The Union Flag is now a rare sight in Scotland

Putting muscle behind the Union

A new breed of “muscular unionists” is seeking to reverse the damage done by devolution

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

New Labour’s 1997 manifesto made the nation a simple promise: “a sovereign Westminster Parliament will devolve power to Scotland and Wales. The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.”

Two decades on, that pledge lies in ruins. The United Kingdom was taken to the brink of dissolution in 2014, the Scottish National Party have displaced Labour as the party of government in Edinburgh and Welsh Labour’s commitment to the Union is increasingly couched in mercenary terms.

A unionist backlash was inevitable

In the two decades since the advent of the new legislatures, devolutionary orthodoxy has presented unionism with only losing moves. The failure of each tranche of extra powers to satiate the separatists can only mean that even more powers are required. Victory is being redefined in increasingly abject terms that would leave the UK a less coherent entity than the European Union.

Given all that, an eventual unionist backlash was inevitable, and in the white heat of the last parliament, the cross-party public consensus on New Labour’s constitutional legacy started to break down. When Boris Johnson reportedly told a group of Conservative MPs that devolution has been a “disaster” in Scotland, he merely broke an omertà. Many others, both Tory and Labour, feel the same.

The new approach, haphazardly pursued by this Government, has been dubbed “muscular unionism”. As with so many labels in British politics, it was coined by its opponents. Its advocates do not have a word for themselves; this is not yet a coherent movement with a codified doctrine.

But it is an emerging presence within the Conservative Party. One can trace its outlines in the new 80-strong group of unionist backbenchers and the revival of the grassroots Friends of the Union; in the passage of the totemic UK Internal Market Act (UKIMA) and the internecine battles over the Subsidy Control Bill; in the rise and fall of advisers and the uncertain position of Michael Gove.

Whatever you call it, “muscular unionism” asks hard questions both about whether orthodox devolutionary strategy can save the Union and what exactly “saving the Union” really means. It has the potential, at least, to turn the constitution into a clear point of cleavage between Labour and the Tories.

But it started as something much less ambitious: an attempt to work out what to do with all the powers repatriated to Britain as we left the European Union. The foundations for UKIMA, and all that follows from it, were laid in the battle over what was then Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill.

The two sides were as follows. On one was ranged those who argued that simply because New Labour had devolved whole areas of policy, any ex-EU powers within those areas ought to be automatically devolved as well.

What does “saving the Union” mean?

On the other were those who argued that their predecessors had only intended to devolve powers that were within Westminster’s ambit at the time devolution took place. Those powers which had been pooled upwards in Brussels had been sent that way for a reason: they needed to be harmonised to make a single market work.

The Government’s logic was sound. The SNP could use even trivial powers to undermine the British common market. Give them control of food labelling, for example, and they could institute a tiny change that would nonetheless require manufacturers to have separate production lines for Scottish goods.

But after Theresa May’s Government gelded itself at the 2017 election, the battle was lost. The SNP position won the support not just of their usual handmaidens on the Labour benches, but a small yet critical band of Scottish Conservatives brandishing hazy slogans about the “spirit of devolution”. A time-bomb was laid beneath the UK’s single market.

This defeat made UKIMA necessary. Although much of the debate was overshadowed by Brandon Lewis’s comments about international law with regards to Northern Ireland, the revolutionary scope of the Act extended far beyond any controversy over the Protocol.

Not only did it reassert Westminster’s right to maintain and police the UK’s internal market as the unilateral authority, it also empowered ministers to spend additional money directly in areas of devolved competence. For the first time, the British Government can once again start to play a positive, pro-active, and visible role in governing the entire country.

This is a dramatic (and long-overdue) break with the outdated “more powers” consensus, and was prompted by those two crucial questions: can devolution save the Union, and what does “saving the Union” mean?

To many devolutionaries, the essential rightness of their proposition seems more an article of faith than a falsifiable thesis. Tony Blair himself, in a recent interview with ITV, asserted: “If the Labour Party hadn’t implemented its manifesto commitment to do devolution in 1997, the union would already be in tatters.”

As we cannot glimpse the other timeline, nobody can disprove this. They can merely choose to believe it, and no matter how bad things get they would otherwise have been worse. Even if your theory has no predictive power, and your big promises go utterly unfulfilled, you’re still right.

Centrifugal forces unleashed by devolution must be balanced

Forced to reason both from the observable reality that their strategy isn’t working and the ideological necessity that it is nonetheless the right strategy, devolutionary unionists can only conclude that the proper remedy is an even stronger dose of the medicine that is killing their patient (although in an attempt to slip it past the regulator, they sometimes rebrand it as “federalism”).

Devosceptic unionists, on the other hand, subscribe to Tam Dalyell’s mantra that all the current problems with devolution were “predictable and predicted; foreseeable and foreseen”. They anticipate that hollowing out the United Kingdom will weaken it, and lo and behold, the Union grows weaker the hollower it becomes.

Under the all-or-nothing model instituted by New Labour, the British state is prevented from playing any positive role in most policy areas, such as health and education, that matter most to many voters. Shorn of the ability to act, the best Westminster can do is hand over more money, thus redefining “better together” in increasingly narrow and pecuniary terms.

Worse, the system aligns the interests of the entire devocrat class, whether openly separatist or nominally pro-UK, against those of the Union. For it is a rare politician who will decline the opportunity to blame the shortcomings of their administration on a malign outside force, and conveniently situate the remedy in yet more power, pay, and prestige for themselves.

