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.