ENEPBT 2.5.2015. Inverness Rally to welcome SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on her Scottish tour.

Part of the Union?

The SNP’s flair for self-harm is the last bulwark against Scottish independence


This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Im going to suggest an experiment and you’ll just have to trust me. 

I want you to pretend the past six months of Scottish politics didn’t happen. Holyrood never passed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill to enshrine trans self-identification in Scots law. Adam Graham, the double rapist who self-identifies as a woman called Isla Bryson, was never sent to a female prison. Nicola Sturgeon never resigned. 

The vicious leadership contest never took place and Humza Yousaf didn’t limp over the line to become head of a divided party. Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, the former snp chief executive, was never arrested and their home never raided by police investigating the party’s finances. 

Now, point to one of those problems that was caused by the snp’s political opponents. Go on, just one. You can’t because there are none. Like almost every adversity the snp has faced in its 16 years in charge in Edinburgh, all of these travails were self-inflicted. 

It might seem perverse that the snp is so determined to make life difficult for itself. What is more perverse is that it’s much better at it than any of the Holyrood opposition parties. 

Unionists should be grateful for this sudden bout of nationalist self-harm, for it distracts the foremost political vehicle for Scottish independence. However, they should not be complacent because the snp’s sufferings mask much more fundamental trials facing the Union. 

The most obvious is the continuing levels of support for secession among Scottish voters. The turmoil inside the snp has not helped the case for independence but we have yet to see substantial evidence that it is undermining it. 

True, public appetite for a split from the uk has slipped over the last year or so after the highs it reached during the pandemic. That is probably attributable to the rising cost of living and its foregrounding of economic considerations. Independence is all well and good when it’s about vibes, less so when it comes to the numbers. 

We might see further slippage in the polls as a result of the snp’s present difficulties, but what is remarkable — and ought to be alarming to Westminster and Unionists everywhere — is just how resilient the Yes vote is. The most recent polling has it on 47 per cent. Nine years after the matter was supposedly settled, the fate of the Union remains within the margin of error. 

The question becomes more fraught with every passing year because of the demographics of Scottish constitutional politics. Crudely put, Unionism is an old person’s pursuit. 

Opposition to separation is concentrated among voters over 55. If only under-45s had the vote, the Union Jack would be on its way down the flagpole outside the Scottish Parliament. This is mostly not about economics, but culture.

Boomers grew up in a Scotland that that was still identifiably British. They voted for British political parties to a British parliament. They worked for nationalised British industries and relied on utilities owned by the British state. Britain and its symbols were everywhere, from British Aerospace to British Leyland to “God Save The Queen” sung at Scotland matches. Their culture was Scottish-British and they considered themselves to belong to both identities. 

Millennials and Generation Z had very different experiences. These are the children of devolution and of the 2014 independence referendum. They grew up in a Scotland less connected to the rest of Britain, with its separate elections to a separate parliament, and a culture more exclusively Scottish. Little wonder they are the generations most likely to identify themselves as “Scottish, not British”. 

Politically, they have known nothing other than the snp as the forever party of government in Scotland (or on its way there in the dying days of the last Labour-run Scottish Executive). Labour having set up Holyrood and the Tories having showered it with additional powers, Westminster had largely forgotten about Scotland, at least until recently. This only deepened the sense felt by Scots, particularly those under 40, that Westminster was something remote and other — a “foreign government”, as Humza Yousaf calls it. 

This is the problem with the nationalism-versus-unionism debate in Scotland. There is no unionism, not from the uk Government nor from the Holyrood opposition parties, who simply represent competing flavours of devolutionism. I’m not suggesting that to be a Unionist you must be against devolution, but rather that you must be more than merely against nationalism. 

And yet beyond opposing another referendum on independence, neither the Tory party nor Labour or any other institutions associated with the Union have anything of substance to say about strengthening the uk and its constitution. 

There are plenty of ideas for more carve-ups: more devolution or even federalism. But no coherent philosophy of Britishness, or vision of the uk’s future, or strategy for winning younger Scots round to a new idea of shared nationhood. 

Unionists should not revel too much in a divided and dysfunctional snp. Right now, it looks like the last remaining bulwark against Scottish independence. 

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