It feels like a rhetorical question. It’s not entirely clear where to put the emphasis. Is it ‘Why IS our Union so special?’ Is it ‘Why is our Union SO special?’ Is it ‘Why is OUR Union so special?’ The question hangs in the air like a gas.
I mean we had the Poll Tax imposed on us and Thatcherism before that. We host Trident against our will and our land is scattered with the toxic detritus of the British State. We’ve had decades of government we didn’t elect. Scotland voted overwhelmingly in every region to remain in Europe. 96% of Scotland’s Westminster representatives requested that all UK nations should agree before Brexit was carried. The Tories, with just one Scottish MP, overruled this. That’s kind of ‘special’.
But beyond all this the Unionist argument is that, even if the Union is profoundly and intrinsically undemocratic, it’s good for us. Boris will ‘put his arms around us’ and Scotland benefits from Britain’s largesse. It’s never really explained just why Scotland is perpetually poor, and why such a special Union has been so economically bad for us to require permanent life-support. But that is the argument.
The furlough was the exemplar of this argument. As evidence from around the world pointed to small independent countries being able to make bold and decisive actions in public health, and as Johnson’s handling of the pandemic was exposed as a venal shambles, Unionists resorted to the pressing need for a OneState approach worthy of Yevgeny Zamyatin.
‘Why is the Union So Special?’ was of course the subject of Douglas Ross’s speech for the Policy Exchange think-tank this morning. It was broadcast online and viewed by over a hundred people.
Now combining a sort of mea culpa with a basket of very odd policy ideas and the expression of a complete disconnect from reality. At one point, after having listed al the great benefits of the Union he said: “Instead of taking pride in the decision that they made in 2014, there are people who have begun to question it. They ask “Why is our Union different? The UK is a partnership of nations just like the European Union.”
It’s really not.
“Let the healing begin” he pleaded.
“The Covid-19 crisis has put the structures for interaction between the UK Government, devolved administrations and indeed the English mayoralties to the ultimate test, and I think that even the most committed defender of the current system would admit that they have been found wanting.”
Well, er, quite.
Ross started by establishing himself as something of an EdgeLord saying: “In my speech last month to Conservative Conference, I said that the “case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh” Of course, I knew when I made that statement it would be seen by some as provocative.”
But the speech quickly descends into a blancmange of strange homilies and slightly hokey factoids, so we learn:
“…our Union is not just one single relationship, Yes, there was an Act of Union in 1707 that brought Scotland and England together and created the United Kingdom.
But before that event there was already a tight web of connections, tying together our four nations” [maybe best not go that in too much detail].
“…that web of connections is deeper today than it has ever been. It brings together not just nations but communities and people. 23,000 students from the rest of the UK are enrolled in Scottish universities. Lincolnshire farmers supply barley that produces Speyside Whisky in my Moray Constituency. And the most popular children’s book series in the world was written by an Englishwoman in Edinburgh cafes.”
At this point you might be wondering what the fuck he is talking about, but it gets better.
Warming to his theme and now speaking as if he’s talking to a pre-school nursery he explains:
“Our Union even exists in our families. My grandfather – Geordie Sorrie – was one of nine boys, brought up in small tin-roofed two-bedroomed croft in Monymusk, Aberdeenshire. One of his brothers – Jimmy – moved to Corby originally employed in the Steel Works and then with Golden Wonder. Our family kept close links with Jimmy and his Evie and their family as well as cousin Mervyn and his family in Northern Ireland.”
I’m not quite sure why people having families – surely a universal truth – should be the strongest case for this special Union, and we’re left none the wiser, just with the image of young Geordie Sorrie rattling around the tin-roofed croft with his eight brothers and content to know that close links are kept up with Mervyn and his family.
Getting back to the question at hand Ross continues:
“Our Union is special because it respects our right to have multiple identities while still building a deep and strong partnership. We do not have to choose between being Scottish and being British, we can be both. This extends to how we govern our country. Scotland has two governments and in contrast to international comparisons, there is no rigid hierarchy between the different tiers of government. They both have areas of responsibility and management. They both have a role.”