This analysis does not necessarily lead to a wish to abolish the Scottish or Welsh parliaments (although some certainly do). Instead, if it means anything, “muscular unionism” is the belief that the centrifugal forces unleashed by devolution must be balanced by a centripetal role for our shared Parliament and the British State.

At minimum, this means asserting Westminster’s right and duty to defend the coherence of British economic and social life without being afraid to set limits on the powers and ambitions of devolved politicians where they would imperil either. This also means repudiating the suggestion, implicit in much of the debate about the fate of ex-EU powers, that it is somehow illegitimate for London to exercise powers previously vested in Brussels.

But unionism has been on the defensive for too long, and by empowering ministers to spend funds on almost anything, UKIMA traces the outline of a more ambitious strategy. Pro-UK MPs are now looking for ways to include measures to strengthen the Union in other pieces of upcoming legislation.

Others openly debate the prospect of ending fiscal transfers

There is also scope for Westminster to start doing more to hold devolved authorities to account for the British money they spend, most obviously by mandating the Office for National Statistics to collect uniform data on public sector performance from every part of the country, and thus frustrate the determined efforts of both the SNP and Welsh Labour to disguise their records behind non-comparable statistics.

But behind these technical and practical battles lies a more fundamental one about what exactly the United Kingdom is, and thus what “saving it” (unionism’s nominal purpose) really requires.

For decades, the constitutional debate within unionism has been couched almost exclusively in terms of means. A shared goal is assumed; the question is how best to go about delivering it. But after two decades of constitutional retreat, it is increasingly impossible to ignore that there are actually competing, and very different, conceptions of the mission.

Some advocates of the orthodox approach have started redefining victory in increasingly alarming terms. No less than a former head of the Scottish Office has written that the ambit of British governance should shrink to only such “wholly UK issues [as] the currency and national defence”. Others openly debate the prospect of ending fiscal transfers. One former New Labour adviser on a panel with me once insisted that the Union was “a means, not an end”.

From some Scottish Conservatives comes talk of dividing government between Scottish and Welsh “self-rule” and reserved “shared rule”. Some of their Labour counterparts go even further, floating the prospect of formally involving the Scottish Government in foreign policy. In the aftermath of 2016, some Remainers — elevating tactical expediency over good sense — suggested that each of the home nations should get a veto over Brexit.

What all these visions have in common is an understanding of the United Kingdom that is more or less confederal, anchored in the view which holds that Britain is not a nation or a national state. The view is best summarised in Labour’s manifesto for this year’s Senedd election, when it offered Welsh voters the following fiction:

“We believe the UK is a voluntary association of four nations with sovereignty shared among its four democratic legislatures in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

The sheer breadth of the coalition behind this idea can be surprising. When David Starkey wrote in a recent issue of this magazine that the United Kingdom is “rather like Voltaire’s Holy Roman Empire; it is neither one, nor indivisible, nor united”, he paid perhaps unknowing tribute to the nationalist sage Tom Nairn, who ridiculed “Ukania” as a modern analogue of the ramshackle Habsburg empire.

Now Austria-Hungary had more virtues than many modish statesmen of the era were prepared to acknowledge, and the history of the Balkans might have been considerably happier had they done so.

Nonetheless, anybody who wants to understand the logic of “muscular unionism” (even if they reject it) must understand that it rests in part on rejecting this conception of Britain.

They believe that there is such a thing as a British people

In practical terms, it does this because of a growing recognition that a United Kingdom reorganised on such terms could not survive. By dismissing the idea of the British as a people, it fatally undermines both the practical and principled cases for the Union. At a stroke, common governance through our shared Parliament — what we might call British self-rule — becomes inherently illegitimate. This much, many devocrats obviously intend. But so too does the “pooling and sharing” of money and resources around the UK. If there is no British people, there cannot long endure a British Treasury, nor British cash for it to disburse.

To some, the sort of threadbare “British Isles Defence & Diplomatic Community” that would result qualifies as “saving the United Kingdom”. To “muscular unionists”, it does not, in part because they believe that there is such a thing as a British people and nation.

Even taking the narrowest possible definition, there are millions of people across these islands who mark “British only” on the census or in polls. Throw in those who prefer “More British than X” or “Equally British and X” and there are many millions more. Even those whose ideology does not admit that nationhood can exist on multiple levels cannot escape the fact that “the British” are, at the very least, this country’s fifth constituent nation.

The boundaries of this nation fluctuate over time. For the past few decades it has been in retreat (although to those who claim it never existed we must ask: from what?). But it does not follow that this retreat is historically inevitable and irreversible. Instead, to “muscular unionists” there is a clear connection between the attenuation of British loyalties and the diminution of the British state. Today it does less visible good, and there are fewer institutions giving a British shape to daily life.

Unionists have disdained to fight the small battles

Nationalists have long understood this. The SNP’s efforts to expunge British symbolism from Scottish life have been systematic, starting with the rebranding of the Scottish Executive as the “Scottish Government” and extending through wrapping trains in the “ScotRail” saltire to trying to abolish the British Transport Police. Unionists, in contrast, have for too long disdained to fight the small battles, and consented to working with public opinion whilst their opponents work on public opinion.

This presents unionists, especially the muscular kind, with a chicken-and-egg dilemma: one can’t justify a strong British state without an underlying British nation, and one can’t sustain the British nation without an active British state.

The talk that thus presents itself is not one of tactical fixes, or the doomed quest for a grand bargain with separatism, but something closer to nation-building. To succeed, unionists will need to simultaneously rebuild British state capacity and British national loyalty. The success of each depends upon the success of the other.

That is the challenge that awaits any politician who really wishes to defend the Union. The Union might be a means, but Britain is the end.

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