2007 - 2020

The Horse Hasn’t Bolted

Jamie Maxwell assesses the likely strategies to defend the Union for the beleaguered Conservative bloc.

Nationalists have long believed in the inevitability of Scottish independence; now unionists are beginning to believe in it, too. “It’s over,” one former Better Together figurehead told The Spectator, anonymously, in July. “The horse has bolted.” 

The recent string of opinion polls showing, for the first time, sustained majority support for separation has spooked the British political class. Boris Johnson’s panicked sojourns north of the border, and the hastily-arranged decapitation of Jackson Carlaw as Scots Tory leader, suggest unionism is a cause in search of a strategy – a point underlined by the absurd idea, floated last week by the FT’s Sebastian Payne, that Britain’s future rests exclusively on the shoulders of Richard Leonard.

But just because independence increasingly looks preordained doesn’t mean that it is. The rising sense of indifference felt by many English voters – particularly English Brexit voters – towards the Union isn’t shared by the bulk of Conservative MPs, let alone Tory cabinet members, at Westminster. Indeed, as next year’s Holyrood election – which Nicola Sturgeon insists will be “the most important in Scotland’s history” – inches ever closer, the pressure on Johnson to launch a comprehensive defence of the Ukanian state will be huge. 

The prime minister has two route maps in front of him. The first is old-fashioned, Thatcher-style obstructionism. This would mean blocking a re-run of the 2014 vote and forcing Scotland to remain part of the UK against its will, but at the cost of permanently alienating Scottish public opinion. The second, much more ambitiously, is to accept nationalist demands for another referendum and then try to stave the Yes movement off, again, at the ballot box. 

The latter option, for obvious reasons, won’t be immediately appealing to Conservative sensibilities. But it could work, not least because the core elements of a revivified No campaign – based around a relentless focus on economic issues and funded by a network of billionaire donors and dark money think-tanks are already largely in place.  

Sturgeon’s plan for Scotland to continue using the pound without London’s consent is an existential threat to Scottish living standards, the Tories would argue. Faced with an entrenched 20 per cent budget deficit, isolated from its main trading partner by a hard border, and stripped of the financial security provided by the UK Treasury and the Bank of England, Scotland’s economy would nosedive. Pensions and mortgage rates would be ruined. Foreign investors would flee. Taxes would skyrocket overnight. Moreover, Sterlingisation has the potential to undermine one of the core planks of the SNP’s referendum pitch: rapid re-entry into EU, which – some analysts say – would only be possible after the creation of a Scottish central bank and currency. 

If Johnson is smart, he will soften this buzzing, amplified version of Project Fear with a strong devolutionary counter-offer: full Scottish control over social security, enhanced borrowing powers, closer regulatory alignment to the EU, and an immigration system that accommodates rather than actively neglects Scotland’s demographic needs. 

Equally, the prime minister – who remains pathologically unpopular with the Scottish electorate – would, as far as possible, avoid the media spotlight and cede his place in the debate to a roster of more credible anti-nationalist politicians, including Gordon Brown, Ruth Davidson, and Rishi Sunak (assuming the Chancellor’s decision to end the COVID furlough scheme early hasn’t shattered his national leadership ambitions by this point).

To be clear, I’m not convinced the Tories have the strategic imagination necessary to concede ground on Home Rule or relegate Johnson to a distant and tightly-sealed backroom, which is obviously where he needs to be if the Union is going survive the duration of his premiership. But, in the event of a second referendum, I reckon a unionist campaign fought along these lines would stand at least a semi-decent chance of success, even with all the centrifugal forces – Brexit, English nationalism, the Conservative Party itself – currently bearing down on the UK’s creaking constitutional architecture. 

It might also be worth noting that Downing Street incumbents have a habit of surviving apparently intractable political crises of their own making. When Margaret Thatcher first became prime minister in May 1979, the UK had an unemployment rate of 5.3 per cent. By the end of her first term in office, that figure had more than doubled to 11.4 per cent. In June 1983, Thatcher was re-elected with a landslide majority of 144 seats. In 2004, Tony Blair was mired in the toxic controversy of Iraq and loathed by around 60 per cent of the British public. Twelve months later, he became the only Labour leader in history to notch up three general election victories in a row. In the summer of 2019, Labour and the Conservatives were tied in the polls, with Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party threatening to fracture the Leave vote at Johnson’s expense. On 12 December … well, you know the rest. 

The main danger for the Yes movement, eight months out from the next Holyrood election and with all the momentum flowing its way, is complacency. The temptation to believe that a demoralised Whitehall will meekly let the Union go because that’s what Scottish people want is intense but should be resisted. At some point, the Tories will work out how to articulate a case against independence that resonates with voters concerned about the raw economics of self-government. And, when they do, public opinion might shift once again. This thing isn’t over. The horse hasn’t bolted. Absolutely nothing, in the roaring madness of British politics, is inevitable. 

