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How to tame Scottish nationalism

18 September 2019

5:15 PM

18 September 2019

5:15 PM

Happy Union Day, the fifth anniversary of Scotland’s vote to remain in the United Kingdom. It’s gotten so commercial, though at least voting No to independence means the Scots still have a currency to buy their celebratory Union Jack bunting in. Only there’s not much in the way of celebrations today. In 2014, the Better Together campaign made a big deal of an independent Scotland starting life outside the EU. Unionists don’t bring that up anymore. 

Opponents of nationalism have lost their figurehead in Ruth Davidson and as well as Brexit they have been lumped with Boris Johnson, a man who polls in Scotland like veganism in Alabama. The SNP, 12 years in government and making a hash of health and education, is enjoying poll leads that a North Korean election monitor would raise an eyebrow at. Scottish Labour has gone hokey kokey on the Union, unsure whether it wants to be in or out, and a snap General Election could reduce non-nationalist parties to a rump. 

That the orderly anarchy of Brexit hasn’t made the Scots see the dangers of Scexit is cause for much brow-furrowing among Unionists. They approach as a fully rational proposition something that is in part an emotional matter. If your identity is wholly Scottish and you are driven by restoration of the sovereignty extinguished by entering into a union, you will vote to take back control no matter the economic impact. Similarly, if you are afraid of Brexit, independence may seem like an escape, because you are reacting to an immediate threat rather than a hypothetical one. 

How, then, do you compel the public to learn the lessons of the past five years? The simple answer is: you don’t. Politics is not a lecture; voters don’t take well to stern talking-tos. A successful pushback against nationalism will have to begin with a recognition that rationalist disdain is not enough. In the seven years since Better Together was launched, pro-unity politicians have been warning voters of the hyper-austerity that independence would bring. Still 45 per cent voted for it and polls show slightly more would today. Another approach is needed. 

Step one is to get off the defensive. The constitutional conversation currently plays out something like this: Nationalists say independence is inevitable and Scotland will be a progressive nirvana once free from the shackles of Westminster. Unionists take fright, pull out some graphs and try to explain the Barnett formula. As the Irishman tells the tourist looking for directions to Dublin: ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’ Unionists need not start from here either. Instead of defending the Union, they ought to champion it. Change the conversation from for/against Scexit (the territory the SNP wants to battle on) to for/against the Union. Make Nicola Sturgeon explain daily why she wants the division and uncertainty of Scexit.  

A confident Unionism will necessarily mean asserting that part of Scotland’s identity the SNP is working to extinguish: Britishness. This makes some Unionists queasy (just as the U-word itself does) because they are as uneasy waving the Union Flag as they are the saltire. This is a misapprehension, however. Unionists do not say that Scotland is only British; they say Britishness is an identity broad and generous enough to encompass Scottishness and every other national sentiment. Unionism is not British nationalism, as some SNP types claim, because it is motored by pluralism rather than mononationalism. 

So just as the SNP has used the levers of the state to promote a mononational Scottish identity, the UK Government can counter this by promoting Britishness and Unionism through spending priorities, the creation of new British institutions, and considered use of language. Equally vital is using legislation to curtail the excesses of the nationalists at Holyrood, given their refusal to abide by the devolution settlement. A new Scotland Act that upturns the assumption in favour of ever-more-devolution and puts meaningful restrictions on the Scottish Parliament and Scottish ministers in reserved areas is long overdue. 

Step two is the rational complement to this identity-led approach. Scexit would mean not just Scotland leaving the UK but the end of the UK as we know it. Westminster has a compelling interest in doing everything it can to frustrate that outcome. One approach would be to erect enough hurdles that, if cleared, would demonstrate an indisputable democratic imperative for a Scexit referendum. This could include requiring a single-party government to win a majority of seats at a Scottish Parliament election on a manifesto explicitly pledging a second Scexit referendum; requiring that party also to win a majority of Scottish seats at the following General Election; requiring a supermajority of two-thirds of MSPs to vote in favour of requesting a Section 30 order; requiring the question(s), timing, and franchise to be decided jointly by Holyrood and Westminster; requiring a turnout of at least two-thirds of registered voters; requiring a supermajority of at least 60 per cent to vote for Scexit; and requiring a multiple-choice confirmatory referendum on the terms of Scexit, with an option to revoke and remain.

All or even some of these measures would make life immeasurably more difficult for the Scexiteers. So too would insisting that the question in any future referendum mirrored the Brexit ballot: ‘Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?’ A poll from anti-independence group Scotland in Union shows that, asked in that phrasing, 59 per cent favour remaining in the United Kingdom. The nationalists can hardly argue that the original Yes/No question from 2014 set a gold standard. Barely had the last ballot been counted than they were talking up their ongoing campaign for another referendum. The very fact the SNP refused to accept the result of that ‘once in a generation, once in a lifetime’ plebiscite tells us that the question asked failed to resolve matters. 

Of course, the SNP would howl about the democratic process being ‘rigged’ but they do that already anyway. Contrary to what the devocrats who litter the Scottish political and media establishment believe, there is no holy obligation for Westminster to bend over backwards to accommodate separatists whose cause is the destruction of the UK. Scotland can’t afford another five wasted years like the last five. It won’t have to if Westminster regains its confidence, tames the nationalist beast and pushes Scexit back to the fringes. Do all that and there might just be cause to make Union Day a national day of celebration and, for those of us inclined to raise a dram or two, preferably a Bank Holiday too. 


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