Well, sort of I suppose. I mean there’s the government we don’t and can’t elect and there’s the government we do and can. But we don’t have much choice in it.
You’re left rubbing your eyes in disbelief as Douglas chunters on:
“We do not have to choose between governance from Edinburgh or London, we have both.”
I mean, what is this?
Just when you thought that Ross was maybe just an imbecile who didn’t really understand anything at all about the world, things take a darker turn.
“If our Union is to endure then it must continue to be special” he declares.
“As I have said earlier, there is a lot of debate and discussion right now about how we strengthen the Union. It is an easy soundbite inserted into many speeches and comments. Yet there is not a shared understanding of what this means. There are those who see devolution as a massive strategic error. As a pandora’s box that once opened was a “process, not an event” not towards a stable settlement but towards independence. One that has given the SNP a platform from which it has the resources and the exposure to destroy the British state. And therefore, the only way to strengthen the Union is to abolish the Scottish Parliament and return to a pre-1999 situation or severely constrain its powers. I say to them firstly, we live in a reality where devolution enjoys widespread public support. And secondly, our problems lie not with the machinery of devolution but with the SNP Government that is controlling them. And they will not vanish with the removal of the Scottish Parliament.”
I mean this is sort of reassuring but it does suggest that the only reason that the Tories wouldn’t abolish Holyrood completely is that there’s ‘public support’ for it, and anyway the SNP won’t “vanish” with the removal of the Parliament.
And here we get to the “meat” of the speech, such as it is:
The UK Government needs to seize the opportunity to create a more tangible role for itself in delivering previous EU funding schemes.
The UK Government needs to do more to involve the Devolved Administrations in delivering our new international role. They will have to implement trade deals so should have a role in producing their terms.
More flexibility in our immigration system to account for the needs of different parts of our country, which the Devolved Administrations are well placed to represent.
A restatement of the “respect agenda” in engagement and communication.
“On one hand the UK Government’s suspicions around the security of information has been legitimate. But on the other, Devolved Administrations, responsible for managing the virus in their nations, have been forced to look for detail on announcements from publicly available press releases. Trust has broken down and when it does we see time and time again popular opinion siding with their devolved representatives.The SNP benefits from inter-governmental disputes, the UK Government does not.” The solution lies in a formal framework for interaction, with rules underpinning the flow of information and regular engagement.Supported by a clear arbitration process to manage dispute and disagreement. This will not just reduce the opportunities for nationalists to claim a “constitutional crisis” but encourage more collaboration and working together,
Much of this is to support policies Ross has publicly (and vehemently) opposed before. But this won’t phase him at all. His notion of an arbitration of disputes is extraordinary and based on a presumption of “equality” between the four nations that has no basis in reality. This is a mixture of power grab and fantasies about Scotland or Wales having a meaningful role in international relations.
Then things get really weird.
“It is also time that we delivered a voice for the Devolved Administrations and English Mayors at Westminster. It is ridiculous that the Church of England and hereditary peers are better represented in the UK legislative process than the Scottish Government. Many governments have flirted with Lords reform, but when we finally get around to it, we need to deliver formal representation for our nations and regions. These suggestions are in no way the totality of what the UK Government could do, but they do show how our Union can evolve to meet current challenges, how it can encourage the collaboration that the Scottish people want to see between their governments. while continuing to ensure that all parts of our country share equally in its benefits.”
This version of Blue Sky Thinking is vague and hazy but essentially he sees elected Scottish politicians somehow being brought into the world of Britain’s crusty feudal Knackers Yard of the House of Lords, as if that is a step towards democracy. It’s eye-wateringly incoherent.
Unfortunately for Ross his pay-off line is a plea for the furlough:
“The furlough scheme has not just been a lifeline to people who would have otherwise lost their jobs, it is also a real and tangible reminder of the economic security of the Union.”
Yet precisely the opposite is true, the UK government’s refusal to extend the furlough outwith England’s borders is as crude and cruel an expose of the failure of the union.