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  1. Robert Logan says:

    “Sturgeon’s plan for Scotland to continue using the pound without London’s consent is an existential threat to Scottish living standards, the Tories would argue. Faced with an entrenched 20 per cent budget deficit, isolated from its main trading partner by a hard border, and stripped of the financial security provided by the UK Treasury and the Bank of England, Scotland’s economy would nosedive. Pensions and mortgage rates would be ruined. Foreign investors would flee. Taxes would skyrocket overnight. Moreover, Sterlingisation has the potential to undermine one of the core planks of the SNP’s referendum pitch: rapid re-entry into EU, which – some analysts say – would only be possible after the creation of a Scottish central bank and currency. ”

    Whaaa?
    ZERO – repeat ZERO deficit.
    Hard Border? Implies in the EU!
    In the EU implies currency acceptance!!!!

    You are ignoring EU pragmatism, indeed that the EU currently is looking for fishing access (all Scotland).

    The union can argue on lies, on deceit and on broken promises.

    Only fools and morons will accept your presented ‘cons’.

    1. david says:

      Nah, he’s right. Web need our own currency pronto.

  2. Gordon Purvis says:

    Interesting review. Currency is the key issue.

  3. Michael says:

    I do wonder what the over 60,000 staff and over £2 billion that are utilized in paranoid secrecy by that GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 et al actually does for “us”!

    “It might also be worth noting that Downing Street incumbents have a habit of surviving apparently intractable political crises of their own making. When Margaret Thatcher first became prime minister in May 1979, the UK had an unemployment rate of 5.3 per cent. By the end of her first term in office, that figure had more than doubled to 11.4 per cent. In June 1983, Thatcher was re-elected with a landslide majority of 144 seats. In 2004, Tony Blair was mired in the toxic controversy of Iraq and loathed by around 60 per cent of the British public. Twelve months later, he became the only Labour leader in history to notch up three general election victories in a row. In the summer of 2019, Labour and the Conservatives were tied in the polls, with Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party threatening to fracture the Leave vote at Johnson’s expense. On 12 December … well, you know the rest.”

  4. Axel P Kulit says:

    “The main danger for the Yes movement, eight months out from the next Holyrood election and with all the momentum flowing its way, is complacency. The temptation to believe that a demoralised Whitehall will meekly let the Union go because that’s what Scottish people want is intense but should be resisted.”

    I have been thinking this for ages

    But most YES voters seem deaf and blind to the risk and not even aware that England is moving towards fascism.

  5. Graham Ennis says:

    Ok, as usual, the currency question is wrong. Lets get this clear. Scotland does not use the English pound. Take a scottish banknote out of your wallet and look at it. It is a scottish note. This note is printed by De la rue, and issued by the currency committee of Scottish banks. The bank of England insists that a “Sterling Deposit be lodged by the Scottish banks to enable “Parity of exchange and value” with the English pound. This pile of cash, stored in the bank of England, is officially for this purpose only. The Scottish banks could demand it back, and might even get it back, but it would not affect the legitimacy of the Scottish pound, which is underwritten by the Treaty of Union. If the banks seized it back, the pound issued by Scottish banks would still be legal tender in Scotland. Got that everyone?. Scotland already has a currency. (again, look in your wallet). Like Hong Kong, which also has its own currency, the Hong Kong Dollar, issued on the same basis.
    Also understand that upon independence the Scottish Pound automatically becomes a petro-currency. Petro curencies are as hard as the Swiss Franc. (Take a look at the GGulf states. Unlike the English pound, they have never had a currency crisis.
    It gets worse. (if you are English). The currency would require a permanent deficit account being run by the Scottish Government. otherwise, like all petro-currencies, it would become like the Swiss Franc. A deficit of around 20% would be required. Also, if the Scottish treasury in an independent state was the issuing body, like most states, it could do this quite safely. Why? because it would owe the “Money”/bonds, etc, to, er, itself. Also the so-called trade deficit is a fraud. It is false accounting. according the the trade figures, Scotland exports less whisky than Ireland. (Eh?. Yes, actually. Reason, the exports go from English ports, they do not go from Scottish ones. The trade balance is therefore listed as an “English” export. In actuality, across all of the economic outputs, Scotland has a very large trade balance in its favour. (Please check all this, its true.). The Tories know all this, but keep it very silent. My concvern is that the so-called “Experts in The SNP have swallowed the Tory fraud hook line and sinker. Their basic position, which is bullshit, is that Scotland is “Too Wee, to stupit, etc etc” to have its own currency like a grown up country. Problem solved. “Lets not think or talk about this”, The right wing politics of the SNP’s economic plans require it. I would swear an oath that all of this is true, (It is) but who would listen?…. the present situation suitys too many people. Time to blow the lid off of this one.

