Michelle Ballantyne (Ken Jack - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

How many unionist parties does it take to fix the SNP?

With Reform UK and Alliance for Unity, five pro-union parties are lining-up to fight the SNP – and each other.

Artillery Row

Is the proliferation of unionist parties in Scotland the cause, or the consequence, of an imperilled union? More pertinently, can five pro-union parties better peg-back Scottish nationalism than the traditional two-and-a-half has managed?

In a first-past-the-post system, the obvious answer would be “no.” The greater the number of pro-union parties, the more that the pro-union vote is split. That inevitability is sufficiently grasped by the two newcomer parties, George Galloway’s Alliance for Unity and Reform UK Scotland, that they will not be fielding candidates in any of the 73 constituency contests in the Holyrood elections fought under first-past-the-post rules. But both new parties will be running candidates in Holyrood’s regional “party list” vote which sends an additional 56 MSPs to the Scottish parliament as a means of making its representation more proportionate to the total shares of votes cast.

What is the thinking here? Alliance for Unity and Reform UK Scotland believe that voters have become increasingly sophisticated in how they cast this second, regional list, ballot paper. Floating voters include soft SNP voters who may vote for that party at constituency level but who retain sufficient doubts (particularly about independence) that they will give their second, regional, vote to a different party in order to deny the Nats too large a majority. Having already deserted the long-established unionist parties, these voters may favour one of the two new parties as a better vehicle of conditional protest against Nationalist over-reach.

Also in play are some nationalists who do not share Nicola Sturgeon’s uncritical adoration of the EU. Under-represented in public discourse, polling nevertheless detects the existence of the pro-Brexit nationalist as well as the more numerous Brexiteer unionist. In giving the impression that Brexit is as much an embarrassment as Boris, the Scottish Conservative leadership has not endeared itself to these voters.

Then there is the disaffected (but anti-independence) voter who is – or risks becoming – a non-voter. Having lost confidence in the Scottish Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats, this segment of the electorate might vote Alliance for Unity or Reform UK as a means of giving the establishment parties the kicking supposedly required to knock some fibre back into them.

can five pro-union parties better peg-back Scottish nationalism than the traditional two-and-a-half has managed?

This is what might be called the non-wasted protest vote. After all, Ukip’s success was not measured in Westminster seats but in the pressure it created, inciting David Cameron into promising a referendum. The Brexit party’s achievement in the 2019 European parliamentary elections was not in securing the EU’s most fleeting posse of MEPs, but in frightening Conservative MPs into ditching Theresa May and electing a leader committed to a more substantive form of Brexit.

Representative of those who have despaired at the performance of the Scottish Conservative party and concluded it needs just such a kick from the outside is the MSP, Michelle Ballantyne. This time last year she was launching her election campaign for the leadership of that party, losing the following month to Jackson Carlaw – who duly lasted five months in the job. In November, she announced she was quitting the Scottish Conservatives, having seemingly concluded that Carlaw’s successor, Douglas Ross, was no great improvement.

On Monday, Ballantyne was unveiled as the leader of Reform UK Scotland. In the ensuing online press conference, she outlined a political stance that also risked prioritising mild-mannered moderation above distinctive button-pushing. “Today’s not the day for soundbites” she announced, somewhat to the surprise of cynics and realists. It also transpired to be not the day for detailed policy announcements. If May’s scheduled Holyrood elections are not postponed, the opportunities to seize such moments will prove limited.

Reform UK, is the successor to what was the Brexit party (the Electoral Commission approved the name change last week). Resisting the temptation to revisit yesterday’s Euro-battles, Ballantyne instead emphasised the party’s new direction of travel as a critic of Covid lockdown policy (Ballantyne supports the Great Barrington Declaration). Beyond Covid, it would “not be sustainable” for Scotland to spend 60 percent of its GDP on public expenditure she suggested, and Scottish taxes should not be higher than those elsewhere in the UK. These are positions likely to appeal primarily to Scots who despair at the Scottish Conservative party’s reluctance to challenge too far what it imagines to be the Scottish consensus. It is hard to gauge the size of this constituency, not least because it has not been properly appealed to.

To the suggestion that the Scottish Tories are nevertheless the only game in town for serious non-socialist unionists and that she will struggle to influence it from the outside, Ballantyne responds, “I’m there to rattle the cage” with an alternative vision because “the fact is that I spent three years trying from the inside,” and “their acquiescence to the SNP was what drove me out in the end.” She does not directly allude to them, but illustrative examples were Douglas Ross’s determination to display as much distance as he can from Boris Johnson and instructing his party to support the SNP’s sealing of Scotland’s border with England.

“What’s important,” says Ballantyne, “is how we run services in Scotland. There’s too much obsession about talking about separation. That’s not even a devolved matter and is not even what people are going to be voting for” in the Holyrood elections. “The more people keep talking about separation, the more they’re making it a proxy referendum. And it isn’t.”

If it is Reform UK’s intention to make defence of the union implicit rather than explicit, it is offering a fundamentally different proposition to the Alliance for Unity. Led by George Galloway and the writer and Dumfriesshire farmer, Jamie Blackett, the Alliance regards the Holyrood election as absolutely about resisting the independence movement even to the extent that all other policy squabbles between the anti-independence parties should be put aside in a popular front against nationalism.

What will this spectrum of choice do for pro-union politics in Scotland? How voters may notionally vote when presented with opportunities they have not had before is a highly speculative branch of electoral forecasting. It is made more so by the prospect that if the Holyrood election does go ahead in May, it will do so as a primarily (or totally) postal ballot with hardly any of the traditional preceding weeks of campaigning and media ops upon which new parties depend to be noticed if they are to achieve name recognition and familiarity.

One view is that this could play to the new parties’ advantage as social media offers a relatively cheap levelling of the playing field for them to compete with the established ones. Alliance for Unity now has more Twitter followers than the Scottish Liberal Democrats and George Galloway may reasonably claim greater name recognition among most Scots than Douglas Ross, Richard Leonard or Willie Rennie whose unifying feature, according to polling from December, is that most Scots have no clear opinion about them.

As to whether providing pro-union or hesitant Nat voters with a wider choice when casting their regional list vote will increase the number of pro-union MSPs, it is worth recalling the glee many unionists felt last year when there were murmurs of an alternative pro-independence party that would compete with the SNP only on the regional list ballot paper.

That unionist excitement might have been misplaced. Given that the SNP’s likely dominance of the constituency vote tally means the regional list will not greatly top-up their number, there was method in the Alt-Nat madness.

By contrast, if the three established pro-union parties fail to secure many MSPs through the Holyrood constituency vote, how will the addition of two more pro-union parties affect their chance to get ‘top up’ MSPs from the regional list vote?

The unionist dilemma is clear. Five-way competition could prove mutually self-defeating. But left to their own devices, how good a job are the Scottish Conservative and Labour leaderships doing in making the unionist case without that threat?

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