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Labour’s demise in Scotland is a problem for the Tories too. They just don’t know it yet

29 April 2015

1:21 PM

29 April 2015

1:21 PM

Heaven preserve us from our friends for, though they mean well, they know not the damage they do. I have great respect for Danny Finkelstein. The Pride of Pinner is one of the best and sharpest columnists in the land. There is gold in every column he writes.

So having said that, I am not – this should be obvious – altogether persuaded by his latest epistle.

Let’s concede there’s plenty the noble lord gets right. He is correct to observe that the SNP is now doing to Labour what Labour once did to the Conservatives: denying their legitimacy. He is right, too, that the logic of devolution only leads in one direction. (The Unionist Ultras who opposed the establishment of the Scottish parliament had a point – and, in their terms, some logic – on their side. Nevertheless, that battle was lost long ago and there seems little point revisiting it now.)

And he is right that primary responsibility for Labour’s Scottish woes lies with Labour too. For that matter, I concede that, viewed from London, the idea of a Uk government dependent upon the support of a party that wishes, sooner or later, to destroy the UK as we know it is, at best, awkward and, quite possibly, all but intolerable.

Lord Finkelstein desires another Tory government. That is fine. If using the SNP to frighten English voters makes that government more likely then, as a matter of short-term political expediency, I do understand that makes sense. It is not an agreeable prospect.

But nor, frankly, is the alternative. Another Conservative government is no better for Unionism than a weak Labour ministry dependent, some of the time, upon some nationalist support. Indeed, it might be even worse.

Viewed from Scotland, you see, this Conservative election campaign has been nothing less than disgraceful. At the risk of some Jocksplaining let me elaborate on this…

Are the Tories so stupid they think we can’t see what they’re doing in England? Do they think our heads button up at the back? Do they reckon social media, television, and the English editions of the newspapers can’t be seen north of the border? Or, as seems more probable, do they know this and think it just doesn’t matter?

At the very beginning of this long campaign the Tories decided that SNP advances in Scotland were useful. Anything that hurts Labour can’t be an entirely bad thing. Gosh, isn’t it funny seeing Scottish Labour squirm? One in the eye for them, eh? Pass the brandy.

But it’s not funny any longer. It’s not very funny seeing George Osborne talking-up Nicola Sturgeon. It’s not very funny seeing the Tories putting party before country. It’s not very funny seeing them channelling the spirit of John Wilkes.

A handful of hours after the referendum result had been confirmed I wrote that the state of our Union is not strong today. Indeed, the referendum is a reminder, even a confirmation, of its weakness. There is much work to be done.” I added that the victors bore a “heavy responsibility” and that repairing the divisions made evident by the referendum was a task as necessary as it would be difficult. That would undoubtedly demand some generosity of spirit from Unionists. 

This, I fear, has proved too optimistic by far.

Instead of bringing the nation – or nations, if you prefer – together, Cameron and his party (south of the border) have pushed them ever further apart. At no point has Cameron set out his vision for the better, more equitable, governance of the United Kingdom. Perhaps he does not have one.

Instead there was an immediate push for EVEL, tying this to any changes in Scotland’s status. This was, transparently, a manoeuvre launched for tactical reasons: let’s dish Labour! No thought was given to the broader, longer, picture.

That broader, longer, frame of reference matters too. Danny Finkelstein sneers at the 1989 Claim of Right and mocks “the sovereign right” of the Scottish people to determine their own future. Well, fine. Writing as someone who has disliked Canon Kenyon Wright for longer than Lord Finkelstein, I grant him a quarter point.

Yet is the noble lord disputing that right? Surely not? Because, if so, he’ll find himself up against, oh, 90 percent of Scottish opinion. One of the things that became clear, these past few years, is that many nationalists in Scotland have thought far more deeply about the Union than have many Unionists in England.

Viewed form Edinburgh, rather than Pinner, you see, the Union actually has to mean something. It must actually be a real thing, not just something to be granted the occasional, blithe, piece of lip-service. Oh, the Union, oh yes, we must remember to pretend, when we venture north of the wall, that it’s actually a thing, But, come on, let’s get real.

Not the least of the problems with Better Together was the manner in which it struggled to articulate a vision of a shared British future. (Danny Finkelstein is right to observe that BT’s failures were largely the failures of Labour men but other strands of Unionism must still take their share of the blame.) Gordon Brown – so mocked in London – came closest but even his efforts were not quite enough.

Remember, please, that devolution is no new or tricksy piece of constitutional legerdemain. It was not Tony Blair’s creation. It was as John Smith said, whether one likes it or not, the pretty settled will of the Scottish people. And it was not a new idea.

Why, even the Conservatives once supported it. It was a Conservative Prime Minister who made the Declaration of Perth as far back as 1970 and it was another former Conservative Prime Minister who advised Scots to vote No in 1979 because the Tories would introduce a better Scotland bill.

We can go further back too. Keir Hardie believed in Home Rule – however that might be defined – too. And it was a Conservative peer and former Secretary for Scotland, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, who declared in 1907 that he was hesitant of “finding myself committed to opposing things for Ireland, when I would take them for my own country, and would [thus], be in an impossible situation so far as Scotland is concerned”.

Which is to note that the demands for a looser set of constitutional arrangements in the United Kingdom go back much further than many people imagine. These demands have ebbed and flowed and they have not always enjoyed majority support but they have, ever since Victorian times, always existed. The National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights may have achieved little during its short existence but the significance lies in its existence at all and the year in which it was founded: 1853.

A century later the Scottish Covenant Association claimed to have gathered two million signatures supporting its claim to a home rule parliament in Edinburgh. That was no small thing, either.

I dredge these things up as a reminder that, far from being settled, the governance of the United Kingdom has always been questioned even if, evidently, rarely as deeply or thoroughly as now. The centre has usually prevailed but now, as Andy McIver rightly notes at Conservative Home the centre’s days are numbered.

Viewed from far above the daily hurly-burly, it’s possible to imagine the period form 1914 to 1979 as the aberrant years of constitutional stasis during which, more than by anything else, Britain and Britishness was sustained by the shattering experience and memory of two world wars. (The Empire helped too, of course.)

But a sovereign right? Really? Yes, actually, because to give that up means giving up an essential, even elemental, part of our identity. It would mean settling for North Briton status and while that too is part of our collective identity and memory the great Unionist triumph these past 300 years has been the preservation of Scotland as a distinct place. With England but not of England. This is no small thing and anyone who dismisses it lightly is as dangerous as they are mistaken.

This present crisis – make no mistake, regardless of what happens at Westminster next month, this election is a disaster for Unionism – has many fathers and some mothers too. It is foolish to blame it on either the Tory or Labour tribes alone (For all her many achievements Mrs Thatcher, I am afraid, played her own part in bringing us to this moment.)

It is even more foolish – from a Unionist perspective – to try and use this crisis for short-term political advantage. Yet that is what is happening. It is a troubling thing and, viewed from the north, perhaps the most grimly troubling thing of all is that people in the south still seem unaware the Union can be imperilled in London just as surely as it is threatened in Scotland.

Friends? Well, the Union has precious few of them these days. Repairing this breach will require quantities of tact, patience and generosity that seem far beyond anything available right now.

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