    1. Arboreal Agenda says:

      Interesting information – thanks.

      Just one question – legal tender – that doesn’t really exist though does it as anything other than a loose concept? People can accept anything they want in exchange for something, or not. I remember arguing this about the frustration of some shopkeepers not accepting Scottish notes in England due to their ignorance – I though they were obliged to take that as they were ‘legal tender’ but when I looked into it they don’t have to and legal tender means very little in practice.

    2. Michael says:

      Where can you find these technical details documented?

      1. Graham Ennis says:

        Well, start with the Act of Union. Its the main entrenching act for the Union. It is written in fairly plain English, and is clear and to the point. It has NEVER been repealed. Its valid law. If it was, Scotland would automatically revert to a sovereign independent state. There have been repeated illegal breaches of the treaty over the years. The first minister is a lawyer, so needs to get into the UK supreme Court, get the illegalities ruled illegal, and the treaties enforced. There are supplementary things in other acts that spell out how, why, and when Scotland can withdraw. Nicola is talking bull shit on this one. by the way, its established Scottish law that the Courts in Scotland are not subject to the Crown. But English law id being enforced, illegally, in Scotland. The London Parliament Scottish grand Committee is rigged, illegally, with non scots members. It also has the power to meet in Scotland and to make laws for approval by the London parliament. (Thats why it is rigged). Much else, and none of it understood by those whose job it is to do so. But I think, at the moment, given the nature of the UK deep state, that the Irish Route is inevitable, at some point. sheer stupidity and racism in london will drive things in that direction. so all this is pointless. Nobody with any sanity wants this, but sadly its drifting in that direction. The UK security people are already planning for it. Sigh.

        1. Doric_loon says:

          You’re mad.
          Completely stark raving bonkers.
          Are you trying to make ‘Wings’ look sensible in comparison?
          There is no such thing as either a Scottish pound or an English pound. My plastic cards etc., can’t tell any difference. (because there isnt one)
          Similarly your whisky comments. The exit port is completely irrelevant, Scotland does categorically NOT export less whisky than Ireland.
          Here’s a link to Business for Scotland no less;
          https://www.businessforscotland.com/exporting-notes-and-references/
          what they say..
          “We mentioned the lack of major deep-water container ports in Scotland and that as a result most Scottish goods have to travel through England to be exported from ports such as Felixstowe and the Port of Dover. Despite this creating trade friction, the port of exit from the UK does not change the export data as almost all oil and gas and all Scotch whisky etc is thus counted as a Scottish export, given it’s production location is clear and the Scottish figures are based on the ESS Export Statistics Scotland survey and not port data.”

    3. Les Mackay says:

      Great response Graham. But the problem is that, like last time, the silent min/maj-ority don’t believe it. Remember last time, Salmond said ‘we’ll use the pound’, and Westminster said ‘no you wont’, and that was what stopped us. And Scotgov say that we will use the pound…still. How do we get round that?

      1. Graham Ennis says:

        actually, as I have explained, (to the rage of some on here) rthe scottish pound notes in your pocket are NOT english pound notes. (It says so on them, by the design and the inscriptions). They are issued by the interbank committee of the Scottish banks. They are printed not by the bank of England but De la ru printers. Got that everyone?…after independence, the banks would come under Scottish treasury control, but the notes and credit would be created and issued by a bank of Scotland. No way short of carpet bombing, or military invasion, could the UK stop that. Also, the one billion “Note Cover” would be demanded back from London, which is meant to make the Scottish pound at par value with the English pound. Also, there is no way UK notes circulating in Scotland would be controllable from London. Firms and shop keepers that accepted them, (at the going exchange rate) would simply exchange them internationally. Likewise the Euro. if the Scottish Goverment declared the Euro legal tender, but continued to issue scottish notes and credit, it would gain a huge free loan in monetary terms from the EU. (The notes would be a backing for the Scottish notes, as well, if retained by Scottish treasury. The biggest problem would be scopttish currency becoming A PETRO CURRENCY and as hard as the Swiss franc. so another 20% of notes would have to be issued, to gently inflate the pound Scot. it would be a solid currency, contrary to all those Scots who are frightened of being in a free country, that rules itself, has a solid economy, and is part of the EU, and does not grovel to the Americans, like London does. There is no actual solution to this problem, ewxcept waiting for this section of the population to die off.

  6. Iain MacPhail says:

    This piece would have more weight if current (2020) conditions were guaranteed to last into spring 2021.

