people in homes, or their carers.

    Independence may well be out of reach for a long time as its support is still fluctuating , not solid and not reliable – its not ‘sky high’, which seems a fantasist interpretation, or perhaps an alternative fact. there wont sky high support be unless the currency issue is resolved, amongst other major black holes still not filled in from 2014 , and until non wealthy people can see from policies proposed by the prospective govt that their lives will be better – health services and education better, working lives/employment,wages and conditions better, environment protected, more public housing , land reform, etc. it seems clear lots of people aren’t interested in independence or Scotland as a thing in itself.

    However protecting devolution is protecting what people already have, which could be easier to get support for, especially at present.

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      Kate, if the SNP are “we are not about you”, how would you characterise the Conservatives?
      It seems clear to me, in Canada, that Scots should be interested in governing their own affairs.

    2. Hi Kate, thanks for the comment and yes I agree that the difference in actual covid policy north and south of the border were minimal, certainly early on. I do think that if you look at polling on independence it is on the rise and has been consistently for the last six months and is now at its highest ever peak. But you are right also that it still has some way to go. I agree also that independence needs to be offered as a tangible benefit not just a more abstract promise of sovereignty.

  4. Douglas Wilson says:

    I confess my faith in the SNP leadership, both past and present, is rapidly fading…
    It’s not true the independence movement is “tearing itself apart”, what is true is that Salmond and Sturgeon have served us up a national soap opera which we could well have done without…
    After all, we can always resort to the Brit Box subscription package if we want to see reruns of TAKE THE HIGH ROAD…we didn’t need this right now, that is, the Salmond Affair, perhaps better dubbed the Salmond Fiasco or the Salmond-Sturgeon Disaster Movie (credits not contractual)…
    It’s not like the movement is divided by some ideological fault line, the division comes from the top down and has a strong personal flavour to it…
    Salmond has behaved very badly, as we all know from the papers, and Sturgeon has responded by behaving completely recklessly – and possibly illegally – almost certainly because she feels personally let down by her old boss, bitterly aggrieved and disappointed and with a just cause on her side.
    Sturgeon tells us this weekend in the newspaper that the Salmond affair has left her in something akin to state of mourning or grieving (Cue violins – oh, my heart really does bleed for the First Minister, though, as the song goes, the best part of breaking up is in the making up. Or is it the other way around? )
    According to The Herald, she also tells us that it was she who pressed for the new SNP code of conduct to be backdated.
    What was she thinking?
    That’s a legal, technical question which allows for no exceptions. You cannot backdate laws or rules and regulations, and for good reason, because it would leave the door open to the abuse of power and the next SNP leader could come along and change the code of conduct and backdate it to whack Nicola in turn, to put it in mafia terms which don’t seem completely out of place here all of a sudden.
    Nicola Sturgeon must know this, she has studied the law, so the only conclusion is that she went ahead and backdated the conduct code knowing she would lose the case, but that Salmond would lose more in that his image would be tarnished and any come-back over. What other explanation is there?
    But even up to this point, it’s really just an internal SNP affair, those of us not in the SNP have no need to form an opinion. We could just ignore it as background noise.
    But when it becomes a criminal matter, then the whole thing changes.
    How did it go from being an internal party matter, into a criminal case in the High Court? This is the missing piece of information, and I don’t know the answer. If it was the women in question on their own – Salmond’s accusers – then the matter is over.
    But if the answer is “the FM of Scotland pushed for it”, then I can’t see how her position is tenable any more.
    You cannot use public office for personal matters like settling scores with your ex-boss who has let you down…
    It doesn’t matter how much you might be in the right…
    There are a lot of good people in the SNP. I personally would like to see a double ticket of somebody from the Salmond faction and someone from the Sturgeon faction and a new start.
    This whole thing is a fiasco, and both Salmond and Sturgeon must take some of the blame…

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      PS: in which other country would a pro-indie newspaper run a headline quoting the FM’s mother in order to reassure us all that the leader of the independence party does actually want indepedence? It’s all getting too ludicrous for words. Does Sturgeon want independence? Of course she does. Is she prepared to go through hell and high water for it? I’m not convinced she is…. And letting the Tories off the hook in the Brexit Parliament means that they don’t take her seriously now perhaps…they think she’s a soft touch….

    2. Derek Thomson says:

      “Salmond has behaved very badly, as we all know from the papers” Did ye, aye?

  5. Axel P Kulit says:

    The more I watch Westminster the more I feel, in my water that the Tories want o lose Scotland, especially as a majority of their members want England to be independent.

    Perhaps I am being too optimistic but….

  6. Kate Johnston says:

    Oh gosh! I hope so.

  7. Gordon McAdam says:

    “appalling domestic record”, “browbeaten media”. Really?

    1. That’s the quote from Iain Martin, not the author (/?)

  8. Wul says:

    Re; ” …the appaling domestic record of the SNP”

    This is something that my English relatives take for granted and seems to be a matter of recorded fact as far as they are concerned. Perhaps I don’t see it because I never read the relevant newspapers and I’m in a different bubble.

    Does the SNP actually have an appaling record if directly compared to rUK in comparible doemestic achievement? Can someone here give examples?

    I’m talking direct comparisons of Scotland V rUK here; I know that the whole of the UK ( Scotland included) is bottom league by many global standards.

  9. Wul says:

    From Ian Martin in The Times; “…Mr Johnson, and the key figure of Michael Gove, a Scot, need to find allies quickly who can work up an argument for Britain that blends emotional appeal with geopolitical reality and blunt economics.”

    Johnston, Gove & co. are incapable of making any kind of offer that recognises Scotland ( or indeed any other nation or people in the world) as an equal. They just don’t think that way.
    There is “Us” and there are “others” and the others must always be beaten and/or tricked into submission. Any wooing will always be a “rough wooing”. We may get offered some beads ( UK Shared Prosperity Fund) but the beads will always turn out to be worthless compared to what is taken away. It has been a very sucessful policy, for hundreds of years against many varieties of “fuzzy wuzzies”. Will us Scottish “fuzzy wuzzies”, “The Natives” as Prince Phillip calls us, fall for it yet again?

    I remember a frustrated EU official talking about the early Brexit negotiations and he said; “What the British fail to understand, what they have always failed to understand, is that the EU is an organisation governed by rules. The British always think they can throw away the rules to get what they want”.

  10. Paul F Cockburn says:

    Just a slight update required: that “Minister for the Union” webpage you mention now includes – Ooh! – ONE announcement, about apparently £50 million being earmarked for Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, with the aim of “unlocking the islands’ economic potential”. Wonder if this figure actually includes any previously announced funding? (It usually does.)

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.