    But no deal Brexit on 1 January will be devastating for pro-British people.

    Being part of the UK is to accept food riots, empty shelves, troops on the streets & farming standards destroyed.

    To be British is to be for low food standards & selling off the NHS
    To be European/Scottish is to have higher standards

    All the arguments in this article slide off the slope into the graveyard behind the goals, in light of Brexit coming into reality in January (imo)

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      If there’s a no deal Brexit Westminster will have effectively trashed the 71.1% “will of the people” Good Friday Agreement and on top of the logistical mayhem at the ports a resurgent IRA could easily have the “UK” mainland on lockdown. Craters on port roads, bombs on lorries, drones over airports, foreign lorry drivers refusing to cross British ports and the same game of shell and pea that produced the pre-ceasefire headline “for the price of a few phone calls the IRA have brought the city of London to a standstill”. Anyone who would vote No to separation under those circumstances would surely be sectionable.

      Prior to Johnson’s “deal” being passed in parliament I submitted a petition to https://petition.parliament.uk/ warning of the above and calling for the English to be given an independence referendum. It was the obvious solution, the English leave the “UK” and the rest of us decide our own fate. It’s where we’ll all end up in any case. After 8 weeks (they normally take a week to approve a petition) my petition was rejected on the grounds that it was a joke. It will certainly be funny to the rest of the world.

  7. Wul says:

    FFS!

    “We already have our own currency” : “We don’t have our own currency”.

    “We have a 20% defecit” : “We have ZERO defecit”

    “We can use the pound” : “We can’t use the pound; it will ruin us”

    This stuff should be provable fact and should be know for certain by every Scottish voter. And yet I’m as confused about this stuff as I was in 2014 and still there’s no agreed facts.

    Why is this? It needs sorted out ASAP.

  8. Wul says:

    There is a noticeable sea-change in the tone of some broadcasters.

    Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 “PM”, flagship current affairs programme acknowledged that Scotland had ( How very strange!) actually done some things right.

    Carolyn Quinn listed Sturgeon’s U-turn on teacher assessments, face masks being required in Scottish schools and wondered if this was “…just the latest in a run of instances where England seemed to follow Scotland in adopting more stringent rules, often after claiming there was little evidence to do so. So, might it happen again…?”

    It is now permissible for senior London BBC staff to wonder out loud if maybe, just maybe, someone in Scotland is capable of running a country. This is quite extraordinary. It is an indicator of some very deep self-doubt.

  9. MBC says:

    I’m not complacent. I’m deeply worried. They have ways of controlling us.

    1. Graham Ennis says:

      never, ever, forget that the UK Goverment is utterly ruthless. (See Irish recent history if you do not believe me). The economic impact of the Scots leaving the UK and rejoining the EU would be huge. it took a thirty year WAR, (The so-called “Troubles”) to make them do the right thing. I think that eventually, there will be severe violence in Scotland, not because the Scots want it, but because it has been forced on them. I am weaiting until after the leaving of the EU by “UK” and then the ruthless suppression and repeal of the Devolution legislation. I am NOT joking. No london Goverment is going to allow oil reserves as big as Kuwait to slip away from their grasp. Plus the deep racist hatred a lot of English have for the Celts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Can anybody here assure me that the suppression of the Scots Government will not happen?… The Americans will insist on it.

      1. Gashty McGonnard says:

        Graham, I won’t deny that the London establishment can be vicious in defending what it sees as its interests. An anti-Celtic element in English Nationalism is also evident. And, sure, the tories would love to reverse devolution or at least cripple it.

        Even so, your pessimism seems overwrought. Why on earth would America care whether North Sea oil was managed from Edinburgh or London? They seem quite happy to deal with other small states in the North Atlantic, including those with oil. Post-Brexit, the UK or it’s remnants will be forced into toe-clutching supplication before the US, and to some extent the EU. At the same time UK will have lost its strategic role as Washington’s proxy in Brussels. Oil is on its way out anyway. From next year, UK is looking at protracted and painful economic reconstruction in any event: and downsizing of global profile. ‘Losing’ Scotland might actually be seen as conducive to building a leaner, meaner, deregulated England. The US has bigger concerns, in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.

        None of that implies that a transition to Independence will be totally frictionless. But the world is shifting, it’s in nobody’s interest to have any serious violence in Scotland, particularly not US’s or NATO’s. We can’t predict future events based on how then-imperial UK behaved in Ireland or India last century.

        I know that’s not a wholly rosy picture. Realpolitik can be grim. A sovereign Scots government will have to sup wi’ the de’il more than we’d like. I just don’t see the conditions being there for serious internal disorder or anything other than healthy relationships on both sides of the pond.

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